Even after 35 years, the Lilac Bloomsday race still can celebrate firsts.
After suffering through rain all week, the sun was bloomin’ Sunday morning for the 35th 12-kilometer Bloomsday run.
Under ideal conditions, the first Ethiopian runner broke through, but it wasn’t the favored Ethiopian. Misiker Mekonnin, 24, held off fellow Ethiopian Wude Ayalew, 24, in a sprint finish after the two broke away from a pack of six as they turned off Broadway onto Monroe for the final 250-meter downhill finish to capture $7,000 and the elite women’s title. Mekonnin finished in 40 minutes, 25 seconds – 1 second ahead of Ayalew.
The top five finishers were separated by a mere 6 seconds, and the top 10 all broke 41 minutes. And four Ethiopians were in the top five.
Mekonnin was fifth in the 2009 race, the only other time she ran in Spokane. She was in a group of 10 that hung together and seemingly worked the pace through nearly the 5-mile mark. At that point as they trudged up Doomsday Hill, a couple of runners fell back.
Still, as the pack moved down Broadway seven were in contention. Jelliah Tinega, 25, of Kenya, led most of the race before finishing third. At the 6-mile mark, though, the pack was down to six.
It was at that point, too, that it was obvious there wouldn’t be a course record. The pace was about 2 minutes off last year’s world record-breaking gait.
Also unusual was the fact that six runners were still in contention as they got within one-quarter of a mile of the finish.
Mekonnin, seeded sixth, and top-seeded Ayalew waited until Monroe to start a final kick. Ayalew, who won the Crescent City 10K in New Orleans, was expected to wage a speedy battle with three-time champ Lineth Chepkurui, but the defending champ was a last-minute scratch. She chose to run in a Sunday evening race in Palo Alto, Calif.
Mekonnin didn’t take the lead until the final 200 meters. In fact, through most of the race, she wasn’t distinguishable in the pack.
Afterward, Mekonnin said she was fortunate to win.
“Today I was lucky,” she said. “(Ayalew) is a strong, fast athlete. I’m lucky. I’m very surprised. Thank you God.”
Mekonnin said she put in quite a bit of training in the last three months.
“I’m training a lot,” she said. “It’s a nice course. For me it’s a good race. I will be back next year.”
After Chepkurui scratched, Ayalew was immediately tabbed the favorite. But she ran in the pack most of the way save a brief moment near the 3-mile mark when she swung over to the side of the road, took a cup of water from a volunteer and poured it on her hands. She then surged to the front of the pack before falling back again.
The race was just 4 seconds off last year’s record pace through 2 miles. But Cemetary Hill began to slow down the runners and Doomsday Hill had a say in the slower pace, too.