It's a Double Repeat at the Litchfield Hills Road Race. By John Torsiello.
LITCHFIELD-It was a runner’s deja vu Sunday afternoon as Eliud Ngetich and Esther Erb successfully defended their titles at the 38th running of the Litchfield Hills Road Race.
Ngetich, from Kenya and living now in Harlem, N.Y., beat Allele Mergersa of Ethiopia and New York, N.Y. in a stretch sprint, while Erb, from Blowing Rock, N.C. and living in New Jersey, had a more comfortable win over Blowing Rock resident, Stephanie Pezzullo.
Ngetich’s time was 34:41, good, but certainly not anywhere near the course record time of 33:21 set by Godfrey Kiprotich in 1997. Indeed, it’s been seven years since any man cracked the top 10 fastest times. Ngetich finished five seconds ahead of Mergersa (who beat him at a race in Middletown, N.Y. last weekend) and picked up $1,000 for his efforts.
Erb’s winning time was 40:26 and she also pocketed $1,000 for her win. The women’s course record is held by Patty Catalano, a 38:27 set way back in 1981.
“It’s very nice to come back here and win again,” said Ngetich, who couldn’t shake Mergersa, as the 26-year-old shadowed him the entire race. “I knew there wouldn’t be a record at about mile three, so I decided to run a tactical race today.”
It was a thrill for fans at the finish line, who have become used to the winner cruising to victory fairly unopposed the last 200 yards of the route along the businesses lining West Street. Mergersa tried but couldn’t match Ngetich’s kick to the finish line.
“I hurt my right hamstring coming down the hill to the first mile mark,” said Mergersa, “and that prevented me from catching him at the end. When I knew I couldn’t and I felt the pain I backed off at the end.”
Ngetich, 20, is an accomplished distance runner and potential marathon big timer, having won the Green Bay Marathon in Wisconsin last year and posting a personal best time, 2:11.59, at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Mn., after winning last year at Litchfield.
“Let’s see if I can do that again this year,” he said. Of his rivalry with Mergersa, he opined, “He got me at a race last week at the end and today I finished ahead of him. He’s a very good runner.”
Erb passed Pezzullo at the six-mile mark, near the dreaded uphill climb on Gallows Lane, and never looked back.
“We have run against one another quite a bit and she’s a very solid competitor,” said Erb, who serves as an assistant coach for the Rider University men’s and women’s track and field and cross-country teams when she isn’t training as part of her own running career. “This was my first race since the Boston Marathon (20th in the women’s division in a time of 2:33.14), so to come back and defend my title was a great feeling. I really love it here, the family I stay with is wonderful, and the fans are so supportive. I really had no expectations but I ran well today.”
When asked about a three-peat in 2015, Erb, who is coached by Terrance Shea, said, “Yeah, why not?”
Erb, 28, was a multi-time All-America while at Case Western University and was the Division III NCAA champ in the 2008 10K. She competed in the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing 27th in a time of 2:37.21. She was third at the U.S. Marathon Championship in 2013 with a time of 2:34.30. Her goal is to continue dropping her times in the marathon and she appears to be becoming a force in that event.
The 32-year-old Pezzullo is a graduate of Penn State University where she played soccer. She also competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials for the steeplechase.
A large crowd turned out on a warm afternoon (around 80 degrees with light humidity and a soft breeze) to cheer on the runners, who numbered close to 2,000. Both winners said the heat was a factor to some degree but did not interfere with their runs, as both train in hot, humid conditions.
The top Litchfield County male finisher was New Milford’s Craig Hunt, a former runner at Central Connecticut State University, who finished a solid 11th in a time of 37:31.
The top local female finisher was former Lewis Mills standout and now a top collegiate runner at Bentley University, Amy Varsell of Burlington, who came in 34th overall in a time of 44:22. Annemarie Tuxbury from New Hartford, a former Berkshire League star and currently running at Bryant University, finished 48th overall.