Bedan Karoki and Mary Wacera warmed up for next month’s IAAF/Cardiff University World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016 with wins at the World’s Best 10K, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan on Sunday (28).
The Kenyan pair, who both won in 2014, each prevailed in two of the closest finishes in the history of the race, held for the first time in the morning with the gun going at 7:00am local time rather than the usual late afternoon start until 2015.
A large group of African runners, fronted by Titus Kipchumba, led the proceedings in the men’s race, going through the first 5km in 13:55.
Five-time winner and defending champion Sammy Kitwara initially stayed in the large leading pack, but then lost contact with the leaders about 20 minutes into the race and soon afterwards dropped out.
But Karoki always featured in the lead group. With the pace suggesting a winning time under 28 minutes, the pack began to shrink over the final three kilometres.
Into the last kilometre, three men were still in contention: Karoki, Leonard Barsoton and 2015 world leader Stephen Sambu, who finished third in 2015.
Barsoton tried to break away with less than 500 metres to go but Karoki found an extra gear in the sprint finish to overtake him and prevail in a photo finish. Both were men were timed at 27:42, the fastest time in the Puerto Rican race since 2011.
"I am very happy," said Karoki. "I was not really expecting to win such a tough race, but I'm very happy for the win. This year, there was so much wind, the humidity remains high, but the difference is the wind. The competition was rather hard. There are many strong runners, I know them all and knew I had to run very hard to win."
Sambu repeated his third place finish with 27:48, ahead of Philip Langat and 2015 runner-up John Mwangangi, who were fourth and fifth respectively and both given 28:00.
In the women’s race, the duel was between the champions from the past two editions: Ethiopia’s defending champion Belaynesh Oljira and Wacera, the latter wanting to bounce back from her disappointing seventh-place finish last year.
The pair were part of a nine-woman group that passed 3km in 9:12, sub 31-minute pace. The rhythm eventually settled down slightly, which allowed Canadian marathon record-holder Lanni Marchant to move to the front, followed by eight African women.
As the race progressed, the lead group shrank to six women and it was only in the last 500m that Wacera found an extra gear to secure victory in 31:48, two seconds ahead of Oljira.
"Obviously it feels good," said Wacera. "It's really good, I feel happy. The competition was tough, but I was in good condition. Running here is always difficult because the weather is very hot, but I came for the victory and I got it."
Veronica Nyuarai finished third in 31:55, one second ahead of fellow Kenyan Linet Masai.
Merchant eventually finished eighth in 32:15 but her performance led Canada to win the inaugural NACAC Road Race Cup, together with Geoff Martinson who was 11th in the men’s race.
Beverly Ramos got almost as a big an ovation as Wacera as the Puerto Rican finished 10th in a national record of 33:19.
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF