The Boston Athletic Association Half Marathon course begins and ends in Franklin Park, and the 13.1-mile route rolls out and back through the Emerald Necklace park system. But it was the part that goes through Franklin Park Zoo, just after Mile 11, where Sunday’s drama played out.
A pair of first-time winners, Kenyans Daniel Salel and Mary Wacera, surged past their countrymen in that stretch to claim victory.
After running shoulder to shoulder with Stephen Sambu from the start, Salel moved ahead at 11 miles and went on to win in 1 hour 56 seconds. Sambu was second in 1:01:18.
Wacera first had to catch Cynthia Limo, who had passed her after 11 miles, and didn’t stretch her lead until a final sprint down the White Stadium track to finish in 1:10:21, edging Limo by a second.
There was more than the $10,000 winner’s prize waiting. Salel and Wacera also won the BAA Distance Medley (a three-race series) as each won the BAA 10K in June. The Medley title comes with a $20,000 bonus.
Twice Salel was the runner-up at the Half Marathon (2013 and ’14). He was determined to come out on top this time.
Salel, 24, started in a pack of four, including Sambu and Eliud Ngetich of Kenya and Raji Assefa of Ethiopia, which immediately got some distance from the field. But Sambu and Salel shed first Assefa and then Ngetich, and after the 10K marker it was just Salel and Sambu, running side by side. They matched strides until they got to the zoo.
That’s where Salel made a move.
“I realized I was feeling strong,’’ said Salel, “and I just pulled away from there. We go to the zoo, and I just started pushing. [Sambu] tried to follow me but I just increased the pace.”
Taking the lead proved to be a crucial boost for Salel, who said, “I was very confident that everything could happen and I knew I would win.”
Salel finished 22 seconds in front of Sambu. Ngetich was third at 1:02:40.
Sambu and Salel, who have raced against each other many times, including the BAA 10K when Sambu also finished second, had made plans to push the pace.
“I know he is a very strong guy so we agreed we wanted to push so maybe we could break the course record,’’ Salel said.
After an opening 4:31, Miles 4 and 6 were run at a 4:24 pace. But then an uphill stretch toward Jamaica Pond slowed them. It was also where Ngetich dropped back.
Salel came up 22 seconds short of the record of 1:00:34 set by Lelisa Desisa in 2013. Wacera had to drop out of last year’s race because of a knee injury, but the 25-year-old said she found this year’s version tough because of the competition.
“I feel good. Now I have to forget how painful it is and be happy,’’ she said. “It was a tough race, not just me and Cynthia; the field was tough . . . We had a lot of experience, so that was good, running with the champions.’’
Wacera, who said Limo passed her when stomach problems caused her to vomit between Miles 11 and 12, wasn’t sure how she chased down Limo.
“I didn’t think I could close the gap, it just happened, I don’t know,” she said. “I had a surge to close the gap because in the back of my mind I was thinking about the bonus. In the front of my mind was Cynthia.”
As the pair turned into White Stadium, Wacera saw Limo was lagging.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I can win this, I’ve got to push it a little bit,’ ” she said. “My knees were saying, ‘No, don’t go,’ but I had to go.”
Ethiopian Belaynesh Oljira was third, and 2015 Boston Marathon champion Caroline Rotich, in the midst of her training for the Nov. 1 New York City Marathon, finished fourth at 1:10:45.
Beverly Ramos was the top American woman, finishing fifth (1:13:51).
Eric Ashe of Brighton used a sprint finish to place a strong fourth in 1:05:48, the top American.
“I was shooting for fourth place and luckily that was what I got today,’’ he said. “I knew that the four guys ahead of us going into the race were really quick, but we were hoping to beat one of them.
“By 5 miles, one of them had come back to us [Assefa], and we were really motivated to try to beat that guy. He hung with us until the finish.”
BAA Half-Marathon Top 10
MEN: 1. Daniel Salel (KEN) - 1:00.57 2. Stephen Samub (KEN) - 1:01.18 3. Eliud Ngetich (KEN) - 1:02.40 4. Eric Ashe (Boston) - 1:05.48 5. Raji Assefa (ETH) - 1:05.53 6. Brian Harvey (Boston) - 1:06.08 7. Nicholas Filippazzo (Wantagh, NY) - 1:08.15 8. Ruben Sanca (Lowell, MA) - 1:09.51 9. Joseph St. Pierre (Manchester, NH) - 1:13.11 10. Christopher Battoo (Boston) - 1:14.15
WOMEN: 1. Mary Wacera (KEN) - 1:10.21 2. Cynthia Limo (KEN) - 1:10.22 3. Belaynesh Oljira (ETH) - 1:10.41 4. Caroline Rotich (KEN) - 1:10.45 5. Beverly Ramos (PUR) - 1:13.51 6. Hellen Jepkurgat (KEN) - 1:14.01 7. Clara Santucci (Dilliner, PA) - 1:14.23 8. Madeline Duhon (Somerville, MA) - 1:17.22 9. Karen Roa (Boston) - 1:18.04 10. Ildiko Gaal (Somerville, MA) - 1:25.16