PORTLAND — On a comfortable 40-degree Thursday morning, they gathered at the starting line on Congress Street in Portland, some wearing attire to mark the occasion.

Turkey hats, Pilgrim costumes and the like.

No matter. The real attention-grabber was not the garb but the number crowding onto Congress for the 31st Portland Thanksgiving 4-Miler. A record 1,827 registered for the event, some doing so minutes before the starting cannon fired.

“I wanted a workout so I can go eat my turkey,” Erica Jesseman of Scarborough said.

A run, then a feast.

“It’s tradition,” said Johnny Wilson of Falmouth.

Wilson, 24, continued his tradition of success, defending his men’s title in a winning time of 19 minutes, 32 seconds.

Jesseman, 23, won the women’s race in a course-record time of 22:20.

While Wilson is a constant presence here, Jesseman had not run the race since high school.

“I did not remember how hard it was,” Jesseman said of the course that circles twice through downtown Portland, with some uphill stretches.

“I forgot it was a two-looper. I go up the first set of hills and thought it was fun. And then you have to go up them again and it was not so much fun anymore. It was awful.

“This was a challenging course.”

Still, Jesseman was up for it. She said she’s finally feeling healthy after struggling with Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. She won by 11 seconds over the runner-up, Sheri Piers of Falmouth.

Jesseman graduated last year from the University of New Hampshire, and is now a graduate student and cross country/track coach at St. Joseph’s College. She found herself in Portland on Thursday morning because of the race’s popularity.

“I knew a lot of people would be coming today,” Jesseman said. “I love being around all these runners.”

She also likes to be ahead of them. Jesseman bolted from the start and never surrendered the women’s lead.

“She went out quickly,” Piers said. “I could see her. I started to get a little closer but I ran out of time.”
Krystal Douglas of Harpswell finished third in 22:58.

The defending women’s champion, Kristin Barry, Piers’ friend and fellow cross country coach at Cheverus High, was in Florida for the holiday.

But Wilson returned.

“I always come back,” Wilson said. “I see friends and family. And it’s my last race of the year. Just fun to be here and see what I could do.”

Wilson, who also has finished second and third (twice) in the event, held the lead at the start, with Michael Weiss of Colorado Springs, Colo.

After one mile, the race went uphill on Free Street, and Wilson broke away.

Weiss finished second in 19:54. Rob Gomez of Saco was third in 19:59.

Wilson graduated from the University of Richmond last spring and is an online running coach with mcmillanrunning.com. He competed lately in half-marathons, finishing fifth two weeks ago in Richmond (1:05.25) and third in a half-marathon in Hartford (1:06.24). He was the first American in both races.

Wilson’s goal after this year is to train for marathons. He plans to run his first in 2014 and hopes to make the 2016 Olympic trials.

The 2012 season featured personal bests, good health and hope for the future.

“It was a very good year,” Wilson said. “I’m very thankful.”

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH