A dramatic series of events played out here at the 43rd New Balance Falmouth Road Race, leading to a finish that will be talked about for years.
In a nail-biting sprint to the line, Stephen Sambu retained his title in the 7-mile (11.3 km) race over a pack of three, crossing the finish in 32:17. Minutes earlier, Diane Nukuri of Burundi had won the women’s race going away in 36:47, a solo effort for nearly four miles.
Courtesy Race Results Weekly/Chris Lotsbom
Waiting steps from the finish line, Nukuri watched as the event’s new Countdown Clock ticked down to three seconds when Sambu broke the tape. Since it hadn’t hit zero, the Kenyan earned the inaugural Countdown gender challenge title and its $5000 bonus. On a picture-perfect day, race organizers could not have asked for a better finish.
After roughly a ten-minute delay due to a medical emergency along the course, the elite women took off from Woods Hole bound for Falmouth Heights. Within the first 30 seconds, Nukuri was out front pressing the pace. After being out-kicked for first at the TD Beach to Beacon 10-K two weeks ago, Nukuri didn’t leave anything to chance here, taking with her Americans Amy Cragg and Sara Hall, as well as Ethiopian Sentayehu Ejigu.
By the mile mark adjacent to Nobska Light, an iconic lighthouse, the quartet were roughly 30 meters up on the rest of the field, a margin that would increase to 24 seconds by two miles (10:25). In her own zone, Nukuri looked like a metronome in front: head bobbing ever so slightly, looking a bit like Paula Radcliffe in her prime. Her arms churned methodically; her eyes were focused on the ground ahead.
“I just kept pushing, pushing. It was hard, it was hot,” said Nukuri, who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. “After one mile, the second mile, I felt really good and under control but it was in the shade so it was much easier. Once we got in the open and I was all by myself, I was just like ‘I just need to keep pushing, pushing.’ I needed to use my marathon strength.”
Cragg was the first to fade just shy of two miles. Without having injected too much of a surge, Nukuri found herself out front by two steps at 5-K in 16:08. In the subsequent four minutes, she’d build a 30-meter lead on Ejigu and Hall.
Despite very oppressive heat and humidity, Nukuri pressed on knowing that if she let off the gas even in the slightest, Hall would come back and catch her. The pair had trained a bit in Flagstaff, and knew each other’s fitness well.
“I was believing I could catch her. The crowd was great saying ‘You can get her!’ the whole way,” said Hall, who is in the middle of marathon training. “But I knew she was going to be tough… I knew with that time bonus that she was going to go for it.”
At points during the race, Nukuri looked like she may be hurting under the hot sun. She’d look back frequently and grimace every so often. But drawing energy from the thousands of spectators, she snapped back into form and passed the six mile mark with a very comfortable lead on Hall.
Raising her arms in jubilation, Nukuri broke the tape in 36:47, followed by Hall 23 seconds later in 37:10. Ejigu rounded out the top three in 37:26, with Neely Spence Gracey fourth (37:32) and Cragg fifth (37:53).
Nukuri was very pleased to win this race in her fifth try, as she had previously finished second twice (2011, 2013), fourth once (2014), and a dismal 20th in 2008. She is planning to do a fall marathon, though would not reveal which one.
“It’s really nice. This is one of the best races. You can’t find anything better than this,” she said. “It feels amazing, I’m so excited and can’t wait to come back.”
Before celebrating too much, Nukuri turned around to look back towards the race course. At Friday’s press conference, she told Race Results Weekly she’d do a little dance if she was to win. In the moment, though, her plans changed, well aware that the men’s race was rapidly developing. There would be no early celebration before the Countdown Clock hit zero.
As soon as Nukuri crossed the finish line, a countdown clock began ticking down from 5 minutes and 32 seconds. If the top male came across the finish line before the clock reached zero, he would take home a $5000 bonus. If it hit zero, the bonus would go to Nukuri. (The clock started at 5:32 because the elite women began ten minutes before the elite men and masses, thus they already have a ten minute advantage. Subtract the average time gap of 4:28 [the advantage organizers gave to women based on past results] and you have a 5:32 margin with which to work with.)
