It was a cool, damp, ultimately raw morning. No longer winter, not quite spring. Perfect for running. No blossoms for the 11th annual Perrier Cherry Blossom 10-mile run, but there were two budding stars.
Greg Meyer of Wellesley, Mass., and Eleanor Simonsick of Baltimore set course records after setting a wicked pace. Meyer led from the one-mile mark; Simonsick led the women from the fourth mile.
Meyer fell and scraped his knee rounding a turn six miles into the race. Yet he ran a 46:13, 56 seconds under the course record set by Bill Rodgers in 1980. It was the third-fastest time by an American, just 13 seconds off the U.S. record.
After a mile, "the race was for second place," said Matt Wilson of Springfield, Va., who took second, outkicking Terry Baker, the defending champion from Williamsport, Md., in the last quarter-mile.
Simonsick, repeating as women's winner, finished in 53:46, 1:48 faster than the course record set by Anne Sullivan Hird in 1980. Simonsick, a doctoral candidate in public health at Johns Hopkins, ran the fourth-fastest time by an American woman, 28 seconds off the record.
Suzanne Girard, a junior at Georgetown, ran second in 54:13. Touted Laura DeWald of Arlington retired after about three miles.
Meyer had expected to "duke it out" with Rodgers, "the way we usually do." But the duel between friends never materialized. The closest they got this week was when they planted their footprints in concrete outside the Eliot Lounge in Boston.
Rodgers came in fifth and again failed to win his fifth Cherry Blossom. He was caught in the pack of 3,400 runners early and never caught up. "I was so slow and groggy, it was ridiculous," he said.
Rodgers strained his back on the last day of January and missed 12 days of training. He has been squeezing workouts together ever since. "If I had tried to go with Greg, I'd have died anyway," he said.
"I still think you're setting me up," Meyer said, smiling, alluding to the Boston Marathon April 18, which has been their goal all year.
Rodgers said Meyer, 27, is the second-best road runner in the country today, after Alberto Salazar, and "Salazar would have had his hands full today."
The first mile went in 4:38. "I said, 'All right, let's keep the tempo and see who holds,' " Meyer related.
He pulled five yards ahead, then 10. By the two-mile mark, it was 30 yards. He had run a 4:29 mile. At three miles, he had a 75-yard lead. "I kept looking over my shoulder to see you," he said to Rodgers.
"I was amazed no one went with you," said Rodgers, who finally caught up with the pack trailing Meyer. "I saw you 75 yards ahead. I said, 'What?!' "
"They probably figured, 'Billy's smart. He knows Greg comes back,' " Meyer said. "They were keying off Billy. He helped me."
Simonsick, 24, received help from a group of male runners she recognized from last year. "One of them said, 'Do you remember me? I ran with you last year,' " she said.
Hird took an early lead, a pace too brisk for Simonsick's taste, but began to fall back at around three miles. "I caught her at four," Simonsick said. "After that, I was on my own . . . Basically, what I did is add 5:20 to every mile split. I was slower than that after the third. I wanted to break 54:00 and win and I did."
Meyer said he never thought about breaking Herb Lindsay's U.S. record of 46:00. "I was hoping to run a 46:40," he said. "I thought if it was a nice day, I might do a 4:40 pace. I didn't expect to win."
Between the fourth and sixth miles, he averaged 4:39 a mile. "Once you commit yourself to going away," he said, "you figure you better run like hell or they'll nail you."
By keeping the pressure on, he wanted to test his fitness level and "discourage some people who won't be there if it's hard early and then deal with the people who are serious."
Maybe there was another reason: his friendship with Rodgers. "It's hard to hammer him," Meyer said. "I don't want to sit on him and then kick him down. It doesn't seem honorable."
Perhaps, psychologically, it was easier for him to be so far ahead of his friend: 300 yards by the end. With three miles to go, Meyer headed back down Ohio Drive toward Hains Point, a sole figure heading home, racing past a trail of runners who waved and cheered him on. Somewhere across the Washington Channel, a bugler sounded reveille. For the race, it could have been taps.