CAPE ELIZABETH — Scroll through two decades of Beach to Beacon 10K road race history and you’ll find 31 champions from Kenya.

Only one other country boasts more than one champ – Ethiopia, with three.

As recently as six years ago, the top 10 finishers included nine Kenyans and one Ethiopian.

This year, however, spectators along Shore Road may be hard-pressed to spot the East Africans. There will be just three Kenyan runners, including only one man, Stephen Sambu.

Why the decline?

“It’s a complicated situation,” said Dave McGillivray, the race director.

“We had some trouble with visas and injuries,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, the race founder. “We can’t do anything about that.”

Larry Barthlow, who has recruited the elite field for all 21 years of the race, introduced his largest assemblage yet Friday morning at a pre-race media conference. The majority of 35 professional runners are from the United States. Three Kenyans and four Ethiopians represent the smallest contingent of African runners in race history.

“They’re still doing very well,” on the world stage, said Ben True, the North Yarmouth native who in 2016 became the only non-African man to win Beach to Beacon. “I think we’ve seen the last few years that American distance running has been on a steady increase.”

African nationals who compete in Beach to Beacon and other races in the United States must secure a P-1 visa, a program used by artists and musicians as well as high-level athletes. Applications are first approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and then by the State Department, which issues the visas.

“So there’s two different arms of the government and they don’t necessarily have to agree,” Barthlow said. “It’s not a slam dunk. It used to be, but recently, we’ve noticed it’s no longer a slam dunk.”

The number of P-1 visas allotted to Kenyans dropped nearly in half from 96 in fiscal year 2011 to 49 in 2017, according to State Department data. However, the number allotted to Kenyans has varied widely in the 21st century; in 2007, just 34 were approved during a year in which 11 Kenyans competed at Beach to Beacon. Through June, the U.S. has allotted P-1 visas to 36 Kenyans in the first nine months of fiscal year 2018.

Barthlow had two runners denied this year. The U.S. government said no to 19-year-old Maxwell Rotich from Uganda. Stanley Biwott, the 2012 Beach to Beacon champion, failed to show up for his embassy appointment.

“I noticed a few years ago it got a little more difficult,” Barthlow said.

In the early years of Beach to Beacon, Barthlow said, he could make a call to the Ethiopian embassy for assistance.

“I knew the woman’s name,” he said. “I could call her and she knew we were legit and everything was cool. That’s all gone away now. Everything’s done electronically. If you want to get an appointment, you have to go online.”

The other international runners at this year’s race hail from Japan, New Zealand, England and Australia, all countries whose nationals simply need a passport to travel to the United States. Jake Robertson, 28, who grew up in New Zealand but moved to Kenya at 17 with his twin brother Zane to train, is one of the favorites in Saturday’s race, having won all three times he raced on U.S. roads: twice at the Crescent City Classic 10K in New Orleans and once at the Houston Half Marathon in March.

Barthlow has a budget to reimburse high-caliber runners for travel expenses, and said plane tickets are more expensive than usual this year. A 40 percent rise in the cost of jet fuel is one factor.

Twenty years ago it was hard to find U.S. men running 10K races in less than 29 minutes or U.S. women doing so in less than 33 minutes, he said, but the landscape has changed.

“Everyone will tell you this on the circuit, Americans have changed the equation because they’re running well,” he said. “They showed you could compete with the Africans. When you recruit good athletes, who cares where they’re from?”

The luster of Kenyan distance runners may have dimmed in recent years because of doping violations. Rita Jeptoo, a three-time Boston Marathon champion who was fourth at Beach to Beacon in 2012, received a two-year ban. Jemima Sumgong, who became Kenya’s first Olympic women’s marathon champion at the 2016 Rio Games, twice tested positive for banned blood-booster EPO and is under a four-year suspension. In May, former Olympic and three-time 1,500-meter world champion Asbel Kiprop tested positive for EPO.

“I think it’s a problem worldwide,” said Tom Ratcliffe, a Boston-based agent who has represented several Kenyan runners. “In Kenya they probably haven’t been proactive enough in the testing, but I don’t think Kenya’s any different from any other place. There will always be people who will look for an unfair advantage.”

Ratcliffe noted that East African runners continue to be the dominant force in distance running, and that Beach to Beacon may simply not be the easy payday it was 10 or 20 years ago.

“It’s a big expense to get here,” he said. “You’ve got to be sure you can be in the first few (finishers). Otherwise, you can’t even cover your costs.”

Prize money Saturday starts at $10,000 for first place and continues to $500 for 10th. For the fourth year in a row, U.S. runners have an additional pool of $23,000 that pays out five places, from $5,000 each to the top American man and woman down to $500 for fifth place.

“I think it might just be an odd year,” said Molly Huddle, the American record holder at 10,000 meters who lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and is making her B2B debut. “They definitely got the quality, if not the numbers. Those (four East African) women are fast. I know you could run really well here and be fifth. It’s hard. It’s going to be a quality field.”

NOTE: Thunderstorms could be a factor Saturday, although any chance of rain before the start is relatively low. In 20 previous editions of Beach to Beacon, race director McGillivray has never had to deal with lightning, but he does have a contingency plan.

“They can go to their cars,” McGillivray said. “That’s the beauty of this race. Their shelter is their own vehicle.”

Both baggage and shuttle buses are also available for runners otherwise stranded on the lonely stretch of Route 77 between the Cape Elizabeth Grange Hall and Crescent Beach State Park.

“We can accommodate the majority of the runners if we decide to evacuate,” McGillivray said.

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

[email protected]

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

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