Field opens slightly at Falmouth

By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 14, 2011

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FALMOUTH - The chances for a third straight Ethiopian twin spin vanished when the federation pulled back defending champions Gebre Gebremariam and Wude Ayalew in advance of the upcoming world track and field championships in South Korea. So there is unexpected room at the front of the elite group at this morning’s 39th New Balance Falmouth Road Race.

Not that it will make much difference to the US males, who haven’t won this 7-mile shoreside classic since 1988. “GG,’’ as his pursuers call him, may be elsewhere today, but there is an imposing favorite in the form of Kenya’s Micah Kogo, the 2007 champion, former 10K world record-holder and Olympic track medalist who has been on fire lately. But with Ayalew absent, the US women may have their best chance at the crown since Jennifer Rhines won in 2003.

Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy-Boulet will be in the chase along with fellow naturalized citizens Adriana Nelson and two-time champion Colleen De Reuck, who was the top domestic finisher last year when she placed fifth and won the masters crown. They will be up against Olympic marathon medalist Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, who has won here four times, and Diane Nukuri-Johnson, who represented Burundi in the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Time was when the home folks owned the race that barkeep Tommy Leonard conjured as a tavern-to-tavern romp in 1973 after watching Frank Shorter win the Olympic gold medal at Munich.

“I figured that any race that starts at one bar and finishes at another is my kind of road race,’’ says Shorter, who won here in 1975 and 1976.

That was when the top US marathoners were like Hollywood actors doing summer stock, sharpening their road skills. Bill Rodgers won three times, Alberto Salazar twice, and Joan Benoit Samuelson a record six times between 1976 and 1985.

But those days ended when the Kenyans showed up in force in the ’90s. They have won 15 men’s titles but none since Kogo ran away from Meb Keflezighi in 2007. Now he’s back for a major effort after winning last weekend’s Beach to Beacon 10K (a.k.a. Joanie’s Race), outlasting countrymen Lucas Rotich and Ed Muge in the muggy heat in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

This year, though, the Falmouth organizers are giving the Yanks 10,000 additional reasons to beat him. That’s the reward for the first US man and woman across the line, doubled from last year. Breaking the tape on Grand Avenue will mean another $10,000.

The man most likely to do it is Ed Moran of Williamsburg, Va., who stepped up last year after Keflezighi, the two-time runner-up, was a late scratch and led through 3 miles before feeling the effects of his 4:03 effort in Saturday evening’s Falmouth Mile and finished fifth, 20 seconds off the pace. “There could be $10 or $10,000 on the line,’’ says Moran. “You’re going to get everything I’ve got to give.’’ This time, he bypassed the mile and should have a bit more spring in his legs.

If history is any guide, there will be several Kenyans among the leaders. Besides Kogo, who led a parade of six countrymen in the top 10 when he won four years ago, there is three-time champion Gilbert Okari, who set the course record (31:08) in 2004, and Muge, who was fourth and third the last two years.

For star-spangled company, Moran will have a quartet of men who have won national road titles at various distances in three-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman, Mo Trafeh, Fasil Bizuneh, and Fernando Cabada. “The American field is amazing,’’ says Moran. “Very deep and very talented.’’

If one of them wins, he will be the first American to manage it since Mark Curp in 1988.

The women’s drought is decidedly shorter, but the victory came when Russian leader Olga Romanova, dehydrated and disoriented, walked off the course at the top of the final hill just 200 yards from the end.

“I can understand people want an American champion,’’ says acting race director Matt Auger. “We’re trying to put on a world-class event. The Americans have to rise to that level and we believe they can.’’