Shannon Rowbury reigns as queen of the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile

NEW YORK - For the second year in a row, Shannon Rowbury reigns as queen of the Continental Airlines Fifth Avenue Mile.

   Just twice before in the 30-year annals of the dash from 80th Street to 60th Street
has the women’s winner been a repeater. Great Brit Paula Radcliffe did it in 1996 and ‘97 - before turning her attention to the marathon - and Penn State grad Kim McGreevy won it in 2000-01.

  Now Duke alumna Shannon Rowbury joins the elite club.

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  In a blistering, pedal-to-the-metal sprint finish Sunday that saw the first three finishers cross the line within 28/100ths of a second, Rowbury (4:24.12) outdueled Sara Hall (4:24.34)) and Erin Donohue (4:24.40) as 17 of the 18 starters broke 4:38.



And the Rowbury-Hall-Donohue threesome celebrated by parading around the finish line area proudly draped in USA flags handily provided by the New York Road Runners, organizer of the festive, 16-section spectacular that attracted thousands of runners to the famed thoroughfare.

     “With about 100 (meters) to go, I think I was in about fifth, and I was (thinking) like oh-oh, I don’t know-about-this one,” said Rowbury. seventh-placer in the 1500 meters at the 2008 Beijing Games and third-placer at the 2009 IAAF Worlds in Berlin. “I just tried to push myself, I wasn’t really sure what I was going to have (left), and I had to navigate a little bit (through the thick traffic of rivals) and just kept driving to the finish. Some days you have that final kick, some days you don’t.”

  Sunday was her day for the gold, and the $5,000 winner’s reward. She ran the fastest mile by an American woman this year, but wasn’t quite as speedy as she was in her 2009 victory (4:23.3.)

  The men’s race was tighter-than-tight, too - the first four separated by just 89/100ths.
Morocco’s Amine Lalou (3:52.83) won it over USA’s Bernard Lagat (3:53.30); Great Britain’s Andy Baddeley, the 2009 champion (3:53.34) and USA’s resurgent Alan Webb (3:53.72.)

  An astounding 17 of the 20 men broke four minutes - and all of them were faster than Dr. Roger Bannister’s historic 3:59.4 of 1954.  Alistair Craig of Ireland, who did some of the mid-race front-running, wound up 17th (can you believe?) running a 3:58.59. Was 17 the most ever sub 4's in a single race?  The stats-keepers are still checking.

   The day’s racing was full of lively story lines.

    Did the 1-2-3 USA finish in the women’s race signal something truly auspicious for
Team America  heading into the 2011 track and field season, which will be topped by the IAAF World Championships in Daegu, Korea?

  “We (American women middle distance runners) have had an incredible year,” said Rowbury. “We are definitely making major strides, so many of us, at all the distances. Medals are a definite possibility.”

    Is Donohue, the former North Carolina star, finally developing the sprint speed on top of the pure strength that’s been her trademark for years? Maybe, just maybe.

  “Race by race, I’m getting there,” she said.  “You learn something every time. I almost got there (first) today (leading until the final block.) I could see the tape. But Shannon just got me.”

    Is fourth-placer (4:25.29)  Hannah England (of yes, England) the real deal and destined to carry Britain’s hopes on her shoulders heading into the London Olympic Games of 2012?

  Again, she’s a definite “maybe.”

  Is fifth-placer Molly Huddle, the former Notre Dame star who lowered the USA 5000-meter record to 14:44.76  this summer, and cut her mile PR to 4:25.92 Sunday, ready to take on the best of the milers, as well as the best of the 5K people, too?

  “The speed’s coming,” she said.  “To run my fastest mile (on a day most others couldn’t,) that’s something important, I guess.  If I’m going to be tough over 5K, I need to have that speed, too. "

   Meanwhile, on the men’s side:

   Is Laalou, winner of the IAAF Continental Clup 1500-meter final in Croatia and major 800-meter races in Poland and France this summer, destined to be his nation’s latest and greatest, following in the storied footsteps of Moroccan countrymen Hicham El Guerrouj and Said Aouita?

  Don’t bet against it. He ran a 3:50.22 best mile this year, ranking fourth on the 2010 performers’ list. At 27, he seems poised to lead the charge against Kenya’s Asbel Kiprop (the 2008 Olympic 1500-meter king and the man who, at 3:49.56, was one of just two to beat 3:50 for the mile in 2010.)

