Tara Welling, 26, of Portland, Oregon, crossed the finish line of the 2016 Gate River Run a few strides ahead of Stanley Kebenei, 26, of Tucson, Arizona, Saturday morning, both winning the nation's 15K championship.
Thousands of runners took to the streets of downtown Jacksonville, through San Marco and back to the sports complex by EverBank Field in the 2016 Gate River Run, Jacksonville’s largest participatory sporting event. The 15K -- the USA National 15K Championship -- began at 8:30 a.m., but the top 25 women got a six-minute head start.
Welling, who led the elite women most of the course, crossed at 50:34, and is the first woman to finish ahead of the fastest man in the River Run since 2012. She will receive a $5,000 Equalizer Bonus in addition to the $12,000 the top female and male runners receive for the win.
"I was really confident in my fitness, so I wasn’t afraid to take the lead," Welling said. "I just wanted to keep pressing and make an honest race and run as fast as I could."
For both Welling and Kebenei, who finished at 44:37, it was their first time running the Jacksonville 15K.
“Look at these people! It’s amazing to see a lot of people here, coming to the race. It’s amazing," Kebenei said. "When I just come from the other side ... very big crowd of people just cheering at me. I was like, 'Wow, I’ve never been in a crowd like this.’ And, I thank everyone who came here. I know that without them, I couldn’t do this. Thank you so much, everyone from Jacksonville.”
Ben True, the fastest man in the last three River Runs, and Amy Hastings, the fastest woman last year, did not compete in this race.
Race director Doug Alred said 16,270 people from ages 8 to 87 registered for the 39th annual Gate River Run 15K, and nearly 14,000 of those finished the race -- although some of them walked much of the way. About 3,000 signed up to run or walk the 5K. Thousands more were to participate in smaller runs, volunteer, or just cheer on their family and friends.
In addition to the top 15K racers in the world and at least one Olympian completing on the 9.3-mile course, the vast majority of those pounding the pavement and running up and down the Main Street and Hart Bridges were local, recreational runners.
Alease Kelly was proud to complete her fifth River Run.
"All of these people out here, the camaraderie, being outside, just getting your adrenaline going -- it's just beautiful," Kelly said. "We love it. It's like having family around."
Among those in the crowd offering encouragement was Mary Jane Rooney, who has been a spectator for 38 of the past 39 River Runs.
"It's neat; it's marvelous," Rooney said. "I think it's almost a world event. You see every sort of size and shape and costume."
Along the way, the casual runners out for their longest run of the year said they drew drew motivation not only from the crowd, but from each other. That included News4Jax's traffic reporter, Crystal Moyer.
"It's just incredible. Look at how many people are out here," Moyers said. "Everyone is really nice, all of these people I don't even know, they come up and talk to me. I know there's a lot of firefighters out here running with full equipment. Seeing what they are doing keeps me motivated."
In addition to the 15K runners, thousand more participated the Brooks Rehab Challenge Mile for challenged athletes, the Junior River Run (1 mile) for children and Diaper Dashes for ages 1-4.