While Nukuri was recuperating at the finish, the men’s race was playing out as a battle for the ages. By the five mile mark, a group of six had been established: reigning winner Sambu, two-time champion Micah Kogo, United Airlines NYC Half victor Leonard Korir, newly minted American citizen Sam Chelanga, Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro, and B.A.A. 10-K champ Daniel Salel ran together. American Abdi Abdirahman was with the group, though he pulled out with a muscle cramp minutes earlier.
Familiar with the course’s undulating terrain, Sambu had hoped to make a commanding move at 5-K. But the heat and strength of his competitors made him reconsider. Sambu also was dealing with a debilitating headache from the 80-degree (27C) temperatures, possibly a sign of heat exhaustion.
All along the water’s edge, Sambu led step-for-step. While a bit frustrated that his colleagues would not help push the pace, Sambu remained calm and focused on the task at hand.
“I knew everyone was still there and in better shape than last year,” he said. “I knew it was going to be a sprint finish… I knew going to the finish line I was going to go hard a little bit then go down[hill].”
The race would shake up after the six mile mark, passing a gorgeous marina: Salel and Kipsiro were dropped, leaving four to battle for the $8,000 first-place prize, and perhaps the Countdown bonus.
Again using knowledge of the course to his advantage, Sambu injected a surge leading up the final hill with about 400 meters to go. Kogo, Korir, and Chelanga held on for dear life, though couldn’t quite match Sambu’s speed. The University of Arizona alum surged again after cresting the incline, proceeded to sprint downhill under an American flag and through the finish line.
Sambu was so concerned about his competitors that he didn’t bother to look up at the ‘Countdown’ clock next to the finish line. Breaking the tape in 32:17, he finished with three seconds left on the clock, giving him the $5,000 bonus.
“I didn’t know I won until they told me five minutes after. I knew it was going to be tough,” Sambu told the media. After finishing he proceeded to go straight to the medical tent, overcome by the suffocating heat and humidity. “I just came down hard [the final stretch].”
Witnessing how hard Sambu worked in the final meters, Nukuri applauded his efforts and courage in taking home the gender bonus.
“He earned it,” she said. “I just saw him crossing the line, when he came downhill they were flying. I was barely moving it was so hot… They had so many people pushing each other.”
By retaining his title, Sambu now joins an illustrious list of back-to-back men’s winners that includes Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Khalid Khannouchi, and Gilbert Okari, among others. Sambu said being mentioned among that list was extremely meaningful.
“To me, really, it’s very important. It means a lot to me to win twice in a row. Really I am so happy. I know it is not easy, but I am so happy.”
Kogo, second in 32:19, called the race a pure battle. He was followed across the line by Korir (32:20), Chelanga (32:21), Kipsiro (32:30), and Salel (32:51). It was a blur of purple at the finish, as all of the East Africans and Chelanga were wearing a shade of the color.
Feeling the burn in the last mile, Chelanga pushed on with extra motivation knowing today was his first race as an American citizen. On Friday, he took his oath in Tucson, Ariz.
“I felt like I represented America very well, the way I would want someone to fight. I just didn’t have a good kick,” he said. “I tried my best. I’m really happy I’m an American now. This week has been really emotional for me… Overall I think it’s a celebration and I couldn’t be any happier.”
Among the other notable American finishers were Aaron Braun (seventh, 33:15), Chris Derrick (eighth, 33:41), and Meb Keflezighi (tenth, 34:01). Keflezighi suffered a slight hamstring injury a few weeks ago, and ran as a tempo effort to finish as the top masters (40+) athlete. Nike Bowerman Track Club athlete Derrick just had an off day, he said.
“Falmouth was great up until about the third mile,” he said with a laugh. “The whole experience all the way through the weekend was awesome, my host family was great, thanks Judy and Craig. The early pace felt fine but I just never felt quite comfortable.”
Between the memorable battles for the individual wins, and the nail-biting Countdown finish, the day was a grand success according to Scott Ghelfi, President of the Board of Directors of the New Balance Falmouth Road Race.
“How exciting. [The Countdown] added a whole new element to the race,” he told Race Results Weekly. “I don’t think it could have worked out better than it did. Seeing Diane’s emotion on her face at the finish, extremely happy then disappointment to watch Stephen win, but still happy for her good friend. It was just great.”
When asked whether the race would hold a ‘Countdown’ again next year, Ghelfi hopes so.
“I’m not the one with the final say, but I would say absolutely!” he said.