For the first five miles of the 36th Lilac Bloomsday road race, Allan Kiprono was content to let others set the pace.
As the race wound down Riverside Avenue, up Government Way and around onto Fort George Wright Drive, an assortment of runners battled to lead a pack that began with more than a dozen runners and dwindled as the miles passed.
Some would surge to the front just to be able to say that they once led the race, then fade into the far distance while a lead group made up primarily of Kenyan road racers pushed ahead.
Surprised to find himself in the lead not three miles in, Kiprono allowed himself to be swallowed back into the pack.
“I was happy to let others push the pace,” the soft-spoken Kiprono said. “I could just sit right there and let them lead.”
Make no mistake, everyone knew Kiprono was there, running almost effortlessly.
Just 22 years old and in his third year running road races in the United States, the young Kenyan’s résumé commands attention – especially since setting a blistering course record in Washington, D.C. in the Cherry Blossom 10-Mile on April 1, finishing 73 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor while posting a time of 45 minutes, 15 seconds.
Kiprono was going to take off, that was certain. The lingering question was, would anyone – for that matter, could anyone, keep pace once he did.
No on both counts.
As the leaders cruised past Spokane Falls Community College and headed downhill toward T.J. Meenach Bridge, Kiprono eased into the lead and kept a fast pace up Doomsday Hill. Behind for just a few strides two-thirds of the way up, Kiprono picked up his pace over the summit to separate himself from the pack.
When Kiprono made the turn onto Mission, he had a 10-yard lead. By the six-mile marker it was more than 10 seconds.
Still, the leader looked nervous. A year ago, Simon Ndirangu out-kicked Kiprono in the final 250 meters to win by a second –which explains why the leader repeatedly glanced over his shoulder.
By the time he turned off Broadway and headed downhill to the finish line at the Monroe Street Bridge, Kiprono’s nearest competitor was a full city block behind.
At the finish, he was 18 seconds ahead of his nearest challenger, finishing in 34 minutes, 29 seconds – a full half-minute slower than his time a year ago.
The effort earned Kiprono a check for $7,000.
“I was not expecting to win,” Kiprono said. “Last year I lost at the finish line. I said this year, I have to win this race.”
Fellow Kenyan Robert Letting took second in 34:47, with countryman MacDonard Ondara a second behind. Three-time Bloomsday champion John Korir, who looked at times as though he would fall out of the lead pack, rallied to finish a strong fourth in 35:57.
Kenyans were the first six runners to cross the finish line. Lani Kitlaga was fifth (34:58) and Josphat Boit sixth (35:00).
Tesfaye Sendeku of Ethiopia was seventh with a time of 35:03.
Carlos Trujillo was the top U.S. finisher, clocking in 10th at 35:42, to earn $5,600. Mike Sayenko of Bellevue was the top in-state finisher at 35:45, earning a $3,000 check.
Evan Sims of Spokane Valley, was the top local finisher, turning in a 37:45.
Kevin Castille was the men’s masters winner, edging Seattle’s Uli Steidl and defending masters champion Mbarak Hussein with a time of 37:09.