As the elite men’s racers took off Sunday at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, the large pack that typically separates into smaller groups of runners at different paces didn’t budge.
Instead, for the first half of the 46th annual race, run on a course that features views of the District’s monuments amid the newly bloomed cherry blossom trees, the men stayed together. Until roughly the sixth mile, there were about 20 runners in the lead group, underlining the deep talent pool this year.
But in the last stretches of the course, a few pulled ahead, and as Ethiopia’s Jemal Yimer, 21, reached the nine-mile marker, he made his move to the front. Yimer, who had never been to the United States before entering this race and said he was excited to go sightseeing, used the burst to win the division in 46 minutes 17 seconds.
Aweke Ayalew Yimer finished five seconds behind as runner-up. Philip Langat (46:25), James Kibet (46:36) and Chris Derrick (46:53) rounded out the top five.
“It was a race that wasn’t super fast, but it’s a little tough mentally because it was just fast enough that it didn’t feel easy. But there’s a lot of guys there, so it’s hard because you feel like everyone feels better than you do,” said Derrick, the top-finishing American.
“It’s a little distressing when you know you’ve got to pick it up to drop people.”
Derrick, 27, of Portland, Ore., said his strategy was to stay in the middle of the lead pack through about the first seven miles. When a runner made a move to the front around the seventh mile, he didn’t push himself then, either.
But in the last 2½ miles, as the course rounded the southern edge of East Potomac Park and turned back toward the Tidal Basin and the finish line in front of the Washington Monument, he embraced the wind in his face and the uphill path to pass three runners.
“I definitely wanted to be the top American,” Derrick said. “I looked at the field and knew there were good guys and guys I had raced before and that it would be tough, but I also thought it was something I should be capable of.”
The women’s elite race also was competitive: The top six runners finished within 14 seconds of one another.
Buze Diriba, a 24-year-old representing Ethiopia, won in 53:45 after finishing second in the previous two Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Runs. Hiwot Gebrekidan, last year’s winner, crossed the line three seconds later.
Hiwott Yemer (53:51), Alemitu Hawi (53:53), Diane Nukuri (53:56) and Vicoty Chepngeno (53:59) completed the top six finishers.
“It came down to the last 800 [meters],” said Nukuri, the top-finishing American. “It was completely close, and we were all sprinting. The race had kind of gone back and forth between fast and slow, so it was a really fun race to be a part of.”
Nukuri, 33, of Flagstaff, Ariz., was in her second race back from a knee injury and said she twice found herself trailing the lead group. But around the fourth and fifth miles, she was “really sprinting” to keep up and get in position for a strong finish.
“I’m really excited about it,” she said. “I also want to be competitive internationally, so it was fun to just mix it up with the ladies.”
Outside the top finishers, a few fan favorites also participated.
Joan Benoit Samuelson, 60, the U.S. Olympian who won the women’s marathon in its debut at the 1984 Games, returned to racing after having a knee procedure just after Thanksgiving and finished in 1:07:56. Bennett Beach, 68, of Bethesda, continued his streak of completing every Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run, finishing in 1:50:03.
Matthew Centrowitz, 28, the gold medalist in the 1,500 meters at the 2016 Olympics, participated for a tough practice run. The Broadneck High graduate aimed for about a five-minute-mile pace, finishing in 50:38 while racing alongside his best friend, Chris Kwiatkowski.
“It’s a good time of year, and I figured I haven’t really had any opportunities to race in D.C.,” Centrowitz said. “The city doesn’t really have too many track races, so I figured this road race would be a great opportunity to get out and run in front of some family and friends out there today.”