  “I can’t explain how happy I am to be here today,” he said through a translator.
“The race was wonderful, the coordination of it all was wonderful, everything today was wonderful.”

   Back in Rabat and Casablanca, they’re convinced that something equally wonderful from this man awaits in Daegu and London, too.

     Can Lagat, now 35 and still at the top of his game after winning the World Indoor 3000-meter title and the IAAF Continental Cup 3000-meter/5000-meter double this year, hang in there long enough to add medals to his already lengthy collection at Daegu and London2012?   

  “The best milers in the world were here today,” said Lagat (many of them anyway.) “The crowds were really into it. A lot of noise seemed to be coming from all over the place.  So this was a very exciting race.

  "I’ve had a very good year.  No reason why 2011 shouldn’t be a good year, too.  And, then pretty soon, London will be here. I know Amine will be there.  I hope to be there, too."

 Is Baddeley, like Hannah England, ready to shoulder the huge home-team pressures in the run-up to the London Olympics?

  He’d hoped to be the first Fifth Avenue champion to repeat since Isaac Viciosa of Spain won the last of his four straight titles here in 1998, but it wasn't to be as he couldn’t match his 3:51.8 2009 pace. He passed three men in the last 20 meters to win a year ago, but this time couldn’t hold off big-kickers Laalou or Lagat.

  Baddeley on 2012: “Too far ahead, let’s just wait and see,”

     Is Webb, coming off the injury list and a change of training venues from Virginia to Oregon to work under coach Alberto Salazar, at last ready to capitalize on the huge potential he first displayed lowering the U.S. high school mile record to 3:53.43 in 2001?

 “I’ve come a long way since I started my mini-season,” said Webb. “It’s been a long road, but it’s good to be back in the mix again.”

 Now, Webb is itching to prepare for the big challenges that await in 2011: “Injury-wise, I finally feel great. I can’t wait for all the indoor (season) stuff to begin.  I’m pretty excited.”

    Is Nick Willis, the New Zealander who ran sixth in 3:54.81, after taking the silver medal at 1500 meters in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a serious candidate for another Olympic medal now that he’s back from hip and knee injuries?

   “Considering this was just my fourth race this year, I’m definitely pleased,” said the
University of Michigan grad.  “Taking all that time off is tough for any athlete, but this was a definite confidence-builder.”

     Once again, the NYRR brought  many of the world’s finest milers to “The Avenue, Fifth Avenue” for this season-ending windup following the long European summer campaign.  But, once again, the Fifth Avenue records (3:47.52 by Sydney Maree in 1981, 4:16.568 by PattiSue Plummer in 1990) remained unthreatened.

   Not since Australia’s Craig Mottram ran 3:49.9 in 2005 has a men’s champion broken 3:50.  When Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey won the 2008 women’s event in 4:18.6, it represented the first winning women’s time under 4:20 since Plumer’s record run in 1990.

  As ever, there was plenty of excitement on Fifth Avenue before the big-name pros got started.

 Among the more notable men’s age-group performers were Alberto Rivera, 12-14 divisional winner in 4:51; David Cannon, the 50-54 titlist over Dr. Tom Cawley, 4:33 to 4:41; 55-59 champion Tony Plaster, 5:10; 60-69 winner Ronville Gravesande, with a sizzling 5:08 to beat seven-time Fifth Avenue champion Harold Nolan, who ran 5:23; 65-69 winner Salih Talab, 5:27, over JL Seymore’s 5:34, and 70-74 champion Sid Howard, punching in at 5:50 and completing his remarkable 28th consecutive Fifth Avenue Mile.

      Women’s notables included 25-29 winner Nicole McQuade at 4:54; 40-44 champion Terry Ballou, 5:09; 55-59 titlist Kathryn Martin, 5:28, and all the way up to 80-84 winner Joan Fisher at 13:11 and 85-89 first-placer Lucille Singleton in 14:50.

 Special Metropolitan Division races - offering $400 winners’ rewards - went to 
Badu Worki Merdessa of the West Side Runners (men’s winner in 4:06.98) and Buzunesh Deba of the Westchester Road Runners (women’s victor in 4:42.36.)   

   Actually, the day’s fastest winner took to Fifth Avenue long before the elites took over the spotlight.   Ricardo Corral of New York whizzed to a quick 3:04 wheelchair racing win; Helene Hines, also of New York, wheeled to the women’s crown in 6:15.