By John L. Pitts
TUPELO – Gilbert Okari was running in a different race from everyone else in the field for Saturday morning’s Gum Tree 10k.
The 35-year-old former world-class road runner, a Kenyan native who lives in Texas, quickly took the lead, ran an unofficial 4:38 first mile and cruised home in his first appearance here.
He hopes it won’t be his last.
“This was a great course, a great field,” said Okari, who finished in 29 minutes, 49 seconds. “I look forward to returning.”
George Towett, the 2007 Gum Tree champ, finished second in 30:06.
“He was so fast,” Towett, 29, said of the winner. “After that first mile, I was going to see if I could keep up. Finally I decided I was running for second place.”
Lilian Marita, 26, was the women’s winner – ending a streak of back-to-back victories here by Lydia Kosgei.
“Marathons are my favorite,” she said, cooling down in the shade after the finish. “Running a 10k is like practice for me.”
This was her first visit to Tupelo, and she was sandwiching the Gum Tree 10k between marathons in Indiana and Alabama.
“I’m glad I came here,” she said. “It’s a good route. I liked it.”
Marita was 11th overall in 34:24, with Kosgei 13th overall in 34:35.
Last weekend’s Corinth Coca-Cola Classic 10k winner, former Canadian Olympian Carmen Hussar, was third in 34:56.
Okari was never seriously pushed in the second half of the race, which suited him fine. “I like running at the front,” he said. “I don’t need anyone pushing me in order to run fast.”
Remarkably, considering the pace he set throughout the race, Okari said he had been battling a sore hamstring in recent weeks. “Iwas pleased to find that it wasn’t huring me today,”he said.
At one point, following the lead of the truck that stays in front of the leader, Okari eased to the left of the traffic cones separating the traffic on McCullough Blvd., from the runners. He quickly returned to the runners’ lane without incident.
Former Tupelo High School and Mississippi State runner Robert Scribner finished sixth in 30:47. He was hoping to be the first runner to grow up in Tupelo and win in the elite era.
“I saw the list of the elite field for this and knew it was going to be a tough race,” said Scribner, who hopes to be the first elite runner from Tupelo to win the race. “This is the deepest field of elite runners I can ever remember here.”
Scribner said he recognized Okari before the start. “There was a time when he was one of the world’s best. He was going to be tough for anyone to beat today.”
A surge of walk-up registrations delayed the start until about 8:36 a.m. The race went off under sunny skies and runners coming off the course remarked at the humidity.
Cathy L. Wood contributed to this story.