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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bloomsday 2018: Defending champs Gabriel Geay, Buze Diriba face tough elite field

Gabriel Geay  crosses the finish line to win the Bloomsday men’s elite race on May 7, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

What can Bloomsday do for an encore to the excitement that last year’s elite runners provided at the finish line?

Have everybody back to do it all over again.

Eight of the top-10 men and the top three women finishers of the 2017 Lilac Bloomsday 12K Run are back to take their chances in the 2018 version on Sunday in downtown Spokane.

“For any race director, to have two sprint duels at the end – on that great downhill finish that we have – is just everything that you hope for,” elite athlete coordinator Jon Neill said at the annual Bloomsday press conference at the Davenport Hotel on Thursday.

Neill said this year should be just as exciting.

“It’s one of the most talented fields that we’ve had,” he said. “We have all this great experience coming back.

“Marathoners do well here. Bloomsday, with all of its hills, is such a strength course. You could bring in fast, 5,000-meter runners but afterward they’ll talk about Doomsday Hill and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t expect it.’ And it takes a lot of those runners out.”

Last year, local knowledge meant little, as two Bloomsday first-timers broke the tape.

“I usually say that it’s the experienced runner that has done the course before will win,” Neill said. “Of course, last year we had Geay and Buze blow that all apart as Bloomsday rookies and win.”

Gabriel Geay, a 21-year-old Tanzanian who wasn’t even registered for the race until Saturday evening last year, and Buze Diriba, a 24-year-old Ethiopian and one of the most decorated road racers of the past three years, are both back to defend their Bloomsday titles and remain favorites.

But the fields are packed and should provide a stiff challenge to the returning champions.

On the men’s side, defending champion Geay might have been something of an unknown entering last year’s race, but he’s a familiar foe now. Geay, the 2016 Peachtree champ, also gathered a win at the ’17 Bolder Boulder.

Geay will have to deal with a pair of young Ethiopians.

Jemal Yimer, the 21-year-old second seed, was the champion of the 2018 Cherry Blossom 10-mile race and owns the fastest 10-mile time in the world this year. He also owns the world’s third-fastest half marathon and fifth-fastest 10,000-meter run in 2018.

Teshome Mekonen, 22, was fourth at Bloomsday last year, fourth at the New York City half-marathon earlier this year and had wins in a 6-mile and 8K last year.

The Kenyans, as usual, will have something to say about the medal stand as well.

Philemon Cheboi, 24, was last year’s runner-up and finished third in 2016, He was the 2017 Bay to Breakers 12K champ and could be poised to make his Bloomsday breakthrough. Geoffrey Bundi, 30, and Philip Langat, 28, bring a wealth of experience to the group of Kenyans.

Bundi finished third at Bloomsday last year and was a three-time champion in 2014. Langat, the 2016 Bloomsday champion, finished fifth in last year’s edition.

There are 11 Americans in the 30-man elite field, with Haron Lagat the highest seed at No. 10. Hailing form Colorado Springs, Colorado, the 34-year old placed fourth at the 2017 U.S. 10-mile championships.

The women’s elite field is no less competitive.

Defending titleholder Diriba is one of the best road racers out there. She already owns four wins this year – including the Cherry Blossom 10K, where she ran the fourth-fastest 10-mile time in the world this year. She had four wins and two second-place finishes in 2016.

If the field hopes to challenge, it will want to establish a quicker early pace than last year, which favored Diriba’s style of laying back early then destroying the completion with her late kick.

Of the 67 elite women runners challenging Diriba, the two with the best shot to knock her off were right there with her last year.

Diriba outsprinted Mamitu Daska at the finish last season. Daska, 30, holds the third- and fifth-fastest Bloonsday times and had one of the greatest road racing seasons in 2012, winning Bloomsday and four other races in dominant fashion. She is a five-time winner of the Bolder Boulder, including last season.

The top American woman is second-seeded Diane Nukuri, 33, of Flagstaff, Arizona. Running in her third Bloomsday, Nukuri is a three-time Olympian and finished 13th in the 10,000 at Rio ’16.

Nukuri was born in Burundi and competed for her home country in the 2000 Sydney games. She escaped the Burundi civil war in 2001 and fled to Toronto. She attended the University of Iowa and became an American citizen in 2017.

She has won 14 races in her prestigious career.

“The last time I ran the course was 2012,” Nukuri said on Thursday. “I need to go do another race tour, but I remember it was really fun, rolling hills – and I love that. It’s not boring at all. And you have that hill that adds a little bit, especially towards the end of the race.

“If it’s completely flat, I get a little bit bored. But when you have great competition around you, good weather, a fun course – what more can you ask for?”

The 2018 wheelchair division features some of the most exciting competitors in the sport.

The women’s field is highlighted by Tatyana McFadden, a four-time marathon Grand Slam winner (Boston, London, Chicago and New York) who set world records in the 100-, 400-, 800- and 1,500-meter races. The 28-year-old will compete in the Bloomsday race for the second time.

McFadden could be challenged by Chelsea McClammer, 23, a two-time Paralympian and current world-record holder at 400, 800 and 5,000. McClammer, from Benton City, Washington, will compete in her 10th Bloomsday this year.

On the men’s side, 36-year-old Aaron Pike is back for his eighth Bloomsday. He is a dual-sport Paralympian in Nordic and biathlon who trains in Bozeman and has participated in every Paralympic Games since 2012.