CAPE ELIZABETH — Shalane Flanagan came close in 2014. Libbie Hickman came even closer in 2000, believing she had won before the race referee decided instead in favor of Catherine Ndereba of Kenya.

In the first 20 years of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race, no American woman has been crowned champion.

That could change Saturday.

Not only is Molly Huddle, the U.S. record holder at 10,000 meters and a two-time Olympian, making her B2B debut, she’s doing it at time when the international field is smaller than in past years. Kenyan Mary Keitany, who lowered the course record each of the past two years, will not be defending her title.

Two other Kenyans – 20-year-old Sandrafelis Chebet Tuei and 23-year-old Pauline Kamulu Kaveke – along with Ethiopians Buze Diriba, 24, and Ababel Yeshaneh, 27, stand in the way of Huddle, 33.

“Whether she wins the whole thing remains to be seen, but she’s always a competitor,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, the race founder who’s been recruiting Huddle for years. “With no World Championships or Olympics this year, this is a very visible and highly regarded 10K, so a title here would be a feather in her cap, I think, especially as a New Englander.”

The only American man to win the Beach to Beacon, of course, is Ben True, who grew up in North Yarmouth and now lives in West Lebanon, New Hampshire. True won the 2016 title, finished second last year and is back again Saturday.

Huddle lives and trains in Providence, Rhode Island. She grew up as a three-sport athlete (soccer, basketball, outdoor track) in Elmira, New York, and didn’t run cross country until her senior year, mostly because the school had not fielded a team until she ran on her own, with her dad as coach. She wound up a state champion and placed fourth in the Foot Locker nationals that fall.

She went on to a successful college career at Notre Dame, where she met her husband, a middle distance runner from Canada named Kurt Benninger.

Huddle placed 11th at 5,000 meters in the 2012 Olympics and sixth at 10,000 meters in the 2016 Olympics, setting an American record of 30 minutes, 13.17 seconds that broke Flanagan’s previous mark by nine seconds.

In January, she broke Deena Kastor’s American record in the half marathon with a 1:07:34 performance in Houston. In April, Huddle finished a disappointing 16th at the rain-soaked Boston Marathon, but she bounced back in June to take third at the Mini 10K in New York City.

The other intriguing U.S. woman to watch is an Olympic gold medalist from Rio. Gwen Jorgensen, 32, won the triathlon in 2016, gave birth in 2017, and last fall announced her retirement from triathlon in order to transition to the marathon. Her stated goal? To win the Olympic marathon in Tokyo in 2020 and become the first American woman since Samuelson in 1984 to do so.

“She’s taken to the roads and the track pretty quickly,” Samuelson said of Jorgensen, an all-American runner at the University of Wisconsin who earlier this year won a 10,000-meter invitational at Stanford University and placed fifth at the USATF 10K Championship at the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta. “Gwen’s trying to make a name for herself in our sport, and being here in Maine on a fast 10K course, she’s the other American I would pick.”

This year marks the third early start for elite women, allowing them to start 12 minutes ahead of the main field and reach Fort Williams before the top men, giving spectators a clearer view of the top women. There was talk of returning to a single start for the entire field, but after surveying runners, organizers opted to keep the separate start.

“There are some women who want to race with the men,” said race director Dave McGillivray. “There are other women who feel head-to-head competition is the way to go, and not to hide behind a male runner or draft off a male runner.”

Other notable women in the elite field include Standish native Emily Durgin, 24, who won the 2017 Maine women’s title and is now running professionally out of Boston; Emily Sisson, 26, who placed fourth at Beach to Beacon last year and trains with Huddle in Providence; and New Zealand native Annika Pfitzinger, 25, the daughter of two-time U.S. Olympic marathoner Pete Pfitzinger and New Zealand track Olympian Christine Pfitzinger.

As for Samuelson, who ran the race last August as part of the 20th anniversary celebration, she’ll be aboard the women’s press truck Saturday morning before taking up her familiar place at the finish line to greet runners. She ran the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in April in Washington, D.C. and last weekend’s Bix 7-Miler in Davenport, Iowa.

A knee injury that forced her to skip the Chicago Marathon last fall has largely healed, but a bothersome Achilles tendon means most of her endurance training is aboard a bicycle. Now 61, she remains hopeful of becoming the first woman age 60 or older to run a marathon in under three hours.

“It’s still out there, but I’m not sure the attempt is going to happen this fall,” she said. “I probably should take about three weeks off and let everything heal and do a lot of stretching and strengthening, but that’s not who I am.”

Correction: This story was updated on Aug. 4 at 2:20 p.m. to reflect the fact that finish-line cameras were not in use at Beach to Beacon until 2001.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

 
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