The 32nd running of the Freihofer's Run for Women 5K, featuring 3,927 women running through the streets of the New York's capital city on Saturday (5), produced a stunning victory for Kenya's Emily Chebet, made all the more so by her new course record of 15:12.
Chebet's new figures bettered the previous best time set by Morocco's Asmae Leghzaoui at 15:18 in 2005. The six second improvement was the largest in the history of the Freihofer's 5K, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race.
It was evident from the outset that Chebet was going to be among the most prominent contenders. Having won the World Cross Country title in March in Poland, she was far from intimidated by a field that included defending Freihofer's champion (and 2010 Boston Marathon champ) Teyba Erkesso from Ethiopia, Mamitu Daska also from Ethiopia and the second finisher here in 2009, Amane Gobena, the third of the powerhouse Ethiopian contingent and who had placed second here in 2008, and three-time winner Benita Willis from Australia.
From the gun, which sounded at 10 a.m. on Madison Avenue, the pace was cautious. Although all of the favorites were at the forefront — Erkesso, Willis, Chebet, Gobena, Daska, plus Edna Kiplagat (KEN), Julliah Tinega (KEN) and Albany native Elizabeth Maloy — an opening kilometre of 3:13 and a first mile of 5:06 indicated that a course record was all but out of the question. That likelihood was made all the more remote by the increasing heat, which dispelled the humidity that had built overnight, but which did little to ease the oppressive racing conditions.
At two kilometres the clock displayed 6:15, still offering little indication of the fireworks that were about to explode. The first indication of that came close to the 1.5-mile mark when what had been a group of eight leaders was suddenly whittled down to just Erkesso, Daska, Chebet, and Kiplagat, winner of this year's Los Angeles Marathon. Erkesso was the most aggressive, though in reality none in the foursome was sitting in for the ride. Kiplagat was shadowing every move, while Chebet and Daska hovered alongside, both appearing ominously comfortable.
It was the two-mile split that gave the first tangible evidence of a race in full flight. A clocking of 10:06 revealed a previous mile of 5:00, indicative that the pace was becoming more intense with each passing stride. Surprisingly, it was Erkesso who was the first to feel its effects, conceding two strides approaching 2.25 miles and giving up ground that she would never recoup. She ultimately placed fourth in 15:36.
With just three competitors remaining in the lead pack - and with the long downhill finishing straight along Madison Avenue not far away - it was evident that a monumental battle to the line was about to ensue. Indeed, it was the right hand turn out of Washington Park and onto Madison that was the catalyst for the real racing to begin. Kiplagat made a slight surge, but that was all the impetus Chebet needed. She injected a wicked surge of her own that buried Daska for good, but which also prompted the question of whether she had gone way too hard too soon.
Chebet did not win her World Cross Country title without tactical savvy, however. Though Kiplagat hung on her heels, the diminutive leader injected a second punishing surge with 350 metres remaining that settled the score for good. At the line, Chebet's course record of 15:12 gave her a winning margin of eight seconds over Kiplagat, and earned her a winner's check of US $10,000. Asked how she felt about her victory in her second Freihofer's appearance (she finished 6th in 2007; 15:59), the new champion beamed, "I feel very good."
"Being the World Cross Country champion, I knew she had speed," mused Kiplagat afterwards, who landed in Upstate New York from Kenya late Thursday night to take part in the all-women road race.
Local runner, Elizabeth Maloy, a native of Loudonville and a graduate of Holy Names and Georgetown University, joined Rebecca Donaghue from Pennsylvania in becoming the first US runners to place in the top 10 finishers since 2007. Donaghue placed ninth in 15:50, with Maloy 10th with a time of 15:53.
"How could you not say that this is the greatest Freihofer's ever," remarked race director George Regan, heaping praise on the day's competitors. "The World Cross-Country champion defeats a world-class field and improves the course record by the biggest margin in our history. That's what I call a race. Plus, we had the second largest number of registrants ever. This was a great day for Albany."