CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — Tucked within the time frame of an Olympic track and field meet, coinciding with a major milestone year in the local and national running communities, the TD Beach to Beacon 10-kilometer road race probably deserved a little extra star power.
That infusion came with a legendary double dose Friday morning.
Marathon champions Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter were introduced by race founder Joan Benoit Samuelson as surprise entrants in Saturday morning’s 15th annual jaunt.
Rodgers won both the Boston and New York City marathons four times. Shorter captured the gold medal in the men’s marathon at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Together with Samuelson, 55, who won the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon at Los Angeles in 1984, the trio arguably represents America’s greatest living distance runners.
“In this year of celebrating the 40th anniversary of Title IX and all the opportunities it created for women, I decided to celebrate a few good men in my life who have inspired me,” Samuelson said.
The special guests were introduced individually at the pre-race conference.
Both men are 64 years old. As they dashed into the tent clad in the distinctive green colors of the sponsor, however, each sported a runner’s physique and a full head of hair that suggested half that number.
Rodgers, a Connecticut native who became known as “Boston Billy,” won 22 marathons during his groundbreaking career.
Saturday won’t be his first exposure to the world-class race that winds through this affluent coastal community.
“I was here for the first one. I remember it sort of vaguely. We’re the old-timers,” Rodgers quipped. “Runners love the beauty of nature. We’re connected to it, and Maine has it in abundance.”
Many in the running community consider Shorter’s Olympic victory the springboard to the running and jogging craze of the 1970s.
Shorter, who also won the silver medal at the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, spoke of his kinship with Maine’s Benoit due to his own northeast upbringing in New York and Massachusetts.
“They talk about the great road races in North America being personality-driven,” Shorter said. “When you come here, you can see that this race is driven by the personality that is Joan Benoit Samuelson.”
While the presence of three pioneers pays homage to the past, plenty of present distance running dignitaries are expected to challenge for the win.
Although 2011 champion Micah Kogo of Kenya is competing in London, countryman and reigning runner-up Lucas Rotich returns after completing the course in under 28 minutes a year ago.
Atsedu Tsegay of Ethiopia and Stanley Biwott of Kenya enter the race on the strength of recent results that demonstrate the evolution of the sport since Rodgers and Shorter’s heyday.
Tsegay has run the fastest half-marathon in the world this year, clocking 58:47 at Prague in the Czech Republic. Saturday is his first-ever race in the United States.
Biwott smashed course records at Paris in both the marathon (2:05.11) and half-marathon (59:04).
“Stanley was expecting to be in London, and that’s probably where his heart is, but we are happy to have him here,” said Larry Barthlow, elite athlete coordinator for the race. “In the U.S., it’s easy. If you finish in the top three at the Olympic Trials, you earn a spot. In other countries sometimes there’s politics involved.”
Other notables include the Kenyan husband-wife tandem of Ed Muge and Emily Chebet.
Muge was the 2008 and 2009 Beach to Beacon winner. Chebet won a bronze medal at the 2012 African Cross Country Championships and was 2010 IAAF world champion.
Defending Maine women’s winner Sheri Piers of Falmouth leads the local contingent. She’ll be challenged by Erica Jesseman of Scarborough and high school champion Abbey Leonardi of Kennebunkport.
Maine men’s favorites include Jonny Wilson and Ethan Shaw of Falmouth, Josh Zolla of Freeport and Bates College product Robert Gomez of Westbrook.
Known since its inception as the people’s race, the Beach to Beacon has seen its entry list more than double since the first run in 1998.
This year’s estimated field is a record 6,000. Open registration was conducted online, and fast fingers were a must.
“We used to talk about it in terms of days. This year’s race closed out in four minutes, so I just came out from under my bed after four months in hiding,” race director Dave McGillivray said. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s great, you filled up.’ The toughest part is having to say no and turn people away, although it’s much better than being on all fours and begging people to participate.”
As of Friday morning, runners represented 17 countries, 44 states and more than 240 Maine cities and towns.
The race supports a Maine charity each year in the form of a $30,000 donation from the TD Charitable Foundation. This year’s beneficiary is the Portland-based Center for Grieving Children.