No surprises on the men’s podium at today’s 39th New Balance Falmouth Road Race, as the three Kenyan favorites prevailed for the second week in a row on the New England road circuit. The only change from last weekend’s TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Maine was that 21 year-old Lucas Rotich turned the tables on 25 year-old countryman Micah Kogo to take the win. His 31:37 winning time tied third best ever on the classic seaside course, and was four seconds up on the B2B champ. 2009 Falmouth champion and B2B third-placer, Ed Muge, followed in 32:02 to cop his second straight show trophy.
Not to say there wasn’t any surprise. There was a big one flying down into Falmouth Heights in fourth place as top American finisher in the person of Columbus, Ohio’s Brian Olinger.
Running head up against the Kenyan stars throughout the seven-mile race, 25 year-old Olinger came across in 32:16 to become the third fastest American ever on the Falmouth course. Only Alberto Salazar’s two wins (1981- 31:55, 1982 – 31:51), and Craig Virgin’s runner up to Alberto in `82 (32:12) have been faster by U.S. runners. (CORRECTION: Meb Keflizighi ran 32:09 in 2008 (2nd), 32:12 in 2009 (5th), and 32:13 in 2007 (2nd).
Brian’s effort was well remunerated. He pocketed $11,500, including the separate $10,000 payday that went to the top American finisher. Arizona’s Abdi Abdirahman finished in fifth in 32:43.
Oakland’s Magdalena Lewy-Boulet picked up a tidy $20,000 as both overall winner (36:58) and top American. Magda, a 2008 Olympic marathoner, was the first U.S. women’s champ at Falmouth since Jen Rhines in 2003. She was primed for the effort, coming off a fifth place finish in the 10,000 meters at US nationals, followed by a 50-second 5000 meter PR in Stockholm last month (15:14). She battled with four-time Falmouth champion Catherine Ndereba of Kenya who finished third, and Burundi’s Diane Nukuri-Johnson, who took second. Nukuri-Johson continued her breakout season, after finishing fourth last weekend in Beach to Beacon and third the week before at the QC Times Bix 7 Road Race in Davenport, Iowa. The 26 year-old University of Iowa grad will now head to Boulder, Colorado for a stint at altitude in preparation for the fall season.
Like with men’s champ Rotich, Magda put away her competition after the six mile mark turning back into the off-shore winds heading around Falmouth Harbor. But for Brian Olinger, this was an eye opening performance. Though it might never have come about if not for a serious injury last year.
“I tore my plantar fascia at the 2010 USATF prelims,” said Brian, , a 3000-meter steeplechaser since his days at Ohio State University where he was (and is) coached by two-time Olympic steepler Robert Gary. “At first I thought it was just an Achilles problem, but when it got diagnosed, I couldn’t train over the barriers for a long time. So I started training more like a 10,000m/half-marathoner. I did my first 100 mile week this year. I’ve done two sessions up in Colorado Springs at altitude, once in January, again in May. I’m in the best shape of my life.”
The first signs of the improvement came July 4th at the Peachtree Road Race where Brian finished 11th overall, and fourth American in a PR 28:35.
“I almost got them in Peachtree, “ recalled Brian standing on the crowded Falmouth ballfield awaiting the award’s ceremony. “I went out hard again with the leaders, but Abdi, Ben (True) and Meb caught me at 5 ½ miles. But a month and a half more training, backing off a little bit, and I hit it.”
This was no death march, like Falmouth can often be in the heat and humidity. Temps in the low 70s and a comforting cloud cover blanketed the Cape all morning. Then a steady southerly breeze off Vineyard Sound offered cooling side breezes along the uncovered mid-section of the course.
With 2007 Falmouth champ and former 10K road world record holder Micah Kogo and 12:55 5000 meter man Lucas Rotich centering the action, the field went out conservatively in 4:36 out of Woods Hole. It would prove the slowest mile of the day. With the separate American prize money in place there was fear the Yanks would be incentivized into holding back and congealing into their own race, but Olinger never held back. Miles two (4:30) and three (4:29) scraped everyone off the lead except for Kogo, Rotich, Ed Muge and Olinger. By mile 4 (4:27) Brian was punishing Muge in third as Rotich and Kogo sailed in their own regatta five or six seconds in front.
“I’ve struggled with stiches in longer races,” admitted the Ohio State grad after feeling the stab at 10 km. “I DNF’d here in 2009 with a stich, and again at the USA nationals this year. But I’ve been working with a physical therapist who says I have three disks in my back which seize up on me, so I’ve been able to work at staying seated on my stride rather than lifting all the time, and it’s really helped.”
As Kogo and Rotich, the bronze medalist at the 2008 World Cross Country Championships battled for the win, Muge and Olinger had their own tussle going on just behind. The leaders passed 10k in 28:05 with Kogo tucking in behind Rotich for the first time. And though that’s when the press truck sped off, it’s safe to say that Brian Olinger dashed past that check point under his 28:35 PR from Peachtree.
Yet even with his newly found success on the roads, the pull toward his first love, the steeplechase, remains strong. Olinger plans to return to Europe to get his “A” Olympic qualifier in the steeplechase while the gettting’s good. His agent, Ray Flynn, is trying to get his man into the Berlin Diamond League meet September 11th where Brian hopes to secure the 8:21 time needed.
In any case, Brian Olinger is another example of the increasing number of American runners unafraid to take on the best that East Africa has to offer, and see what comes their way. All they need is for somebody to take a chance on them.
“If Todd Klein (of Reebok) hadn’t given me a chance and given me a contract after I graduated, I wouldn’t have been able to stay in the sport,” Brian told me.
Now that chance that Klein and Reebok took on the personable young man from Columbus is beginning to pay healthy dividends. I guess that’s what any runner from any country wants, a chance. So what are the chances that the running industry is listening, and ready to take a chance or two of their own on the other Brian Olingers in this country? I’d say it would be a surprise if they didn’t.