The two-time NCAA Cross-Country champ had a premonition that he’d prevail.
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MANCHESTER, Conn. — After defending champion Aaron Braun led the field through a blazing 4:13 first mile at the 77th Manchester Road Race here on a bitterly cold and windy morning, Sam Chelanga was anything but worried. The two-time NCAA cross country champion, who is coached by Olympic marathoner Mark Coogan, knew immediately it was going to be a good day.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m feeling good, this is nice, let’s go!’” Chelanga recounted with reporters after recording his first Manchester victory on the 4.748-mile course in 21 minutes and 31 seconds. “I heard somebody say, ’4:12,’ and he [Braun] slammed on his brakes right away.”
Braun, who just won the USA 12K road running title on Nov. 17, realized that he had made a fatal mistake. He knew the Nike-sponsored Chelanga to be a great hill runner, and Braun had just burned a lot of the precious energy he would need for the big uphill in the second mile.
“I felt relaxed, but as soon as I saw the time for the first mile I was like, ‘uh oh,’” Braun, who represents adidas, told Race Results Weekly. “That’s not good.”
As the roadway rose ahead of the field on Charter Oak Street, Chelanga decided it was his best strategy to try to gap the field up the sustained one-mile climb, then hold on in the downhill second half. Leaning into the hill, he pressed the pace, clocked a 4:59 second mile, and when he turned left on Porter Street on the other side of the crest, he had built an 8-second lead on Braun. Tyler Pennel was along in third place.
“I felt better than I expected going up the hill,” Chelanga said. “You know, when you get the downhill everybody’s going to run, like, good, because it’s downhill. So I decided maybe to shake things up and get a gap on the road.”
Chelanga, 28, who also won NCAA titles at 5000m (2011) and 10,000m (2010), showed no signs of fatigue. Glancing back at Braun several times, he realized that his lead would stick, and in the bright but low New England sun he cruised home for the win. He easily handled the final climb to the finish line on Main Street while his wife, Marybeth, and infant son, Micah, watched. Braun held on for second (21:40), and Pennel was able to hold off a charging Donn Cabral to take third (22:03 to 22:07).
“That was a quick first mile,” admitted Pennel, who runs for the Reebok-sponsored ZapFitness program in Blowing Rock, N.C. “That’s not really the way to run this course.”
The women’s race had a surprise winner. Kenya’s Alice Kamunya, who entered herself on-line and wore bib number 12402, won by seven seconds over Britain’s Charlotte Browning, 25:07 to 25:15. Puerto Rico’s Beverly Ramos, an Olympic steeplechaser, got third in 25:16. American Olympians Desi Davila and Lisa Uhl finished 5th and 9th, respectively.
Kamunya, a newcomer to the USA road racing scene who ran a world-leading 8K at the HCA Va 8K in Richmond, Va., on Nov. 16, did not speak with the media immediately following the race. But Browning, who now lives in Charlottesville, Va., and is coached by the University of Virginia’s Todd Morgan, said she was satisfied with her race.
“I felt pretty good, said the former Florida Gator. “I went hard up the hill, but I train in Charlottesville [which is hilly], so I felt pretty OK.” She added: “I couldn’t catch her, but I tried.”
Both Chelanga and Kamunya won $4000 in prize money.
Behind the professionals, a sold-out field of 15,000 had entered the race. Among them was 9-time winner Amby Burfoot, 67, who finished the race for the 51st consecutive year, the most consecutive finishes here by any runner.