Jake Robertson wore racing bib No. 2 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Crescent City Classic, but he clearly was No. 1.
Robertson, a 27-year-old New Zealand native, ran away with the 39th annual 10-kilometer race Saturday morning on the streets of New Orleans.
Robertson finished the 6.2-mile run in 27 minutes, 52 seconds to easily hold off a trio of elite Kenyan runners — Edwin Rotich (second place, 28:06), Dominic Ondoro (third, 28:30) and two-time defending CCC champion John Muritu Wanjiku, who finished a distant fourth in 29:33.
Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia led the women’s field with a time of 32:17. She clipped Kenya’s Mary Wangui (32:19) at the finish line. Karolina Jarzynska-Nadolska of Poland was third in 32:28.
Robertson clearly was the story of the race, which attracted about 20,000 runners from around the world. His victory marked the first time a non-African-born man won the CCC in 20 years. Kenyans won 16 of the past 19 races, and Ethiopians led the field in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
Robertson honed his racing chops in Kenya, however, having moved there with twin brother Zane when they were 17. Already gifted long-distance runners, they started training in the famed running camp at Iten, Kenya, and they grew stronger running in the thin air at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level.
New Orleans is below sea level, however, and Saturday’s racing conditions (72 degrees and high humidity at the 8 a.m. start) took a toll on even the fastest runners.
Though Robertson stretched a narrow lead into a 75-yard edge in the final 2 kilometers, he began to labor extensively in the final stretches of the race within City Park. He raised a sole finger on his right hand as he broke the tape in front of the New Orleans Museum of Art and immediately buckled over in exhaustion.
EMS personnel helped Robertson to the nearby medical tent, where he received intravenous fluids and laid on a cot for about 20 minutes. After gaining some strength, he rejoiced in his victory as best he could, although he admitted the heat and humidity took a heavy toll on him near the midway point of Saturday’s race, which began just outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“I was gunning for the course record (27:10 set by Kenya’s Sammy Kipketer in 2002), but the humidity and wind got to me a little bit,” Robertson said. “About halfway, I started to suffer a little bit. Luckily the guy who stuck to me suffered as well, and I had enough to hang on.”
Robertson was referring to Rotich — a diminutive 29-year-old Kenyan who broke away with him from a pack of five runners at about the 2-mile marker.
They ran stride for stride along Decatur Street in the French Quarter, and they made the turn together onto Esplanade Avenue for the long stretch to City Park. By the time they reached Beauregard Circle near the main entrance to the park, Robertson had a five-step lead on the Kenyan, despite fatigue setting in fast.
“I had to push the last few kilometers of the race even though I was hurting,” he said. “With about 2 miles to go, I knew the course record had slipped away from me. By that time, I was just trying to win the race. It was hot. A hot day.”
Robertson said a supportive crowd helped spur him to the finish. He said New Orleans definitely has “race knowledge.”
“It was amazing,” he said. “They were shouting ‘Go Kiwi!’ and ‘Go Jake!’ It was a great feeling that they knew who I was. It was an honor to have such a great support base here.”
Robertson idolized Kenya’s international racing stars as a teenager, and that’s one reason he and brother Zane moved to Africa. They wanted to race with a talented group who would push them to new levels, and they embraced the pack mentality so often seen among Kenya’s elite racers.
On Saturday in the CCC, though, the New Zealander set the pace.
“I see so many non-African kids give up (on racing) at an early age because they see the dominance of the Africans and they think it’s not possible to do well,” he said. “I love inspiring the younger generations and giving them the belief that hard work pays. No matter where you are from, as long as you work hard, you have a chance.”
Daska, 33, was favored to win the women's side, and she did so in impressive fashion. After bolting to an early lead, she had enough kick to outlast Ngige, who is 10 years younger. Ngige placed second in the CCC in 2016.
Kevin Castille, a 45-year-old Lafayette resident and record-setting Masters runner, finished fifth overall with a time 29:46. That was his best showing since he began running the CCC nearly 20 years ago. Although he’s accustomed to Louisiana heat, he too labored Saturday, he said, and he ran alone for most of the race.
Kenner’s Ian Carr was the leading local man in the CCC. The 26-year-old set a 10K personal record with a time of 31:52, which placed him eighth overall.
“This has to be the best race I’ve run,” Carr said. “I’ve done well in a lot of races, but this one means a lot. It was the first race I ran seven years ago. To win top local today is something special.”
Kenneth Cooper was the top local masters (over 40) runner with a time of 34:40. Michael Iverson (37:35) led the grand masters field and Phil Jones (39:38) won the men’s seniors division.
Malia Cali, a 24-year-old New Orleans resident, led local women with a time of 37:02. Jennifer Palermo ran 40:51 to lead local female masters’ runners, and Word Backstrom paced area grandmasters in 45:52. Robi Daning won the local senior women’s field with at time of 51:45.