CAPE ELIZABETH — When Robert Gomez first ran the Beach to Beacon 10K road race in 2000, it was quite a humbling experience.
He was a 16-year-old whose running career was just starting to blossom as a standout for Limestone Community School/Maine School of Science and Mathematics.
The former Bates College star has come a long way since then, and he’ll be one of the Mainers to watch in this morning’s race in Cape Elizabeth.
Gomez and 5,999 other runners will depart Crescent Beach at 8 a.m. for the 6.2-mile journey to the Portland Head Light.
Saturday’s race will be Gomez’s fourth Beach to Beacon and his third straight. He still recalls the first time he rubbed elbows with thousands of other runners and had so many spectators cheering him on.
“That was quite the experience because I’ve never run a race even close to that big before, so it blew me away,” he said at a prerace press conference Friday morning at the Inn by the Sea.
Like a lot of those who compete here, Gomez looks up to race founder and running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson a great deal. He flashed a smile when Samuelson told him her son, Anders, a student at Bowdoin College, looks up to Gomez.
“You’re my son’s idol even though he’s a Polar Bear,” Samuelson, herself a Bowdoin grad, told Gomez.
Gomez will be one of a throng of Maine runners vying for the unofficial title of the state’s road racing champ. With 2008 and ’09 winner Ben True now residing out of state, a new winner will be crowned.
Pat Tarpy of Yarmouth is the favorite. The Brown University graduate has competed in the elite field at the B2B in the past, but has moved back to his native Maine, thus qualifying him to win the Maine division.
“I think Pat’s the prohibitive favorite, and I think there are several other guys (besides) myself that could fill out that top five in the Maine field,” said Gomez, a Waldoboro native who lives in Westbrook.
Gomez has logged 80-85 miles a week over the summer, and has been training with Josh Zolla of Portland, along with Sheri Piers of Falmouth and Kristin Barry of Scarborough, the two Maine favorites in the women’s race.
Piers won the Maine women’s title last summer while Barry claimed it in 2008, and Gomez has benefited nicely from training with them.
“They’ll let you know if you screw up or you miss some miles, so it’s been an absolute treat training with them,” Gomez said. “I’ve been really lucky with the way things have turned out this summer. I’m just very honored that I got invited here.”
Elsewhere in the Maine men’s field, University of Maine runners Riley Masters of Bangor and Spencer McElwain are entered. And while Masters burned up the track for the Black Bears during his sophomore year, Gomez knows he could potentially make a charge.
“Who knows what he’s going to do, a sub-4 miler, you can’t forget about that,” he said.
Bar Harbor’s Phil Richert is also a legitimate contender, while in the Masters division, Andy Beardsley, 46, will be in the mix for a top finish.
The women’s division is once again shaping up to be a two-person race between Barry and Piers, but University of New Hampshire star Erica Jesseman of Scarborough can’t be counted out.
Piers has taken a bit of down time from racing as of late, since she and Barry were admittedly competing a bit more than they should have.
“At the beginning of the summer I did a few races and my times were terrible,” Piers said. “We raced three weekends in a row, we don’t typically do that, so I ended up backing out of the L.L. Bean race and the [Yarmouth] Clam Festival race.”
Barry wound up winning the recent Clam Festival 5-mile race, while she and Piers competed with some Bangor-area runners on the Maine Road Hags at the Cabot Trail Relay in Nova Scotia in May.
“That’s my favorite race to do, I love it,” Piers said. “Once you go to Cabot, you go back every year.”
No matter who wins today, both Piers and Barry will walk away happy , after all, they are best friends who run together every day.
“We’ll both be happy regardless so hopefully we’ll both have a good day and feel good, have a good experience with it.