By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
FALMOUTH, MA, USA (21-Aug) -- With steady moves and a resolute attitude, Stephen Sambu made history by becoming only the second man ever to win three straight titles here at the New Balance Falmouth Road Race. Gradually dispatching with challengers Leonard Korir, Sam Chelanga, and Daniel Salel, the 28-year-old Kenyan ran down the final hill into Falmouth Heights with a commanding lead. He'd win going away in 32:10.
PHOTO: Stephen Sambu wins the 2016 New Balance Falmouth Road Race (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
For the women, Kenyan Caroline Chepkoech broke from countrywoman Betsy Saina and American Aliphine Tuliamuk just past the five-mile mark, taking the title in 36:25. It was her first Falmouth win.
With a steady crosswind blowing off the water and temperatures hovering around 75 degrees, Sambu and a lead group of six went through 5-K in 14:23, tackling the twisting terrain with ease. It was shortly after that point when the University of Arizona alum began slowly but surely throwing in steady surges. Like pushing a gas pedal, he'd moderately accelerate mile by mile. Sambu --originally joined by Korir, Chelanga, Salel, Britain's Chris Thompson, and Abdi Abdirahman-- was destined to use the crowd's cheers to push on.
"I was thinking about the guys I was running with, Salel, Chelanga, Korir, all of those guys are really good so I was worried about the tempo at that time. I was just trying to get rid of them," he said. "My plan was to stay with everyone until mile three and then start going hard from mile three."
By mile-four he had dropped Abdirahman, Thompson, and Salel, with Korir and Chelanga hanging on by a thread. A mile later the gap was ten seconds, and Sambu was confident the win was his to lose. Knowing the course's final twists and turns --culminating in the charge up and down the vaunted hill on Grand Ave leading to Falmouth Heights Beach-- Sambu made sure to build momentum as he chewed up ground. He passed 10-K in 28:32, 16 seconds up on Korir (28:48) and 28 up on Chelanga (29:00).
Looking over his shoulder, Sambu checked his lead and decided to give one last, killer of a surge. With that, he'd win by 25 seconds in 32:10. American Olympian Korir was second in 32:35, a strong showing eight days after placing 14th in the Olympic 10,000m in Rio de Janeiro. Chelanga rounded out the top three in 32:50.
"It means a lot to me. I was planning to win because only two guys have won three times in a row [including me]. If I come next year and win I'll be the only guy," Sambu said, holding three fingers up. The only other man to win three straight titles was Gilbert Okari, winner of the 2004, 2005, and 2006 editions.
Korir was also pleased with his run, especially considering the hectic week he's had. Traveling from Rio de Janeiro to Houston took more than ten hours, then another three hour flight to Boston. From there he drove to Cape Cod, another hour and a half trip if you don't hit traffic. When it was all said and done, Korir was tired yet still possessed enough juice to get on the podium.
"The race was OK, the race was good. I moved up from one place last year," said Korir. "I was feeling so tired before the race. Today I thought that would affect me, but I didn't let it affect my running and I was happy to get the performance I had today. Stephen put a very strong surge, a fast one like 4:30 pace. I was like 'Nooo, this is going too fast.'... I didn't have it today, but at the same time I'm happy with it."
Behind the podium finishers, Thompson took fourth in 32:52; Salel fifth in 33:23; Abdirahman sixth in 33:43; and Ethiopia's Yemane Tsegay seventh in 34:06. Returning to the roads healthy, Aaron Braun was eighth in 34:14.
"Sweet Caroline" Chepkoech Cruises To Win Women's Race
PHOTO: Caroline Chepkoech on her way to winning the 2016 New Balance Falmouth Road Race (photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
Along the race course, two distinct songs could be heard over loudspeakers at different parts of the women's race. Ironically enough, they appropriately described the action as it unfolded along the shores of Vineyard Sound.
