CAPE ELIZABETH — The scene just beyond the finish line of the 17th annual TD Beach to Beacon 10K resembled a bowling alley with human pins.
Four runners had arrived but only North Yarmouth native Ben True remained on his feet. He bent over and clasped hands with each of the three Kenyans sprawled on the green turf beneath the arch of green and white balloons.
Bedan Karoki, 23, turned over to his back and squeezed True’s hand. It was Karoki who pushed the pace from Crescent Beach all the way to Fort Williams on Saturday and broke the tape in 27 minutes, 36.4 seconds – fastest in the world this year for a 10-kilometer road race.
To Karoki’s left lay Stephen Kosgei, the runner-up by six seconds. To the right was Patrick Makau, who was fourth in 27:56.
True finished third in 27:49 – more than a minute faster than his previous best on this course and the highest overall placing by an American male in race history.
“Ben True ran out of his mind,” said Larry Barthlow, who recruits the Kenyans and other elite athletes to this race each year. “I think that’s the biggest surprise. His race was amazing.”
Still, True being True, he took in the scene and figured the only guy standing had too much left in his tank.
“It was evident that they put it all out there,” True said a few minutes later as he pulled on warm-up pants. “I think that if I had burned a little bit more in the middle I could have had a lot more at the end.”
For the 17th year in a row, no American won the men’s or women’s title. But True and women’s runner-up Shalane Flanagan came as close as any U.S. runners since Libbie Hickman broke the ceremonial tape in 2000 but lost when the timing chip on Catherine Ndereba’s shoe crossed the electronic mat first.
Under overcast skies and occasional spits of rain, Gemma Steel, a Northern Ireland native representing Great Britain, outkicked Flanagan to win in 31:27 and become the race’s first non-African female champion since Luminita Talpos of Romania in 2007. In the Maine resident category, Will Geoghegan of Brunswick became only the third male winner to break 30 minutes (29:53) and Minnesota transplant Michelle Lilienthal of Portland lopped more than a half-minute from the women’s course record, with a time of 33:39.
By the time the final stragglers among the record field of 6,488 completed their 6.2-mile journey, the beacon beckoned with foghorn blasts. And just in front was a limestone tower festooned with a 40-by-22-foot poster of race founder and Cape Elizabeth native Joan Benoit Samuelson. Tuesday marks the 30th anniversary of Samuelson’s gold medal in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“The last time we put it up was (six years ago), and it was foggy and no one saw it,” said race director Dave McGillivray. “It’s been in my warehouse since then.”
Karoki and Steel each earned $10,000. Kosgei and Flanagan earned $5,000 for second, and True and Diane Nukuri-Johnson pocketed $3,000 each for third. The prize purse of $60,000 stretched down to $500 for 10th place.
Geoghegan, a recent Dartmouth College graduate, passed on the $1,000 prize for top Maine man because he plans to use two remaining seasons of NCAA eligibility this winter and spring as a graduate student in Oregon. With her bonus for setting a course record, Lilienthal pulled down $1,500 as Maine’s top woman.
The men’s race turned just after the halfway point when Karoki and Kosgei pulled away from True, Makau and three other Kenyans who managed to stick with the leaders past Turkey Hill and Alewives Brook Farms on Old Ocean House Road with mile splits of 4:20, 4:29 and 4:25.
“I knew that Karoki would be setting a high pace,” said two-time champion Micah Kogo, who placed fifth. “He’s in good form at the moment.”
As the leaders turned right for the short stretch on Route 77 past Town Hall and beneath the enormous American flag hung between two extended firetruck ladders, True had a moment of indecision. The road looks flat but in fact is a slight incline.
“That’s where they got me,” he said. “I was worried about how quick we were going, so I kind of didn’t go with them and that was my major mistake. I let them get away from me and I just couldn’t close them down by myself.”
Kosgei threw in a surge in the early stretches of Shore Road but could not shake Karoki, who assumed control and didn’t falter until the hills between Pond Cove and the entrance to Fort Williams.
“The last 2K was very hard,” Karoki said. “I was trying to run the course record. I didn’t get it but I’m very happy.”
The course record (27:28) was set by Gilbert Okari in 2003, the first of his three straight titles. Until Saturday, the fastest 10K on the roads this year had been 27:44 in April in New Orleans.
“It’s all racing so times don’t matter,” True said. “They started coming back a little toward the end but it was too little, too late. I should have hung tough and burned myself to stay with them, and it could have been a little better outcome.”
Better than the best American finish in race history, and by a local boy to boot? True has high standards.
“Who knows?” he said. “I could have blown up and finished 10th, but I also could have hung tough with them a little more. It was one of those things that if I went with them, it could have been the point of no return, that I wasn’t going to be able to last.”
He shook his head.
“That’s racing,” he said. “You’ve got to put yourself in those positions.”
Perhaps next time he’ll be the one sprawled in the grass instead of the guy reaching down to offer congratulations.