Sports

FALMOUTH ROAD RACE

Stephen Sambu, Caroline Chepkoech look to defend Falmouth Road Race titles

FALMOUTH — It didn’t look much like summer when 98 runners came out of the Captain Kidd bar in Woods Hole and spread out across the road to start the first Falmouth Road Race.

It might have been mid-August with a summer of suds and sun in full swing, but it was pouring rain on that Wednesday afternoon in 1973.

But the runners, gathered for what was termed a “mini-marathon” by bartender and runner Tommy Leonard, were determined to get to the next pub, the Brothers 4 in Falmouth Heights, some 7 miles away. So away they ran.

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Dave Duba and Jenny (Taylor) Tuthill got to the Heights first, and they will return Sunday as the honorary starters for the men’s and women’s races when the 45th Falmouth Road Race gets underway.

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This year, Stephen Sambu has a chance to add to the history and tradition of the summer season’s most prominent seaside scramble when he seeks his fourth consecutive title. No man has won four. Sambu, 29 and the only Kenyan in the elite field, last year joined Bill Rodgers (1974, 1977, 1978) and Gilbert Okari (2004-06) as a three-time winner.

“It’s exciting to win even one time,’’ said Sambu. “Four times is going to be really, really amazing, so I will try to do it.’’

Sambu will be challenged by top Americans Leonard Korir, last year’s runner-up and a 2016 Olympian at 10,000 meters, and four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman.

Women’s defending champion Caroline Chepkoech of Kenya also returns to take her shot at the $10,000 first prize. Chepkoech, 23, won the $5,000 bonus last year for holding off Sambu in “The Countdown,” a race within the race between the men’s and women’s fields. The clock starts when the first woman crosses the line (the elite women’s start is 10 minutes before the men’s), and the men’s winner has 5 minutes, 27 seconds to finish and win the bonus.

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Among the women pushing Chepkoech are three-time Olympian Diane Nukuri of Burundi, the 2015 Falmouth champion who was third last year, Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia, the 2009 winner, and Americans Neely Gracey, runner-up in the USA 25K and half-marathon championships this year, and Jess Tonn, a 25-year-old who was fourth at the USA 10K championships and is making her Falmouth debut.

There were no cash prizes when Tuthill and Duba won that first race. Duba, a Central Michigan student on vacation on the Cape who wandered his way into the race after a hitchhiker told him about it, got a trophy. In Year 3, when Frank Shorter brought his Olympian aura to Falmouth and his duels with Rodgers began the race’s rise to prominence, a color television was awarded to the men’s winner. For the women’s winner — Tuthill again — there was a plaque.

“The girls on the Falmouth track team were so excited, they told me the winners were being awarded color TVs,’’ Tuthill said.

She admitted she thought about that TV during the race.

But the girls were wrong. No TV.

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Tuthill came to the first Falmouth race simply because she had been invited by race organizer John Carroll. In 1973, the roads didn’t generally welcome women.

“I was so flattered,” said Tuthill, a runner of some renown in New England who had finished third in the Boston Marathon that year. “In those days many races wouldn’t let women run.’’

Tuthill, a Bronxville, N.Y., native, was teaching kindergarten in Newton when she took up running.

“I had a talent, running was easy for me,’’ said Tuthill, who had to stop running 15 years ago after serious injuries to her back and neck. “I was one of the early 80-90-miles-a-week trainers. It never occurred to me I wouldn’t be able to do it until I was 90.

“All you need is running shoes.’’

Of course in those days, women were running in the smallest size of men’s running shoes they could find, shorts that chafed, and makeshift undergarments.

“We used to say, ‘Do you think they will ever make running clothes for women?’ ” Tuthill said.

It was several years before Moving Comfort came out with the first running bra. But running was its own satisfaction.

“I loved every step,’’ said Tuthill, who remembered finishing 11th overall in a field of 150 at a 10-miler in Concord. Her name never appeared in the results.

“You did it because it felt good,’’ she said. “I didn’t need a team. I loved the simplicity of it.’’

At the first Falmouth race, when the wind and rain began to take a toll as the course wound its way along Vineyard Sound on the beach road, Tuthill found her spirits flagging. Then she saw a figure by the side of the road in a dark poncho. It was her sister, holding her 2-year-old nephew calling out, “Go Nonie Go!’’

“That was the jolt I needed,’’ she said.

This year, there will be 12,800 runners taking the road, and thousands of spectators will line the course, ready to give them the jolt they need.