Within four minutes after the start of the .US National 12K road race, two-time defending champion Molly Huddle made it clear there would not be an upset in the elite women’s division.
Less than a mile into the race Sunday morning in Alexandria, Huddle, 31, began to pull away from the pack. From there, her lead would only grow: No one dared to keep pace with Huddle, who has not lost a race in the United States this year and who finished the approximately 7.5-mile course in 38 minutes 36 seconds, nearly 30 seconds ahead of Sara Hall (39:02) in second place. Alisha Williams placed third in 39:05.
In contrast, the elite men’s competition featured a tight field until the last mile. Kenya native Sam Chelanga, who became a naturalized American citizen in August, outkicked Tyler Pennel to win his second consecutive U.S. road championship, finishing in 34:34.53 to edge out Pennel’s 34:34.80. Shadrack Kipchirchir was third in 34:37.
“I think I race better in a pack, but it’s good to practice this,” Huddle said of her convincing win. “You have to be able to do it both ways, so the roads this fall has been good for me to build up some mental confidence.”
With the victory, Huddle has won five USA Track and Field road championships and seven titles overall this season, several of which have come in dominating fashion. She picked up $20,000 for winning Sunday’s event, which had more than 1,000 registered runners, and a bonus $20,000 for being the overall USATF Running Circuit champion.
Throughout the race, Huddle made several quick glances to her left to make sure there was no one surging from behind. It was a lesson she seems to have learned in the aftermath of the track and field world championships in Beijing in August, when she lost out on a bronze medal in the 10,000 meters because of an early celebration.
After she reached the halfway point on the George Washington Memorial Parkway on Sunday, though, Huddle was able to fully visualize her sizable lead.
“I thought I’d have a bigger group [with me in front],” she said. “[But] I have to be ready to run my best every race. I don’t really want to give an inch.”
The men’s race began at a slow pace, and there were several runners still bunched up at the 10K mark. Aware that it would come down to a sprint to the finish, Chelanga started to make a move, picking up his pace on a slight incline as a few others followed.
Pennel, a recent sub-four-minute miler, shot to the lead at the final mile, only to have Chelanga take over with less than 400 meters to go. Chelanga, who also edged Pennel in October to win the USATF 10-Mile Championships alongside Huddle, crossed the finish line with both arms raised Sunday, celebrating his second U.S. road title in two months. The win gives Chelanga, 30, plenty of confidence going into next season as he looks to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team in either the marathon or 10,000 meters.
“It’s part of preparing because you never know what’s going to happen,” he said of the photo finish. “It might come down to the same scenario in the trials or Olympics. I feel the closer the race it is, it tests your patience, your will to push yourself. And I learned something today. Even if you feel tired, just run to the line.”
The victory also caps a career season for Chelanga, a former all-American at Liberty University who has had an injury-riddled professional career. It was just a year ago that he was sitting at home, unsure of when he would become a U.S. citizen — the process would end up taking five years — and discouraged by the fact that he was unable to participate in the U.S. road championships.
Now Chelanga, finally healthy and racing, sees his best performances in front of him.
“This has been the best year of my life,” he said. “Being American is a big deal for me. . . . It’s been a good year. Hopefully I got the momentum to keep going.”