In the absence of Alene Reta, last year’s Ethiopian record-setter, two of his fellow countrymen, Kumsa Adugna and Keteme Nigusse, who won this race in 2009, duked it out with a Ugandan, Harbert Okuti, in the Shelter Island 10K Saturday.
Don Bindler, who in the lead car was relaying details of the twisting 6.2-mile race to radio station WLNG, said later that the above-mentioned three “ran shoulder to shoulder pretty much the whole way . . . I couldn’t tell who was in the lead when they turned onto Route 114 [with a little more than a mile to go]. It was an exciting race. We really didn’t know who the winner would be until they neared the tape on Fiske Field.”
Adugna, a 25-year-old Ethiopian who proved to have the best kick, pulled out the win in 29 minutes and 44 seconds (a 4:47 pace), with Okuti, 25, and Nigusse, 30, in a photo finish two seconds behind him. Okuti was the runner-up, and Nigusse was third.
“It was probably one of the most exciting finishes we’ve ever had,” said Mary Ellen Adipietro, the race director.
Last year, the then-28-year-old Reta, whose whereabouts were unknown Saturday, blew everyone away, garnering $1,000 for winning, a $1,500 bonus for setting a course record (28:40), and $250 for being in the lead at the second through the sixth-mile marks.
Adugna was third last year, in 29:46, and Nigusse was fourth in 29:49. Demesse Tefera, 28, another Ethiopian, who was the runner-up to Reta in 2010 in 29:44 (matching this year’s winning time), finished what for him must have been a disappointing eighth Saturday, in 32:49.
The popular road race, which benefits East End Hospice, the Timothy Hill Children’s Ranch, and the Shelter Island Run Community Fund, and whose major sponsor was the Hampton Jitney, not only drew 22 elite runners, a record, but also had on hand, as has been the case in recent years, four of the top names in marathon running of all time — Bill Rodgers, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Kim Jones, and Jon Sinclair.
The 10K also boasted four Olympians — in Benoit Samuelson, 54, the gold-medal marathon winner in 1984, Rodgers, 63, a four-time marathon winner at New York and Boston, Ethiopia’s Girma Tolla, 35, who was to finish fourth that day, and Tezaya Dengersa, 30, a native of Turkey who was to top the women (and to finish 13th over all) in 34:16.
But Adipietro said the highlight of the day lay in the fact that Benoit Samuelson, Rodgers, and Sinclair and Jones, who are husband and wife, had decided to serve as pacers for runners hoping to break 40 minutes, 50 minutes, and an hour.
Mike Bottini, 56, of East Hampton, who was to win the men’s 55-to-59 age division, said that “at the starting line Joan Samuelson turned and asked me what I was hoping for. I said I’d like to break 42:00. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’ll be at between 40 and 42. . . .’ ”
“ ‘I’ll try to keep you in sight,’ I said.”
Bottini was in Samuelson’s group as it made the first turn, onto St. Mary’s Road, but thereafter he began to lose sight of the 54-year-old woman from Freeport, Me., who had run a 2:47 in Chicago last fall and a 2:51 at Boston in April.
Benoit Samuelson wound up running the 10K in 39:11 (a 6:19-per-mile pace). Bottini, who placed 75th, in 42:03, ran a 6:46 pace. Benoit Samuelson finished 40th over all and was the runner-up in the female masters (over-40) division, behind Tatyana Byelovol, 42, of Ukraine.
Because of the no-double-dipping rule, Byelovol, who finished fifth among the women in 36:15, forwent the $150 she would have received for finishing fifth, and received instead $300 for topping the women’s masters field.
Bindler, when asked about the shoulder-to-shoulder trio, who led the field from wire to wire, said, “I guess each of them was thinking that, since no one seemed to be going for a record, ‘If I win running slower it will be better than losing if I run faster.’ They were playing games with each other. We kept thinking the Olympian [Tolla] would be the favorite. . . .”
(Birhanu Feysa, the eventual seventh-place finisher, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., said, when questioned before the race began, that while the front-runners all knew one another, “no one is dominant.”)
Adipietro said she didn’t mind that no one was shooting for a record. “It saved us $1,500!”
Bottini said that while Shelter Island is notorious for hot and humid weather on race days, “this time it wasn’t so bad. The sun was hidden by clouds and there was a bit of a breeze when we came out onto the water at Dering Harbor.”
“Everything went well — we had no complaints,” said Adipietro. Everyone loved the featured speakers [Benoit Samuelson, Rodgers, and the Sinclairs], and their idea to lead pace groups was hugely successful. They got P.R.s for a lot of people.”
The late great marathoner Grete Waitz, who ran this race in 1992, and who died of cancer in Norway on April 19, the day after the Boston Marathon, was remembered before the race began by her fellow competitor Benoit Samuelson, who said she’d been inspired by Waitz’s courage to run Boston this year — for the first time since 1993 — despite having back problems.
Waitz, who won New York nine times, had also inspired Shelter Island’s Janelle Kraus, the former Wake Forest all-American and New England runner of the year, when she wrote “Keep running, Janelle” on a photograph she gave the then-ninth grader at the high school’s awards ceremony the year Waitz ran Shelter Island.
Now a teacher living in Connecticut, Kraus, who heads the elite athletes committee and is in charge of the awards and purses, was not at Shelter Island on race day.
“She’d be running,” said a friend, Kevin Barry, who oversaw races for children on Fiske Field that afternoon, “but she’s due to have a baby tomorrow.”