By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2017 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

MANCHESTER, CONN. (23-Nov) — Under brilliant blue skies here this morning, Paul Chelimo and Buze Diriba shook off the near-freezing temperatures and rallied to win the 81st Manchester Road Race, America’s most competitive Thanksgiving Day race, with powerful sprint finishes.  Chelimo, the 2016 Olympic 5000m silver medalist who represents the U.S. Army, clocked 21:32 on the hilly 4.748-mile course, while Diriba, an Ethiopian who runs for adidas, established a new course record of 23:57.  Both athletes earned $4000 for finishing first, while Diriba earned an additional $2000 for setting a new course record.

PHOTO: (left to right) Paul Chelimo, Kirubel Erassa and Chris Thompson leading the 2017 Manchester Road Race in Manchester, Conn., in the third mile (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly).

CHELIMO STALKS THOMPSON

Chelimo, who lives and trains in Colorado Springs, had to play catch-up to get the win this year.  British veteran Chris Thompson decided that his best strategy was to take the pace out fast, and establish an early lead.  Turning left off of the Main Street start with over 12,000 runners behind him, Thompson pushed the pace on the early, flat portion of Highland Street, hitting the first mile in a quick –but not crazy- 4:18.

“Honestly, I went and got around the bend and I was like, well, no one wants this so let’s do it,” Thompson told Race Results Weekly.  He continued: “I actually felt really good doing it.  I’m so glad I saw the clock at the mile because it matches the effort I was putting in here.  If I had seen 4:30, I would have panicked.”

In the second mile, the race famously starts to climb –uninterrupted– for more than a mile.  Thompson, dressed in a light blue singlet and white knee socks, pressed his advantage.  Midway through the second mile, he had a six-second lead on all of the chasers, including Chelimo and Kirubel Erassa, the former Oklahoma State Cowboy who also lives in Colorado Springs.  There was a $1000 “King of the Hill” prime just before the two-mile mark, and Thompson collected that, despite Chelimo putting in a half-hearted sprint to catch him.  With the prime gone, Chelimo became completely focused on getting the win.

“When he got the king of the hill I was like, man, Chris, there is now way you’re going to win the whole thing again,” Chelimo said in his post-race interview. He continued: “Now that he got the king of the hill, I’ve got to get the bigger share now.”

At the crest of the hill past the two-mile mark (9:16), Thompson made the left turn onto Porter Street alone, but he knew his lonely run would likely end soon.

“Then I was like, ‘they’re going to catch you,'” Thompson recalled thinking.  “Hopefully it will be one or two.”

On the steep downhill in the third mile, Chelimo and Erassa caught Thompson at about the 13-minute mark.  The trio settled-in for the fight ahead, including the final, uphill sprint to the finish on Main Street.  Chelimo was feeling confident.  His training had gone well since his last race, and he was feeling sharp.

“I knew my kick was better than most people in the field, and coming in I knew I know I’m more fit than the USA 5-K road race,” Chelimo told reporters, referring to the Abbott Dash to the Finish Line 5-K on November 4th in New York City where he finished fourth in a mass sprint finish.

The three men hit the three-mile mark in 13:48, a 4:32 mile.  Thompson was still the nominal leader, while Erassa repeatedly looked behind him and Chelimo weaved from one side of the road to the other, trying to find the racing line that made him most comfortable.  With the rest of the field about 10 seconds back, it was the waiting game now. They turned left back on to Main Street and Thompson picked up the pace on the final downhill to try to shake his two rivals.

“The finish was a tough race,” Chelimo explained.  “Just going out the last 400 (meters), I wanted to kick hardly, a bit more hardly, I knew Kirubel has a good kick too.  I didn’t want to take a risk towards the end.”

After hitting the low point on the course with about 250 meters to go,  Chelimo and Erassa left Thompson who would have to settle for third.  Erassa went to his arms, and tried to keep pace with Chelimo, but his rival pulled farther ahead with every stride as the ascended the hill.  Chelimo crested the hill just before the finish line alone.  Making his signature move, he gave the crowd a military salute with his right hand before breaking the tape in 21:32.  Erassa finished second in 21:34, with Thompson a further two seconds back.  Olympians Hassan Mead of Eugene, Ore., (21:42) and Kemoy Campbell of Jamaica (21:43) rounded out the top-5.

“My big goal today was to go home with the win,” Chelimo said.  “I came out here and I got the win.  Last year I got fourth.  This year I got the win, so that tells me a lot, and tells me there’s a lot of improvement.”

PHOTO: Paul Chelimo of the U.S. Army salutes the crowd as he wins the 2017 Manchester Road Race in Manchester, Conn., in 21:32 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Five-time Olympian Bernard Lagat of Tucson Ariz., ran his first-ever Manchester Road Race at age 42, and finished a respectable 15th in 22:18, about the time he had hoped for.  He was impressed with the event, and found the course challenging.

“The Manchester course was great,” Lagat told Race Results Weekly.  “I handled the hill quite OK, but once you got to the downhill, I couldn’t get my footing going there.  It threw me off completely.”

DIRIBA EDGES HUDDLE – SETS NEW COURSE RECORD

The women’s contest played out as expected with the two best athletes, Diriba and 25-time USA champion Molly Huddle, battling for the top prize off of a fast pace which averaged 5:03 per mile.  The in-form Huddle, who won the USA 5-K road running title earlier this month in New York, did most of the leading (she got the “Queen of the Hill” bonus) with Diriba stuck with her like glue.

PHOTO: Buze Diriba Kejela of Ethiopia after winning the 2017 Manchester Road Race in Manchester, Conn., in a course record 23:57 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

“I could feel Buze right on me the whole race,” Huddle told Race Results Weekly.  “She’s so fast, I got really nervous.”

At the bottom of the hill before the finish, Diriba made the first move, and Huddle reacted immediately.  The two were in full flight while the thick crowds on both sides of the street roared their approval.

“When she made the move with 200 to go, maybe, I tried to go, I tried to accelerate into the finish line just to give myself every last second,” Huddle explained.  “But it wasn’t enough.”

The two women crashed through the tape, nearly side by side, and Diriba was given the win by a second, 23:57 to Huddle’s 23:58.  Diriba’s time eclipsed the previous record of 23:59 (23:58.5) by the late Emilie Mondor of Canada set in 2003.  Both athletes plowed into the the photographer’s scrum just past the tape; Huddle hit her shin on a camera.

“I think we bowled over most of the press pack,” said Huddle, laughing off the incident.  “Both of us were going so hard; she got a step on me in the end.”

Diriba, who speaks limited English, was pleased with her win and her $6000 payday.

“It was very hard,” Diriba said, referring to the final sprint.  “It’s very good.  Molly is very fast, so I’m very happy.”

Former NCAA cross country champion Molly Seidel, who now trains in Boston, finished third in 24:14, followed by Scottish Olympian Eilish McColgan (24:16) and Olympic marathoner Des Linden (24:58).  Last year’s champion, Emily Sisson, did not race today.

– – – – – –

Well behind the elites, 71 year-old Amby Burfoot, a nine-time Manchester winner, completed the race for the 55th consecutive year, recording a net time of 39:43.

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