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Homestretch Heroics Highlight the 35th Bloomsday; Mekonnin and Ndirangu Win Downhill Duel

May 1, 2011

Withdrawal from the field of last year’s winners Peter Kirui and Lineth Chepkurui opened up both men’s and women’s races in the final days before the race, but it would take until the final downhill slope for two runners to seize the opportunity and surge to victory in the 35th running of the Lilac Bloomsday Run. Misiker Mekonnin of Ethiopia and Simon Ndirangu of Kenya were both new to the Bloomsday course, but both had a clear enough notion of where the finish line was to outsprint and outlean all contenders in two hotly contested races.

A field of 56,460 signed up for this year’s Bloomsday, and as an early morning fog quickly burned off it left the throng to gather under clear, sunny, chilly skies. Temperature at the start was near 40 degrees, and there was little wind to bother the racers, starting with the elite women’s contest. Misiker Mekonnin had plenty of company throughout most of the women’s race, as a tactical pace kept a large pack together through early miles of 5:17, 5:13, and, on the mostly uphill third mile, 5:39. Kenya’s Jelliah Tinega and Wude Ayalew Yimer of Ethiopia moved into the lead briefly toward the top of Cemetery Hill near the three-mile point, but neither move was decisive enough to break up a pack of 10.

That group was still together at the base of Doomsday Hill, just shy of five miles, but the normally challenging ascent left only two runners struggling, with eight still together at the top. A half-mile later one runner faded, but a modest 33:56 10K time proved to everyone’s liking, and even at the seven-mile point there were seven runners still in the hunt. The pace finally heated up as the pack rounded the final turn and began the 250-meter downhill homestretch. As they neared the tape, Ethiopians Mekonnin and Ayalew Yimer accelerated and swung around the rest of the pack. Those two waged their duel in the final 20 meters, with Mekonnin dipping at the end to outlean her countrywoman for the win, 40:25 to 40:26.

“To speed fast to the finish line was my plan,” said Mekonnin, who became the first Ethiopian, male or female, to win Bloomsday.

In the men’s race, Ethiopian Ezkyas Sisay took the group through a quick 4:25 first mile, and while the women’s race had been tactical, the men’s pace continued at a fast clip even as the leaders climbed the first two hills on the course. Even so, a pack of 10 reached three miles in 13:37, with Kenyans Allan Kiprono, Simon Ndirangu and Julius Kogo at the front. Stephen Muange surged and broke up the pack shortly after, but eight runners then regrouped and were still together at the base of Doomsday.

The hill climb to the five-mile point would belong to Belete Assefa, as the Ethiopian reached the top with a five-meter lead. But that margin would not hold. Kiprono was the first to close the gap, with Ndirangu and MacDonard Ondara right behind. A half-mile later Ondara fell back, leaving three men to battle to the finish.

With less than a mile left Ndirangu and Kiprono were finally able to drop Assefa, and those two rounded the final turn to see who could unleash the deadliest finishing kick.

“I knew I could keep going with the fast group,” said Ndirangu after the race. “I’ve been doing speedwork and I was gauging myself to see where the others were.”

Indeed, as the two raced the final 250 meters, it was Ndirangu, who had never seemed to strain during the race, who accelerated with the most conviction, racing to a one-second victory after turning in a split of 1:57 over the final .46 miles of the course. Ndirangu and Kiprono clocked 33:58 and 33:59, the fifth and sixth fastest times in Bloomsday history.

Champions Ndirangu and Mekonnin each earned $7,000 for their victories, part of a purse of nearly $100,000 in all divisions of the race. Janet Cherobon-Bawcom of Rome, Georgia, who finished sixth among the women, and Josh Moen of Minneapolis, tenth in the men’s field, each took home U.S. prize money of $5,000,plus open money. Mbarak Hussein of Albuquerque, and Trina Painter of Flagstaff, Arizona, each earned the top masters prize of $1,500.

In the men’s wheelchair race, a pack of 12 at the first mile whittled down to 7 by the bottom of the first hill, with 10-time Bloomsday champion Saul Mendoza in front. Mendoza and Aaron Gordian began to move away from the field shortly after. Gordian eventually muscled into the lead and never relinquished it, finishing a minute ahead of Mendoza in 28:03.

In the women’s wheelchair division, perennial adversaries Amanda McGrory and Shirley Reilly, of the University of Illinois and University of Arizona respectively, battled start to finish, with McGrory eventually managing to best her rival by 11 seconds to earn her fifth straight Bloomsday victory.

Five teams competed in Bloomsday’s inaugural Wheelchair Team Competition, with Team St. Luke’s eking out the victory over the University of Illinois. In other wheelchair competition, Eric Kaiser of Santa Barbara, California, won the masters division in 34:52, Scott Stokes of Atlanta was the T-1 champion, and Spaniard Santiago Sanz-Quinto notched his seventh straight T-2 victory.

Along with spirited elite competition in all Bloomsday divisions, 51,260 finishers enjoyed performances from 35 bands, vocalists and performing troupes along the course, eventually reaching the finish and claiming this year’s finisher T-shirt. Next year’s Lilac Bloomsday Run, the 36th, will be on Sunday, May 6th, 2012.

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