Faxon Law New Haven Road Race: 20k race ends with dramatic finish for the top 3 runners; less than seconds apart

New Haven Register
Maggie Vanoni
September 06, 2021

NEW HAVEN — After fighting through a lead pack of 20 runners for the majority of the 20K championship, Biya Simbassa saw the 12-mile marker sign and began his kick. Less than a half a mile left to the finish line he thought.

However, within moments he passed another 12-mile marker sign and realized the first sign he’d seen earlier had been for the half marathon race and not the 20K. He had started his kick too soon.

Simbassa held onto the surge as long as he could and led a group of four men to the final straightway with the finish line in sight.

However, in the final 50 meters, it was Ben True’s kick that surged at the right time, passing Simbassa within meters of the finish line to claim the 20K title in 59 minutes, 53 seconds at the Faxon Law New Haven Road Race Monday morning.

“It just came down to the kick and Ben had it,” Simbassa, 28, said. “I made a move early and that cost me, but I’m not going say that was as an excuse, but it was good racing overall and I’m happy with it.”

After holding the race virtually in 2020 because of the pandemic, the 20K field included a handful of newcomers to the distance in both the men’s and women’s race. The event, which normally surpasses 6,000 total participants among its four races (20K, half marathon, 5K and Kids Run), was also limited in capacity this year due to the state’s health and safety guidelines. On Sunday morning, a little under 3,000 people had signed up to participate.

Following True at the men’s finish, was Simbassa, who edged Nico Montanez for second. Both finished at 59:54. Three-time New Haven Road Race Champion Leonard Korir finished in fourth in 59:58.

The men’s 20K was a tighter field than many expected with the top 11 runners all finishing within a minute of True. A pack of about 20 led the men’s race from the start line to mile nine, averaging splits of about 4:50 per mile before beginning to separate.

“It’s always a little discouraging when you look around late in the race and there are still a lot of people around you,” True, 35, said. “It just makes the nerves a little bit higher coming into the finish.”

Between the 11 and 12-mile marks, the lead group shrunk to four with just over a mile left in the race. But even with Simbassa’s early kick, the group still stayed mostly in tact, which is unusual for most long distance races where normally just one or two runners are separated in the lead coming to the finish.

“Everybody’s fit. This is a championship, and you have to be smart and you have to know when you’re gonna make a move and who is gonna make a move and how to respond,” Simbassa said. “We all knew it was going to happen that way, but I didn’t know it was going to be like four, five guys going into the finish.”

While still packed with talent, the women’s race wasn’t as tight throughout the race as the men’s. After the first couple miles, the lead group had shrunk to about five runners before separating at the 10-mile mark in which Erika Kemp began her kick to the finish line.

“Probably with two miles to go, she (Kemp) started cranking,” said Makena Morley, Monday’s second-place finisher in the women’s race. “We had a little bit of an uphill and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can catch her on the down,’ but no she had a great one. She was flying.”

Kemp, who had never raced a 20K before Monday, made her debut in the distance one to remember by winning Monday’s race in 1:06:20.

“Right when I realized I had two, two and a half (miles) to go, mentally I was like, ‘I can run a hard two miles. I know I can do that,” Kemp said.

The national title is Kemp’s second after winning the 15K national title in 2019.

“It feels really good,” Kemp said. “It makes you feel like you’re on the right path to something, who knows what that is, but whenever you come out on top or run a really great time or just compete really well, it definitely gives you a bit more of a spark and makes you really excited for what’s next.”

Morley finished in 1:06:59, followed by UConn alumna Emily Durgin in third with 1:07:03. Morley said this was her first time beating Durgin, who graduated UConn in 2017. The two often compete alongside each other with similar paces during national events.

Meanwhile, Monday’s 20K was one of Durgin’s last events of the season. She will conclude her year at the half marathon national championships in in South Carolina in December.

“Today I really wanted to get my first US title and it’s been a long summer of racing and I had a lot of good performances,” Durgin said. “Came in here pretty confident, but also knew that it was getting to the end of the season and I was getting a little tired, mentally and physically, but had a lot of fun racing with the ladies today.”

Makenna Myler, who went viral last fall after running a 5:25 mile while nine months pregnant, finished seventh in 1:08:18 in the women’s race, while Jordan Hasay, who won the title in 2017, finished 17th with a time of 1:14:18.

Monday’s event was without New Haven Road Race staple and longtime race competitor Herman Bershtein. Bershetin, 96, died days before the race last week and was set to be the oldest competitor in this year’s field.