CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — A surge and a sprint provided the decisive moments of the state’s largest road race Saturday morning.
With those respective moves, Bedan Karoki of Kenya and Gemma Steel of Great Britain were crowned champions of the 17th annual TD Beach to Beacon 10K.
The surge belonged to the 23-year-old Karoki, who pulled away from countryman Stephen Kibet on an uphill grade near the 5-mile mark of the scenic 6.2-mile route that ended in the shadow of Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park.
From there, both runners struggled to the finish, with Karoki defeating Kibet by six seconds to win the overall title with a time of 27 minutes, 36.4 seconds.
“I’m very strong on the hills,” he said.
The sprint capped off a dramatic duel between Steel and American Shalane Flanagan, with Steel winning by a step as both top women’s finishers were timed in 31:26.5.
“I’ve had a few sprints, but I’ve never had to run that fast in my life,” Steel said. “I’m not a track runner, and I didn’t really want to have to rely on that against Shalane because she’s such a tough and fast runner, but I pulled it out of the bag anyway.”
The elite women’s field for this year’s TD Beach to Beacon opened up Thursday when defending champion Joyce Chepkirui and Emily Chebet, the 2012 runner-up, weren’t cleared by the Kenyan Olympic Committee to compete in Maine after winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 10,000 meters Tuesday at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland.
That left a battle between Steel, who was second in last year’s Beach to Beacon, and Flanagan, a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, whose 2:22:02 clocking at this year’s Boston Marathon was the fastest time ever recorded by an American woman in that race’s 118-year history.
Flanagan took a slight early lead, but Steel soon caught up.
“I just kind of crept up on her,” the 28-year-old Steel said. “At about 3½ miles, I got neck and neck with her and made myself known. From then on I just tried to stick with Shalane like glue. And at about 5 miles when it started to get tough I tested her out, and then it was just a battle all the way.
“I didn’t want to be too polite, but I just had to grit my teeth and be like a little Jack Russell (terrier), nipping at her heels until the end.”
Diane Nukuri-Johnson of Burundi, who now trains in Iowa City, Iowa, was third among the women in 31:51.2. Jordan Hasay, who trains with Flanagan at the Bowerman Track Club in Beaverton, Oregon, was next in 32:19.4.
Michelle Lilienthal, who moved to Portland from Minnesota shortly after competing in last year’s TD Beach to Beacon, set a race record in winning the Maine resident women’s division. The veteran marathoner was timed in 33:38.8 to break the previous mark of 34:16 set by Falmouth’s Sheri Piers in 2009.
Defending women’s race champion Erica Jesseman of Scarborough was second in 34:16.5 — 1.1 seconds faster than her 2013 winning time — while Piers was third in 35:45.
Karoki, who finished fifth in the 10,000-meter run at the 2012 London Olympics and clocked 26:52.36 for 10K on the track at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon, this May, led eight runners who took off from the starting line at the head of a record-setting field of 6,494 runners from 14 countries, 42 states and more than 260 Maine cities who finished the race amid overcast, cool and humid conditions.
A 4:20 first mile thinned that eight-man pack by one, and a 13:43 lead time for 5 kilometers left just four runners still in contention: Karoki, Kibet, Kenya’s Patrick Makau and 28-year-old North Yarmouth native Ben True.
“The race went out pretty quick. I was surprised how fast we were going,” True, who lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, said. “I saw the 5K time and thought we had gone out pretty quick. I got a little hesitant at that point, and that’s when those two guys put a little gap on me.”
It soon became a two-man race for the lead between Karoki and Kibet as True and Makau waged their own battle for third place. Karoki gained ultimate separation at the end of a blistering 4:18 fifth mile before both leaders slowed near the finish.
“For the first 5K it was good, but the final 2K was very difficult,” Karoki said. “I wanted to go out with a fast pace early so my fellow Kenyans could not follow me.”
True finished third overall — the best-ever placing for an American man in the race — with a time of 27:49.8, nearly seven seconds ahead of Makau.
True’s time also was the fastest road 10K by an American since Mark Nenow ran 27:48 in 1985, according to Runner’s World. The only other American road 10K faster than those two times is the U.S. record of 27:22 that Nenow set in 1984.
“The way we went out, I expected (Karoki and Kibet) were either going to run a course-record time or they were going to start coming back to me,” said True, the former Dartmouth College All-American who was participating in the race for the first time since 2010. “They did start coming back, but it was a little bit too late.
“That was my one major error,” he added. “I should have really tried going with them and seen where I would have been. They didn’t finish too far ahead of me and they both collapsed at the end and were clearly exhausted, so it might have been quite a different race if I had put a nice surge with them in that middle part.”
Defending race champion Micah Kogo of Kenya finished fifth in 27:56.4.
Recent Dartmouth graduate Will Geoghegan of Brunswick won the Maine resident men’s title for the first time, placing 16th overall with a time of 29:53.
The 22-year-old Geoghegan, who will run at the University of Oregon next winter, improved on his second-place finish of a year ago by besting runner-up Jonny Wilson of Falmouth, who scored his fourth straight top-three Maine finish at the TD Beach to Beacon with a time of 30:26.9.
Henry Sterling of South Freeport was next among the Maine men in 31:39.4, followed by Robert Gomez of Portland (31:45.45) and Spencer McElwain of Bangor (31:46.4).