By Gene Phelps

Daily Journal

Five days ago, Julius Randich had never heard of the Bank of Mississippi Gum Tree 10K Run or of Tupelo.

Saturday morning, the 28-year-old distance runner from Kenya sprinted through the rain for the second fastest time in the race’s 20-year history 29 minutes, 2 seconds to capture the male open championship and the $1,500 first prize.

“My agent told me about this race Wednesday,” said Randich a former track and field NAIA All-American at Lubbock Christian University in Lubbock, Texas. “I didn’t know anything about it. I’d never been to Mississippi.”

Randich defeated another Kenyan, Sammy Lewis Ongoi, who runs for Meridian Community College, and 1994 Gum Tree champion Sean Wade of Houston, Texas. Ongoi ran a 29:15 while Wade, who will run the marathon for his native New Zealand in the Summer Olympics, ran a 29:28.

“It was too fast for me,” said Wade, who started dropping back after the 2-mile mark on Joyner Street.

Randich, Ongoi, Wade, Muchapiwa Mazano of Zimbabwe and Julius Mwangi Wanjira of Kenya ran in a tight pack for the first two miles. As they moved onto Joyner, Randich and Ongoi pulled ahead. Randich pulled away from Ongoi as they came down the ramp headed for McCullough Boulevard.

“I didn’t expect this kind of competition,” Randich said. “The first three miles were hard. I didn’t know how good the guy (Ongoi) was who was pushing me.”

Once on McCollough, Randich, Ongoi, Wade and Mazano were all about 30 feet apart. By the time he reached the 5-mile mark on Front Street, Randich was in command.

“He pulled away with a mile to go. I still had the energy, but I couldn’t catch him,” Ongoi said.

Randich felt like he could have run faster, maybe even challeged the course record of 28:43, if it hadn’t been for the rain.

“I felt good about my time and my performance given the (weather) conditions,” Randich said. “I was prepared for the heat and woke up to see it raining. I don’t enjoy running on a wet course.”

Lisa Presedo of Baton Rouge, La., the Gum Tree’s 1990 champion, won the female open in 33:38. Her time was the second fastest in the run’s history. The course record is 32:35.

Lourdes Lopez of El Paso, the 1993 Gum Tree champion, finished second in 34:43. Susan Molloy of Slidell, La., was third in 34:55.

Unlike Randich, Presedo welcomed the cooling rain.

“I’m glad it rained,” she said. “It rained enough to wash all the oil off the roads. It wasn’t slippery. I thought the weather was nice, even though it was a little cool.”

Presedo said she didn’t feel good the first two miles.

“I was glad nobody was with me,” she said. “I was surprised I didn’t see anybody.”

The rainy weather and cooler temperatures cut into race-day registration and dropped the entry total for the state’s largest footrace to under 2,000 for the first time in 14 years. A field of 1,903 entered.

In the male masters (age 40-over) division, Lloyd Stephenson of San Francisco was the winner in 31:50. Dave Kannewurf of Portsmouth, Va., was second in 32:27.

In the female masters, Pam Williams of Mandeville, La. was the winner in 37:20. Joyce Deason of Shreveport, La., was second in 37:31.

Tupelo’s Gerald McGath won the grand masters (age 50-over) in 37:12. Yoshiko Setser of Weaver, Ala., won the female grand masters in 50:38.

McGath said he could have shaved about a minute off his winning time, but he was still feeling the effects of running in the Boston Marathon April 15.

“I’ve still got Boston blood in my legs (laugh),” McGath said. “It takes about four weeks to get it out of your system. I did about what I thought I could do.”

John Cahill, 72, of Salt Lake City, ran a 44:33 to easily win his age division.

“I was real pleased with my time,” said Cahill, who injured his back last week in a fall. “I was figuring on running 48 minutes, so I’m real happy.”

Cahill, who didn’t start running until he was 62, said if he wasn’t a runner he would be dead. He had heart surgery (angioplasty) in 1987 one year after he started running.

“I owe my life to running,” he said.

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