John Gwako may have been a last-minute entry at the 3M Half-Marathon, but he was first across the finish line.
After dueling like a couple of prize fighters, trading surges along the course as the miles flew by, Gwako, a 25-year-old Kenyan, threw in a one final surge Sunday to win the 10th annual race in 1 hour, 2 minutes and 15 seconds while American Sylvia Mosqueda shattered her own women’s record, lopping nearly a minute off the mark with a time of 1:09:53. The two winners each earned $1,200.
Ideal conditions — temperatures in the mid 50s and clear skies — greeted the field of more than 4,000 runners, but with the U.S. Olympic marathon trials looming in two weeks, the elite men’s field was markedly smaller than in past years. Defending champion Andrew Letherby, who finished second Sunday, would have won easily were it not for the surprise appearance by Gwako at the eleventh hour.
Gwako said he learned Friday from his agent, Shawn Hellebuyck, "that I was going to run this race. I got right on the plane from Albuquerque."
According to Hellebuyck, Gwako was a replacement for a French runner who had a knee injury.
"I didn’t want to let down 3M’s race coordinator, Jon Andrews, so I asked John Gwako, who just arrived here from Kenya two weeks ago, if he would run," said Hellebuyck, the wife of 2001 3M champion Eddy Hellebuyck.
"He wasn’t sure of his fitness level, but wanted to give it a shot."
Gwako, Letherby and American Teddy Mitchell — all Albuquerque-based runners represented by Shawn Hellebuyck — took the race out at just under a five-minute-per-mile pace, passing the two miles in 9:44.
But Mitchell, who ran 1:03:57 last week at the Halliburton International Half Marathon in Houston, decided to hold back for the upcoming Olympic marathon trials Feb. 7 in Birmingham, Ala., and let the other two go.
Running stride for stride, Letherby and Gwako hit five miles in 23:45 and passed the 10-kilometer mark in a swift 29:29. The pair traded surges, but neither could break away.
Heading down the gentle slope on Medical Arts Parkway, now averaging 4:45 per mile, the duo passed the 10-mile marker in 47:19, and it looked as though Andres Espinoza’s course record of 1:01:16 might fall.
On Guadalupe Street, just past 12 miles, Gwako made one final move. Letherby could not respond and settled for second in 1:02:32, a personal best, while Mitchell took third in 1:04:26.
"I never would have run this fast if John hadn’t shown up," Letherby said.
Gwako was just relieved to hit the finish line. "I was tired," he said. "I had trained hard earlier this week, not knowing that I would race."
There was no such drama in the women’s race. Defending champion Zivile Balciunaite of Lithuania was a no-show, and Mosqueda — who placed 12th in the New York Marathon in November — quickly settled into a 5:20-per-mile pace. "I threw in a 5:10 mile at mile five," she said. "When I saw my time was 26:20, I knew I was rolling."
Running far ahead of her nearest competitor, Mosqueda hit 10 miles in 53:30.
"At that point, I knew I just had to maintain my pace to break the record," the 37-year-old Los Angeles native said. "I was never hurting — the weather was perfect, and I liked that the course was rolling. Mosqueda finished more than 2 1/2 minutes ahead of second-place Dorata Gruca while running the fastest half marathon of her career. Gruca, of Poland, was timed in 1:12:35 while Nicole Kulikov of Fort Collins, Colo., grabbed third in 1:14:05.
"I have a tendency of being too timid," Mosqueda said. "I think I could have pushed it even harder. Next year I may shoot to break 1:09 here."
Lori Stich-Zimmerman of Cedar Creek, who along with Mosqueda has qualified for the U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials, set a personal best of 1:15:51 while placing seventh. Her husband, Paul Zimmerman, won the men’s masters title in 1:09:02 while Austin’s Carmen Troncoso topped the female masters in 1:16:53.