Coming down the Hart Bridge, Leonard Korir saw Shadrack Kipchirchir from the corner of his eye, and he knew he had to act fast.
“He’s so strong,” Korir said. “Especially doing 400, 200, he kicks so hard. He’s a strong athlete. I was scared that maybe this guy was maybe going to make a big move.”
Korir struck first, and his reward was victory.
U.S. Olympian Korir lunged to the line to edge teammate Kipchirchir by less than a second, becoming the nation’s 15K champion in Saturday’s 40th Gate River Run.
In the women’s race, Jordan Hasay pulled clear of a pack of eight on the Hart Bridge to race to victory in 49:28, further boosting her standing as a rising star in American distance racing.
“On the hill, we were just going really slow, so I thought I might as well take it,” she said.
Six competitors represented the United States at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but the pre-race anticipation of a possible new American record never materialized, thanks in part to shifting winds off the St. Johns River.
But the race - particularly the men’s competition, sometimes full-throttle, sometimes tactical and always closely contested all the way to the line - lived up to its billing.
At the top of it all was Korir, who already won the U.S. cross country championship last month and claimed his third major triumph of 2017 on his first visit to Jacksonville.
2017 Gate River Run: Find your race time (awaiting official results)
The tempo opened at breakneck speed. Paul Chelimo, silver medalist at 5,000 meters in 2016, led a fast pace through three miles and broke the front nine clear of the chase pack.
In the streets of San Marco, 23-year-old Biya Simbassa steered his tall frame into the lead, holding the edge just ahead of Kipchirchir and 2016 winner Stanley Kebenei.
Others - including Chelimo, Korir, Jonathan Grey and Sam Chelanga - lay in wait.
Chelanga and Kipchirchir began to press on the bridge. That acceleration dropped Simbassa, almost totally out of gas, and several others.
“When they got to the top of that bridge, they decided play time was over,” Grey said.
But it didn’t shake Korir, who had mostly stayed near the front without ever setting the pace himself. With one mile to go, on the Hart Bridge descent, the 30-year-old made his move.
“I didn’t know how close they were,” Korir said. “But I knew that at a mile, during the downhill, that’s when the race starts to open up.”
It did. Kipchirchir was the only one to match Korir, staying with his teammate stride for stride to the line, but he had to settle for his second consecutive second-place finish in Jacksonville.
In a banner race for the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program, the team’s leaders finished first, second, fifth (Chelimo) and ninth (Hillary Bor).
The women’s race wasn’t as close - Hasay finished 14 seconds ahead of Emily Infeld - but it provided its own drama.
A pack of six stayed together onto the bridge, when Hasay, who won her first half marathon in Houston in January, broke clear.
“I don’t think I responded right away,” Infeld said. “My legs just felt heavy on that hill. I wish I had a little more left, but I’m happy overall with my time.”
Hasay didn’t know her surge was a success until she crossed the finish line.
“I didn’t want to look back,” she said. “I didn’t look back, and people were saying, ‘They’re coming! They’re coming!’ When people passed me, I hoped it was a man, and it was.”
That man was Korir, racing down the stretch with Kipchirchir on his heels to make up the six-minute edge of the elite women and claim the Equalizer Bonus.
Infeld placed second, followed by Neely Spence-Gracey - daughter of two-time winner Steve Spence - and 2015 runner-up Laura Thweatt.
A total of 15,849 runners entered, a decrease of about 400 from last year.
“We would have loved to have a little bit more, but we’ll take it,” race director Doug Alred said.
Alred said there were no serious medical incidents.
The festive atmosphere of the race’s 40th year left special memories from Korir, whose sensational season on the road added a new title.
“People were cheering for us when we were running,” Korir said. “It’s so nice over here.”