NEW HAVEN, Conn. (03-Sep) -- Eight kilometers into today's USA 20-K road running championships, hosted here today by the Stratton Faxon New Haven Road Race, pre-race favorite Matt Tegenkamp was running in a big pack with the other top contenders including Tim Nelson, Brent Vaughn, Sean Quigley and Andrew Carlson. The problem was that he was 20 seconds behind former University of Oregon star Luke Puskedra who had just crossed that checkpoint in a swift 23:10, on his way to a 28:34 10-K split. Had the two-time Olympian made a mistake?
"I didn't think the pack would let it get that far away," Tegenkamp lamented after the race. "Puskedra proved himself a lot at Houston (where he ran a 1:01:36 half-marathon last January). He's a great 10,000m runner on the track; he's going to be even better on the roads."
Puskedra, 22, who wore his old University of Oregon uniform because he does not yet have a shoe company contract, looked comfortable gliding over the new, more scenic course here. He had run his last mile in 4:43, and was not slowing down. He was sticking with his plan.
"I knew I had to run away from Tegenkamp," Puskedra said after the race. "I mean, he just ran in the London Olympics. You've got to give him some respect."
Tegenkamp, 30, a two-time Olympian who had made three world championships finals, soon realized that staying with the pack was no longer an option. In the 12th kilometer, the Oregon Track Club Elite athlete broke away from the main group and started to chase Puskedra urgently, and got within four seconds of him by the 15-K mark. A few seconds later he drew even with the taller Puskedra, and the splits no longer mattered. Who would have the best sprint along the wide and flat Whitney Avenue leading up to the race's famous finish next to New Haven Green?
Puskedra, who said he was trying to qualify here for the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships in October, assumed that it would be Tegenkamp who came forward to catch him. He was ready and knew that his only hope was to throw in a few accelerations to tire the 3:56 miler who he knew had the better sprint.
"Right when he caught me I was trying to put some surges in," Puskedra said. "I knew he had moved up quite a ways because I was looking back almost every turn. With just kind of a 'K' to go, I looked at him and he started going and I just didn't have it in my legs."
Tegenkamp's move --which actually came with 650 meters to go-- was so powerful that he managed to gain 18 seconds from there to the finish line, clocking a championships record 58:30 in the longest race of his career. It was his second USA road racing title (he also won the 5-K in 2009) and he found the distance challenging.
"I got a cramp just before 11 miles (18 km), and I felt bad," he said. "I didn't know what I was doing out there."
Three Kenyan-born athletes --Augustus Maiyo, Joseph Chirlee and Robert Cheseret-- took the third, fourth and fifth places, respectively. Quigley, who won the title in 2010, took sixth.
The women's contest also came down to two athletes, Renee Metevier Baillie and Molly Pritz, both of whom are training for fall marathons. Baillie, 30, who's only other national title was at 3000m indoors in 2005, said she felt strong despite having surgery on her right Achilles earlier this year. She simply outlasted Pritz over the final kilometers to get the win in 1:07:08 to Pritz's 1:07:21. Like Tegenkamp, she won $9000 in prize money.
"I took it earlier on the hills because I knew the end it would be hard to make it up on people with the downhill; you could kind of just cruise," Baillie, who is running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, told reporters. She continued: "This is really long for me, and I'm moving up. So, I was a little nervous in how I would be in the final miles, you know? Even though I'm confident in my speed."
Pritz, 24, said she had not tapered from marathon training before today, so she was very satisfied with her effort.
"Renee was so strong in the final bit there, I couldn't keep up," Pritz said. "One hundred and 15 miles this week so I can't complain."
Stephanie Rothstein, Serena Burla, Adriana Pirtea and Alisha Williams took the next four positions.
Behind the main action, Kevin Castille, 40, clocked 1:02:02 setting an American masters record. The previous mark of 1:03:06 was set by Paul Pilkington here on the old course in 1999.
Photo: Luke Puskedra (l) and Matt Tegenkamp battle during the final two kilometers of the 2012 Stratton Faxon New Haven Road Race; Tegenkamp got the win (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)