Falmouth, MA. — In the early days of road racing it was not unusual for track athletes to come back from the European circuit to run the Falmouth Road race in August as a season-end topper. The first man to do so was Marty Liquori, the great 1500 meter/5000 runner who was invited by his brother Steve through race founder Tommy Leonard to come run the second Falmouth Road race in 1974 as somewhat of a mini vacation on his way home to New Jersey from the continent.
Little did he know that rising local hero Bill Rodgers was trolling area shores ready to meet him head on over the seven-mile Cape layout. It was the Liquori scalp that elevated Rodgers (and the Falmouth Road Race) to stardom in the local media, and began Rodger’s final ascent to international recognition that culminated the following April when he won his first of four Boston Marathon titles in an American record time.
Over the years track men like Frank Shorter (1975 & `76 Falmouth champion); Craig Virgin (1979 champ); Rod Dixon of New Zealand (1980 winner); Mike McLeod of Great Britain (silver medalist in the 10,000 in L.A. `84 & 2nd to Al Salazar in Falmouth 1981), and more, came to race along the outer elbow of the Cape at the end of their track seasons.
As the sport developed, however, we saw the sport divide into distinctly parallel camps of road and track specialists with not much overlap between. This year, however, the 44th New Balance Falmouth Road Race will showcase a number of athletes returning from their Olympic experiences in Rio de Janeiro, including its last two female champions.
Defending Falmouth champion Diane Nukuri of Burundi is a three-time Olympian who posted a personal best 31:28 at the Rio 10,000 meters final last week to finish in 13th place. A defending champion coming off a PR in the biggest global sporting competition there is would suggest a tough road ahead for any challenger. And that might have been true if not for the presence of Betsy Saina of Kenya, the 2014 Falmouth gal’s champ who is coming off the same women’s Olympic 10,000 where she placed fifth in her own PR of 30:07.
“Betsy lapped me in Rio,” laughed Diane at today’s press conference alongside the Falmouth finish stretch overlooking Vineyard Sound. “She can’t lap me here, though (it’s a point-to-point course), and I hope she doesn’t beat me by a minute.”
Diane and Betsy are fast friends as well as racing competitors. Diane is a graduate of the University of Iowa, while Betsy matriculated at cross-state Iowa State where she won three NCAA titles for the Cyclones.
“I couldn’t defend my Falmouth title last year, because I was in Beijing at the (IAAF) World Championships (8th, 10,000),” the Kenyan star told me. “This year I am glad to return, and just want to compete and see if I can run fast.”
Before her 2014 Falmouth win Saina ran her then-PR 30:46 for 10,000 meters in Holland as a lead in. Her subsequent Falmouth victory in 35:46 was the seventh fastest in race history. This year she comes into the race off a nearly 40-second 10,000m PR in Rio, and feels there is a chance to challenge the impressive 35:02 course record set in 2000 by fellow Kenyan Lornah Kiplagat.
“This year I will see what I can do against the guys,” said Betsy. “So maybe I will try to push the pace from the mile. I am in the best shape of my life — I could not believe 30:07 (in Rio). But there is no pressure. I will just try to run my maximum. I’m not really risking anything. I have nothing to lose, really.”
For the second straight year Falmouth organizers have set up a virtual “Countdown” challenge whereby the women elites are given a virtual head start over the men based on the men’s and women’s winning times over the last 10 years. The winner of the Countdown will receive an additional $5000 on top of the winner’s purse of $10,000.
Last year men’s winner Stephen Sambu of Kenya flew across the Falmouth finish (32:17) just three seconds ahead of the time posted by Diane Nukuri (36:47) after the 4:28 differential was subtracted from the actual head start of 10 minutes between women and men (The roads in Falmouth are too tight for all the support vehicles to pass one another if an actual head-to-head challenge was utilized.)
This year the women will receive a 4:30 advantage. But with Saina in the shape of her life averaging 4:50 per mile at the Olympic 10,000, defending men’s champ Stephen Sambu along with U.S. 10,000 meter Olympian Leonard Korir (3rd at Falmouth in 2015) and the rest of the strong men’s field will be hard pressed to take the Countdown prize for a second straight year.