CAPE ELIZABETH — Somewhat heavy traffic along Interstate 295 traversing Portland’s Back Cove on a sunny morning isn’t unusual.
But on this warm, mild Tuesday, the congestion wasn’t on the road but along a sidewalk on a bridge where one of the state’s busiest highways parallels the Back Cove Trail, a popular training route for runners in and around the city.
To Joan Benoit Samuelson, that is no surprise, especially with the TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K road race just a few days away. Hordes of runners were squeezing in their final training runs around Portland and Cape Elizabeth.
“I came through Portland around 6:30 [Tuesday] morning and I counted a [high] number,” Samuelson said Tuesday at Fort Williams Park, “and I ran along the course [Tuesday] morning and I couldn’t believe how many people were out there.”
The Beach to Beacon, which Samuelson founded, will celebrate its 13th running Saturday, with 6,000 runners taking off from Crescent Beach at 8 a.m. en route to Fort Williams.
As evidenced by the number of runners who were pounding the pavement Tuesday, this is a race that caters to the average athlete, along with local, national and international stars.
“I think you see more and more people accessing that Back Cove Trail in Portland each and every year because people are realizing this is something people can do from their homes or workplaces,” Samuelson said.
It also helps that folks are accessing the crown jewel of Maine road racing, as 4,600 slots in the field, 600 Cape Elizabeth residents and 4,000 nonresidents, were filled in a combined 53 minutes.
“The fact that running is very accessible and very affordable I think is responsible for the interest in our event,” Samuelson said.
The new registration process, in which Cape Elizabeth runners could sign up first, followed by 4,000 to the general public, with the remaining 1,400 bibs awarded via a lottery, seemed to work just fine.
“Every year we try to tweak the event to make it the best possible event that we can, and I think this year was no exception,” Samuelson said. “We tried this new registration process and it seemed to receive the praises of many people.”
The 2010 field is not short on talent, with running legends Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, a five-time women’s winner, and Moroccan native Khalid Khannouchi, now an American citizen, both in the field.
They’ll be joined by two-time defending race winner Ed Muge of Kenya and defending women’s champ Irene Limika of Kenya.
And a hometown hero will return to his roots and compete amongst the elite athletes. That is North Yarmouth native Ben True, who has trained in Oregon during the last year and set the Maine men’s course record at 29 minutes, 10 seconds in throttling his Pine Tree State brethren.
“I’m expecting Ben to run well. I know he’d love to have a great race here,” said Samuelson. “Ben’s in great shape.”
This summer, True participated in the prestigious Prefontaine Classic in Oregon and the Bix 7-mile road race in Iowa.
Since he now resides out of state, that opens the door for a number of Maine athletes to claim the state’s unofficial road racing championship.
Among them are Pat Tarpy of North Yarmouth, a former Brown University standout; Georgetown University star Levi Miller of Belfast; and brothers Sintayehu Taye and Ayalew Taye of Cape Elizabeth.
Riley Masters of Bangor, Evan Graves and P.J. Gorneault of Caribou and Adam Goode of Bangor are also among the Maine delegation of runners.
On the Maine women’s side, it’s shaping up to once again be a two-woman race between friends and training partners Sheri Piers of Falmouth and Kristin Barry of South Portland.
University of New Hampshire standout Erica Jesseman of Scarborough is another potential challenger.
Samuelson, for one, is excited that Ndereba is returning.
“I’m delighted that Catherine’s back. I feels as though she has a lot of friends here in Cape Elizabeth,” she said. “She’ll be warmly welcomed here.”
So will 5,999 other runners, their families, friends and the thousands of spectators who will line the streets and Fort Williams to cheer them on.