FALMOUTH — The Falmouth Road Race is 7 miles long but Sunday all the action was at the fourth mile. That’s where the winners made their move in a triumphant day for Kenyans as Stephen Sambu and Betsy Saina claimed victories in the 42d running of the summertime race.
Both runners made their break at the 4-mile mark, where the straightaway of Surf Drive folds into the twists and turns of Falmouth Harbor. Sambu quickly left his competitors in his wake, and reached the finish line in 31 minutes 46 seconds, 45 seconds ahead of defending champion Micah Kogo, also of Kenya.
While Sambu, who also sped to victory in the BAA 10K in June with the year’s fastest 10K time (27:25), had a dominating performance, Saina had to wrestle with a determined Gemma Steel of Great Britain until a final kick sent her across the line in first at 35:56. Steel was second in 36:03 and American Molly Huddle finished third in 36:15. It was Steel’s second consecutive runner-up finish in Falmouth.
Saina’s time was the sixth-fastest winning time in race history.
The 26-year-old Saina, a three-time NCAA champion at Iowa State who lives in Colorado Springs, was runner-up at the BAA 10K in June.
Owner of the third-fastest 10K time in the world this year (31:10), she proved too tough for a rugged group of runners, which ran in a pack of eight for the first few miles, dashing off the miles in 5:13, 5:15, 5:12, and 5:06. But after the fourth-mile marker, Saina first moved ahead of Steel, winner of the Beach to Beacon 10K (31:27) two weeks ago, and Huddle, who won the US 7-mile championships (36:13) at the Bix 7 in July.
“After the fourth mile I felt l like we needed to break it out,’’ said Saina, “because everyone was still there. When everyone is still there, you’re still getting afraid like, ‘Oh my God, it’s so tight.’ So I tried pushing the pace and whoever’s going to come with me, let’s just try and see what happens.’’
The pack was just four after Saina’s surge, and Huddle and Diane Nukuri-Johnson began to lose ground on the leader.
“I felt pretty rough from the starting 5:12s,’’ said the 29-year-old Huddle, who lives in Providence and was running her first Falmouth. “They just kind of broke me there and I was trying to maintain third. I was hoping on the downhill maybe I could sweep up to [those] guys but it just got harder from there.
“Those hills at the finish kind of did me in. Just kicking it in ahead of Diane for third was hard enough.’’
After a 5:02 fifth mile, Steel and Saina were still side by side. That’s when Saina said she drew encouragement from the people lining the road as it dipped and turned around Falmouth Harbor.
“The crowd from the fourth mile all the way to the finish line, it was so huge,’’ said Saina, “and just gave us a little incentive a little bit so I just felt good and I could see the crowd the whole time.”
Steel, 28, clung to Saina’s side, working hard to stay even.
“I tried to break away at Mile 4 and I was doing everything I could to get the right corners, but these Kenyan women don’t give up,’‘ Steel said. “I was ready, and I was going to hang on as long as I could. I am not the best at running downhill, and that was tough.’’
Steel called the first 3 miles “cagey” as the group of eight pounded its way out of Woods Hole, sometimes strung across the road like a wall. Steel often tucked in behind the leaders.
“I was in top gear after 3 miles,’’ said Steel. “I like drafting behind and the breeze impacted my race a little.’’
But the finale was Saina’s stage.
“Towards the end I was feeling strong again,’’ Saina said. “I’m just worrying about how I was going to the end and see if I can get it. This is a very good competition to have someone competing with you.’’
Sambu, a nine-time All-American at Arizona who trains in Tucson with Bernard Lagat and Abdi Abdirahman, had an easier time with the competition. They simply couldn’t keep up.
“That was the plan, to press from the beginning,’’ said Sambu, 26. “The first 3 miles, it was a little bit tough, because it was uphill. So I was pushing there a lot to maintain the pace all the time. I was confident because I was feeling good all the way.”
Sambu and Saina each collected $10,000 for their victories.