The first song was The Eagles classic "Take It Easy." As the music played at mile-four, a pack of five crossed the mile marker in 20:59 after a split of 5:12. Americans Neely Spence Gracey and Sara Hall had been dropped a mile back, leaving Chepkoech, Betsy Saina, Diane Nukuri, Aliphine Tuliamuk and Monicah Ngige to fight for the title. Nukuri and Saina won the past two editions of this race and seemed to have a leg up on the tangents; their outward appearance was one of ease and comfort, despite the heat and wind.
Chepkoech stayed true to The Eagles signature lyric "Don't let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy." Roughly 4.5 miles in, the petite 22-year-old took the lead for the first time wanting to edge away from the group. Saina tried her best to stay by her side, while Tuliamuk and Nukuri lost ground.
"I was just hoping she slowed down a little bit!" said Tuliamuk of the move. It would wind up being the deciding factor. "When she made that move I was like 'This is it. It's time to concentrate and stay in touch with them.' I did stay for a little while, but she's tough. She's a really tough lady."
Chepkoech's lead increased as she got closer to Falmouth Heights, first putting five seconds on Saina then ten. Tuliamuk held third for the time being.
"I decided when I was at five miles I see people going again [behind] and I decided to go," Chepkoech said. She'd inject another surge to extend the cushion back to second.
As if on cue, the Boston favorite 'Sweet Caroline' by Neil Diamond played over loudspeakers at the 10-K mark, reached by Chepkoech in 32:21. Saina was twelve seconds adrift and would never chip into the gap. With fans singing the lyric "And spring became the summer, who'd have believed you'd come along," Chepkoech ran by in a blur, stamping her mark on the Falmouth course.
Chepkoech would win by 27 seconds in 36:25 to Saina's 36:52. Nukuri managed to overtake Tuliamuk in the final mile to finish third in 36:59. Tuliamuk was the top American, fourth in 37:06.
"I want to thank God because he gave me victory today. This is the first time I've run this race, but I thank God for He gave me victory. I won!" said Chepkoech, who reiterated that her faith helped push her to the top spot of the podium. "I like [the course]. I thank God for it is my last race [of the season]. I thank God because this is my last race."
Chepkoech noted that she will now turn her attention toward cross country training. She could represent Kenya at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Uganda on March 26, if she is selected.
Chepkoech took home a $10,000 first place prize, plus the $5000 "Countdown" challenge bonus thanks to finishing at least 4:30 ahead of men's champion Sambu. Once Chepkoech finished, a countdown clock began clicking down from 4 minutes and 30 seconds (the average men's winning margin over women in the past ten years). Because the lead man in Sambu did not finish before the clock hit zero, a $5000 bonus went to Chepkoech. The elite women get a ten minute head start in front of the men.
Like Korir in the men's race, Saina was content with the runner-up placing considering she'd come from Rio after racing 10,000m on Friday, August 12. "It was fun. Just finishing the track and running at the Olympics, being fifth [there] is something exciting. But I've always been in Falmouth and it's always one of the craziest road races, so I was excited to come here and just tune up for the road racing again after a long time.
"Caroline is a tough person. She's been doing really well on the roads," said Saina. "I kept trying to go with her but I was really, really feeling like I needed to stop and I was like 'I just need to keep fighting.'"
Saina is excited to re-join her Nike Bowerman Track Club teammates who have served as inspiration leading up to the Olympics. Last year, when she moved to Portland, Ore. to train under Jerry Schumacher, she was very apprehensive. But now she is fully committed to the team and its comraderie.
"It's something that has made me feel like I am in a special place. It's just motivating," she said. "To be honest, it's just really, really thrilling and I am so happy to be part of Bowerman Track Club. Hopefully next year it'll be a perfect year again. It's a big group and people work really hard."
Behind Tuliamuk, Ngige was fifth (37:42); Spence Gracey sixth (37:50) and Hall seventh (38:12). B.A.A. teammates Elaina Balouris and Emma Bates made it five Americans in the top ten (placing eighth and ninth in 38:45 and 38:48, respectively), followed by Britain's Lily Partridge (39:13).
A total of 10,519 runners started today's race, with 10,010 finishing (down from 10,777 last year).