After setting the pace for the first seven miles of the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, Caroline Rotich watched her lead evaporate along the Potomac right before the eighth mile Sunday. Rotich was one of the favorites, two weeks after taking the New York City half marathon. But all she could do was watch calmly as 22-year-old Belaynesh Oljira passed her, setting up a duel down the stretch.
On a morning when the annual race doubled as the USA Women’s 10-mile championship, the Kenyan Rotich put on a textbook display of strength late in the race, refusing water from volunteers and picking up speed in the final mile to edge Oljira and claim the overall women’s title in 52:46.
“I just had a confidence about me,” Rotich said. “I knew that I had to keep pushing.”
Former Olympian Janet Bawcom finished fourth, and was the first American to cross the finish line — giving Bawcom her third consecutive USA Women’s 10-mile title. It was Bawcom’s first time running in the event, and she could sense the chaos of running for the American title with an international field setting the pace. But even with Rotich and Oljira (52:49) holding their own competition late, Bawcom was focused on running her own race. She faded from the leading pack at the six-mile mark, but made a charge on the final leg.
“There were some rough spots in some places that I didn’t expect. Then, I think it was mile six through eight, it was a little windy. I think I was in no-man’s land at that point,” said Bawcom, who was a finalist in the 10,000 meters at last summer’s Olympic Games in London. “I have to run my own race. I just felt great and I just picked it up.”
An estimated 15,000 runners participated in the 41st annual event on Sunday, and although a recent cold snap in Washington kept the cherry blossom trees along the course from being in full bloom, there were plenty of other storylines.
The men’s competition ended dramatically, as Kenyan Daniel Salel (46.06) edged defending champion and fellow countryman Allan Kiprono (46.07) by a hair.
Tyler McCandless (Boulder, Colorado) was the first American man to cross, registering a time of 49:01. The Washington area placed nine locals in the top 20 of the men’s division, including Chevy Chase’s Chris Kwiatowski, who ran the course in 49:47.
Kenya natives placed in the top six spots of the men’s division, and Kiprono was considered the favorite heading into Sunday. He broke the course record by 21 seconds last year, but this year had to wait for officials to review the finish — and Salel wasn’t notified of his victory until a few minutes after he had crossed. He broke out into a long laugh after race officials told him near one of cool-down tents. Just like Rotich and Bawcom had done in the women’s division earlier in the morning, he waited for his opening in the last stages of the race.
“It was a bit tough,” Salel said. “About 200 meters to go, the guy (Kiprono) came and passed me. And then I made the move.”