Keflezighi Defends 15K Title at Gate River Run

by Hank Brown, Running USA wire

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - (March 9, 2002) - No less than eight Olympians posed on the starting line before the opening gun. There was no doubt that this was one of the most fearsome fields of U.S. distance men ever assembled in one location. No doubt that this would be a fast and intense competition. No doubt this was a special race. And in the end, there was no doubt who was the fleetest of the fleet - Mebrahtom Keflezighi - again.

"Meb" defended his 15K national title in Jacksonville at the 25th running of the Gate River Run. His time was 42:48, the second fastest U.S. time ever recorded on this twisting, turning, two-bridged course (CR/AR Todd Williams, 42:22, 1995). The Team USA California member did it by controlling the tempo, pushing the pace when necessary to drop fellow competitors.

"I was trying to break it open," said the 2002 World Cross Country 12K team member. "I actually run better when I'm by myself because I'm more relaxed. I was hoping to get the race down to as few people as possible." The UCLA graduate from San Diego had plenty of unwelcome company early in the race. Early morning fog dripped heavy on car windows and hung low over the 7,000 starters on Gator Bowl Boulevard in the shadow of Alltel Stadium, home of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars and proud host of the 2005 Super Bowl. Meb, Abdi Abdirahman, Alan Culpepper and Josh Cox immediately separated themselves from the fray after the opening gun. Soon, Shawn Found and Jimmy Hearld joined forces on the front lines to make a formidable lead pack as they stormed past the first mile split in 4:35, just a few ticks above AR pace.

But membership in this elite club expired one by one and before the lead vehicles turned onto the first bridge, only Meb, Abdi and Culpepper remained. Mile 2 passed in 4:32 and pre-race rumors of a 14:05 opening 5K looked real. The trio entered the noble San Marcos residential area where Spanish-style mansions, gated entrances, palm trees and imbedded parkways greeted the runners. Meb and Abdi seemed to be pushing the pace, Culpepper in tow. With each surge, it appeared Culpepper would lose touch, but he found a way back to the front.

"I was glad I kept fighting," said 2000 Olympian Culpepper. "Each time I would catch up, they'd go again. They have good tactics." The yo-yo racing went on until just past mile 5, passed in 22:58. By this time, Culpepper was about 10 meters back and about out of options. Murmurs swept through the press truck of a U.S. Cross Country repeat just a few weeks earlier when Meb held off Abdi - his Team USA California teammate - in a stirring battle to the finish.

But Meb had other ideas.

Suddenly he pushed down the accelerator and Abdi was quickly 5 seconds in arrears, with Culpepper following about the same in 3rd. Meb's 6th mile was 4:31, too much for even such tough rivals as Abdirahman and Culpepper to match.

"I made one mistake," lamented Abdirahman after the race. "I fell asleep and let him go on that one surge. It just takes one surge to break open a race."

From that point Keflezighi, 26, stretched his lead, first to 15 seconds, then 20 seconds as the race turned to go up the infamous Hart Bridge between mile 8 and 9. The bridge crests at about mile 8, then sweeps down toward the finish line back at the football stadium. Meb rolled down the hill and with victory imminent, raised his arm several times, giving the #1 sign to the crowds lining the finish area.

"I love this race," said U.S. 10,000 meter record holder afterwards. "I love the crowds."

Abdirahman held off a charging Culpepper for 2nd in 43:29 to 43:33. This was only Abdi's second road race and first visit to Gate River. It was also his longest race ever. "It's different than a 10K," said the World Cross team member. "I didn't get into town until last night so I didn't see the course. It was well marked but still, I didn't know the tangents like the others."

Culpepper knew it would be a tough day. "When I saw the fog, and then heard everyone breathing hard, I knew it would be tough. There was no way to get the record with the hot weather."

Culpepper quickly caught a flight after the race to tend to more important matters - his wife Shayne is due with their first child in 2-3 weeks.

"Yeah, this was cutting it close," he said with a smile. "I better get home!"

Chris Graff and Clint Wells staged a tough battle for 4th with Graff winning the kick in 44:25 to 44:30. After the opening mile, they each had conceded to the top 3, so their goal was a top 5 finish.

"I was in 4th the whole way," said Graff. "It was too hot to go with top 3, and we knew they were trying to go out in 14:05. Clint caught up with me about mile 4 and we raced each other the whole way. I just had a little more coming down the bridge."

"I was probably in 50th place after the 1st mile," said Wells. "I went out conservative (4:48) and started catching people. It was like 5 degrees in Boulder when I left so I wasn't ready for the heat.

Keflezighi had it all figured out. "I figured it would come down to me, Abdi, and Culpepper. We weren't going for the record, we just wanted the 15K title. I was glad when I broke it open, but just in case Abdi came back on me I was saving something for the end."

Just the way he likes it.

Gate River Run
USA 15K Championship
Jacksonville, FL
Saturday, March 9, 2002
Meb Keflezighi, CA
Abdi Abdirahman, AZ
Alan Culpepper, CO
Chris Graff, CA
Clint Wells, CO
Scott Larson, CO
Tony Cosey, TN
Nolan Swanson, OR
Keith Dowling, VA
Eddy Hellebuyck, NM (1st Master)
Clint Verran, MI
Jeff Campbell, MI
Josh Cox, CA
Scott Strand, AL
Terrence Mahon, PA

For more results and information, visit the Gate River website.

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