Memories of 2017 had stayed with Leonard Korir. He remembered sprinting side by side with his friend Stephen Sambu with the New Balance Falmouth Road Race championship on the line. Despite his best effort that day, Korir finished second.
With another chance to win the title presenting itself on Sunday, August 18, Korir did not repeat the past. The Colorado Springs resident, who represents the US Army as a runner, changed tactics this year and it paid off with his first-ever title after coming close before.
Korir ran a winning time of 32 minutes and 11 seconds to become the first American to take the crown since Mark Curp in 1988.
Sambu, the winner of every race from 2014 to 2017, finished second overall in 32:29.
On a very humid day the lead pack went out fast and was just five runners deep after the first mile. By mile three, the pack had been whittled to Korir, Sambu, Edward Cheserek and Mason Ferlic. By the midpoint of the race, it was just the top two finishers, who ran side-by-side from the start of Surf Drive all the way past Falmouth Harbor and down Robbins Road.
After turning off Robbins Road, Korir decided it was time to make his move. He took the lead just before the Island Queen and that was the difference as he opened up a five-meter separation that he added to as they approached the finish.
The 32-year-old said that he felt a sense of urgency to get the job done when he realized that he had a chance to finally take home the title that had eluded him.
“If I don’t win today, I might not (ever) win,” he said. “Once I saw the light, that I was going to win, the tiredness went away, so I decided to push, push, make sure that if I’m going to die, I’m going to die on the line. After I crossed the line first, I was so happy. I have tried for so many years and to win today is exciting. I’m happy, I’m motivated. I feel like running again.”
Korir said that the decision to make the move around the 5.5-mile mark was to take the final hill out of play.
“Usually I struggle up the hill and I was like, let me try today to push, so that when I was climbing the hill I would be alone, so when I was going downhill I have a lot of cushion to spare,” he explained. “When I saw that I was going to win, I think I got an extra gear and I started pushing and decided to push until I crossed the line.”
Sambu said that he knew when his friend passed him that his chance to win was passing him by as well.
“After mile four I started getting tired, and it didn’t feel like my legs were moving,” he said. “I just let him go because I was so tired.”
Not winning was not what Sambu had in mind, but he said he was pleased to see his friend win his first-ever title.
The pair exchanged a high-five and a hug at the finish line when the race ended.
“He has been trying for a while. I have been racing with him and he’s been number two, number three, several times. For him to win for the first time, it’s okay. I’ve won here four times,” Sambu said.
Ed Cheserek, who many thought might win the Falmouth title, was third. Cheserek fell behind midway through the race and made a late charge to put himself in position for a run at second place, but could not catch Sambu and crossed the finish in 32:30, one second behind Sambu.
Cheserek said that the distance proved just a little too much for him to make up.
“It was too long to catch (Sambu).” he said. “But, I was like ‘this is fun.’ I was really enjoying the crowd.”
Sambu knew that he had “King Ed,” the 17-time NCAA champion, hot on his heels.
“He was coming and coming. I was so worried because I was tired,” the four-time champ said.