(04-Jul) -- Just after the sun rose in Atlanta on an unusually cool July morning, Sara Hall (Asics) and Sam Chelanga (U.S. Army) claimed the USA Track & Field 10-K road running titles at the 51st AJC Peachtree Road race in 31:41 and 28:43, respectively. Both athletes prevailed in late-race battles and each claimed $7,500 in prize money. The race was the third stop of the 2021 USATF Running Circuit.
IMAGE: The top-3 male finishers from the 2021 AJC Peachtree Road Race (left to right): Fred Huxham (2nd), Sam Chelanga (1st) and Clayton Young (3rd). (Image via USATF.tv)
The women started ahead of the men, and Hall was part of a 15-strong lead pack which quickly formed in the first kilometer. With her were other pre-race favorites, like Steph Bruce and Aliphine Tuliamuk (both of Hoka Northern Arizona Elite) and Gwen Jorgensen of the Nike Bowerman Track Club. But, there were also two less established runners in the lead group, Annie Frisbie and Emily Durgin (adidas).
Durgin, 27, who finished ninth in the 10,000m at the USA Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field in Eugene, Ore., eight days ago, led the race through 5 kilometers in an honest 15:46. Hall remained with her as did Frisbie and Tuliamuk, but Bruce and Diane Nukuri (Asics) began to drift back. Durgin kept pressing, and 90 seconds later only Durgin, Hall and Frisbie remained in contention.
Hall, 38, who prior to today had won 10 national road running titles from the mile to the marathon, wasn't surprised that it was Durgin who was pushing the pace. Both women live and train in Flagstaff, Ariz., and know each other well.
"She's been running so strong this year," Hall told Race Results Weekly by telephone. "At the Trials she had a great one. So, I didn't really know who would be charging out there."
At about the 7-kilometer mark Hall and Durgin increased the pace, and Frisbie (who is only 24) had to drop back. The two women spent most of the next three kilometers running side by side waiting for the right moment surge for the finish line. As she did at the Mastercard New York Mini 10-K on June 12, Hall finally showed her cards in the final 400 meters. She pulled away strongly from Durgin to win by eight seconds.
"That's the first time I've kind of gone toe-to-toe with her in a race," Hall said of Durgin. "She's got a great future ahead of her. I'm excited to see what she does." She added: "I'm really proud of her."
Durgin set a personal best of 31:49, as did Frisbie in third (32:06). Nukuri rallied in the last two kilometers to finish fourth in 32:27, and Bruce (who won this race in 2018) got fifth in 32:35. Tuliamuk, the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon winner, finished sixth in 32:43.
For Hall, today's win lifted her spirits after she finished sixth at the Olympic Trials in the 10,000m, likely her final attempt at making an Olympic team on the track. She also felt like she got some payback for a bad race at the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon, also held in Atlanta, where she was unable to finish.
"You know, I was wanting to kind of get through the hills," Hall said of the middle portion of today's race. "Obviously, these Atlanta hills crushed me in the Trials. So, I definitely wanted to have a strong run over those hills." She continued: "Going into this race I just wanted to have fun out there... This was an opportunity for me to just to out there and enjoy racing."
Chelanga, 36, who announced his retirement in 2018 but then came back in late 2019, showed some of the racing chops which made him the NCAA cross country champion back in 2009 and 2010 when he ran for Liberty University. Chelanga remained patient throughout the first half of the race, staying with a 20-man lead pack through halfway in about 14:30. With him were the three men the USA will send to Sapporo for the Olympic Marathon next month: Abdi Abdirahman, Jake Riley and Galen Rupp.
At the top of Cardiac Hill in the sixth kilometer, Rupp took the lead for the first time and the pack began to thin. Chelanga remained tucked in with his taller U.S. Army teammate, Haron Lagat.
With about a kilometer to go, Chelanga put in a hard surge and broke the race open. The pack quickly scattered, and none of the three Olympians were still in contention. The athletes closest to Chelanga were unheralded Fred Huxham --who wasn't even issued a name bib by the race organizers-- and Clayton Young, the reigning USA 15-K road running champion. Although Huxham closed hard, Chelanga would not be caught getting the win by two seconds in 28:43 to Huxham's 28:45 (his first-ever sub-30:00 10K, road or track). Young was another four seconds back in third (28:49). Rupp was the highest finisher among the Olympic Marathon squad, placing eighth in 29:05 (Riley finished ninth and Abdirahman 15th).
For Chelanga, today's win was his first USA title since he won the 25-K crown in May, 2018, just before he said he was hanging up his racing flats.
"I had announced that I had retired after July 4th of 2018," Chelanga said in his post-race television interview. "Then when I got back in the Army, people noticed in the physical test that I was really fast, and I ran the 10-miler for the Army team (October, 2019). So I did it. Long story, but now I'm back here."
The in-person AJC Peachtree Road Race could not be held in 2020 due to the pandemic. The race was first postponed from the traditional July 4th date to Thanksgiving Day in November, but was later cancelled when the pandemic surged last fall. A virtual version of the race was held, instead. This year's event was held over two days, Saturday and Sunday, to allow for a lower density of runners on the course.