TUPELO – Saturday morning’s Gum Tree 10K footrace saw a finish that any NASCAR fan could appreciate.
Rueben Mwei and fellow Kenyan Joseph Ngetich ran shoulder-to-shoulder for most of the last three miles under cloudy skies on the 6.2-mile road course. Mwei would ease to the front sometimes, then Ngetich would briefly slip ahead.
Mostly, the 25-year-olds were elbow to elbow, and they continued to pick up their pace as the race progressed. Their shoes slapped the pavement in rhythm, like windshield wipers.
Who would have most in his tank at the end?
It was Mwei, who dramatically outkicked his rival for the victory in the 34th Gum Tree race. He won in 29:19, with Ngetich second in 29:24.
“I knew I still had something in reserve at the end,” said Mwei, who lives in Kennesaw, Ga. “I was feeling strong in that last mile.”
Former Tupelo and Mississippi State standout Robert Scribner, the runner-up a year ago, finished third in 29:45.
Ramilya Burangulova repeated as the women’s winner, finishing 12th overall in 35:45. An accomplished marathoner from Russia, she now lives and trains in Gainesville, Fla.
“We had fun,” said Burangulova, 49. “I like running here. It’s a good course. A little windy today, but I like running in today’s cooler weather much better than training in Florida, where it’s so hot.”
Her running partner, Firaya Sultanova-Zhranova, 50, was second in 38:08.
The top finishers, male and female, won $1,200. Second place won $600 and third place $400.
The second-place overall finisher, Ngetich, surely made the most grueling journey to get to the start line. He said he had come here after spending time in Mexico and only arrived on Friday. “The bus from the Texas border to here took about 26 hours,” he said.
Mwei got to the front very quickly, running the first mile in 4:49. He and Ngetich would run the fifth mile together in 4:39.
“I tried to push the pace out there,” Mwei said. “It was a fine day for running. Not hot, and not raining. I hate to run in the rain or snow.”
After two miles winding through Tupelo neighborhoods, the three eventual top finishers had left the rest of the pack behind.
“I was able to stay with them for a couple of miles, but I could tell they were in control,” Scribner said. “As they pushed the pace, I was having to work hard to keep up.”
The leaders hit the 5K mark in 14:55.
In the fourth mile, the lead runners had caught up with eventual wheelchair winner Doug Price. By the end of that mile, Scribner had fallen about 10 seconds back.
“I made one effort to bridge the gap, but they kept pushing it,” Scribner said. “I didn’t think I had it in me to break 30. I’m really happy with my finish.”
When the course eased down onto McCullough Blvd., Mwei and Ngetich were side by side, their elbows almost touching. Neither spoke to the other during the race.
“I wanted to test him, to find out how strong he was,” Ngetich said. “I have trained with him before.”
Ngetich would find out.
As the finish line came into sight, Mwei swung out and kicked into an extra gear. Ngetich glanced at his watch and cruised home in second place.
Race organizers were pleased with the close finish. “It was a great race,” said Andy Hughes, taking a break from handing out finisher’s medals. “The weather held off for us, although the dark skies might have hurt the turnout a little.”
Casual runners seemed to be delighted by the morning.
“We loved this race,” said Janis Stewart of Memphis, who finished second in the women’s 50-54 age group in 55:56 – 314th overall. “The course is nice and flat, the neighborhoods are lovely and I ran a great time.”
Contact John L. Pitts at 678-1522 or email@example.com.
Complete list of race winners and finishers in today’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.
John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal