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Elite field chasing Subaru prize money

When Jim Nowicki first started a 4-mile race through the streets of Buffalo in 1981 – and paid prize money to the winners – the idea was to give Western New York’s best a chance to compete with world-class athletes.

Year 35 of the race takes place on Friday night, and the experiment seems to be working better than ever. Perhaps the best group of runners in the history of the Subaru 4-Mile Chase will assemble at Elmwood Avenue and Bidwell Parkway.

“This is the deepest field we’ve ever had,” the race director said. “We’ve got close to 25 elite athletes.”

Nowicki paused, and then said with a laugh, “Maybe it’s the pink flamingos,” referring to the awards that are handed out to the winners. What’s more, the field became a little stronger earlier in the week.

“I got a call from” Eliud Ngetich of Kenya, “who won the Boilermaker in Utica. I called Wayne Nowocin, the elite coordinator, and said, ‘Remember when I said we were cutting off entries? I lied. Can we fit him in?’ He heard about the race, and he wants to come down for it.”

Just like that, the Subaru men’s race had a new favorite. The defending champion in both the men’s and women’s races are coming back. Yonas Mebrahtu of Eritrea won the 2014 men’s edition in 18:19. Meanwhile, Cynthia Limo of Kenya returns after breaking the course record with a 20:03 time last year.

The “recruiting” of top runners for races like the Subaru (in its 30th year as a sponsor) is an interesting process. Several foreign runners spend their summers in the United States participating in a string of races that offer prize money, so they bounce from event to event. Since money is an issue, the runners often look for some financial aid along the way in the form of appearance fees or travel expenses. Nowicki hasn’t gone that route.

“We have a standard policy,” he said. “Everyone asks for travel and lodging. We have a standard reply that states we don’t pay for travel, and we’ll provide transportation only from the point of entry. If you put up the money” in prizes, “they’ll show up.”

Having runners coming back to defend their championships, then, is a good sign for the health of the race.

“It’s 35 years, and we’ve come a long way,” Nowicki said. “Sometimes it takes a while to get where you want to go.”

The men’s race has a chance to be an excellent one. Moses Kipkosegei of Kenya won a 4-mile race in Peoria, Ill., earlier this year. Richard Kessio of Kenya took the Masters title at the Subaru event in 2014. Julius Koskei of Kenya was second at Subaru last year, while Joseph Ekuom of Kenya was third.

But Ngetich will be tough to catch. He has set personal bests in 2015 at 5 kilometers (13:59), 8 kilometers (23:06), 10 kilometers (28:53), and 15 kilometers (43:31).

On the women’s side, Limo has an excellent resume of her own. She has the fastest 10-kilometer time in the world this year at 30:02. Limo is ranked fourth in the world among road racers by allathletics.com.

However, Mary Wacera beat her at Utica last weekend, and she recently won a 10-kilometer race in Boston. Those two are the class of the field. Another interesting candidate is Abgael Wanjiku of Kenya, an 18-year-old who has been winning races throughout Kenya in the past year. Wanjiku won an 8-kilometer race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on July 4 in 26:55. That would have won the Turkey Trot last year by more than two minutes.

Everyone is in pursuit of the $1,000 that will go to the winners. Additional prizes will go to the top finishers among Americans and Masters runners. A course record is worth $500 in the open and U.S. categories.

Add it up, and it’s clear that local runners will get a good test from the out-of-towners.

“We put on a nice race,” Nowicki said. “We take care of the elites’ well-being. I think they like Buffalo, and like Elmwood Avenue. There’s an ambience there, with live music. There’s a nice meal afterwards. I’m hoping we’ve made an impression.”

The event will start at 7 p.m., and follow the traditional route around Forest Avenue, Delaware Avenue and Summer Street. Some roads may be briefly closed to traffic in the area. Kids’ races for runners ages 5 to 10 will take place at the same time; they will run 30 to 50 yards, depending on age.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com