CAPITOLA— Teshome Mekonen described the last two weeks as “very good.”
That might be a little bit of an understatement.
Fresh off a win at Crazy 8s in Tennessee, the 22-year-old Ethiopian captured another title on Sunday, holding off Simion Chirchir, of Kenya, to win the 45th annual Wharf to Wharf championship.
Mekonen completed the six-mile road race between the Santa Cruz and Capitola Wharfs in 27 minutes, 33 seconds. Chirchir finished just one second behind him.
“The competition, from start to finish, was very good,” Mekonen said. “Strong runners. Good final push. Good work.”
Mekonen, who took third last year, held off a strong field of experienced runners and former champs.
Isaac Mukundki Mwangi entered as the defending champion but fell behind when Mekonen and Chirchir picked up the pace in the fifth mile. Mwangi finished fourth (27:44), just three seconds behind 2011 Wharf to Wharf Silas Kipruto, who last year finished second.
“Today was a bit tough,” said Mwangi, who last year won with a time of 27:30.27. “My body did not respond like last year. I was struggling today to add the finish.”
He has plans of coming back next year for another go.
“I can’t give up. I don’t give up,” Mwangi said. “I’m a fighter. I have to come back and fight again.”
Mekonen took home $4,000 for the first-place finish, Chirchir won $3,000, Kipruto walked away with $2,000 and Mwangi earned $1,000. Salinas native Diego Estrada also won some cash, winning $1,000 after finishing as the top American. The Alisal High alumnus was sixth (27:48).
Last week, Mekonen topped several of the same elite runners at Crazy 8s to earn a $5,000 pay day. It also gave him a bit of a mental edge heading into Sunday, which featured clear skies and temperatures in the high 50s.
“This week, the training schedule is very good to keep,” Mekonen said. “And that’s the reason for the good finish.”
Buze Diriba cruised to the women’s Wharf to Wharf championship with a time of 31:19. The 23-year-old Ethiopian edged runner-up Monica Ngige, of Kenya, by nearly half a minute (31:36).
Despite running the race for the first time, Diriba, who was the heavy favorite after three-time champ Risper Gesabwa bowed out Thursday, said her goals were clear from the moment she woke up in the morning.
“I’m going to win,” she said.
Dribia won $4,000 and Ngige $3,000. Mara Olson not only earned $2,000 for her third-place finish (32:21) but also another $1,000 for coming in as the top American woman. Fellow American Samantha Silva was fourth (32:30) and won $1,000 for her efforts.
Scotts Valley’s Nick Heath was the top local man and Aptos’ Nikki Hiltz crossed the finish line as the top local woman.
It was sweet retribution for Heath, a Scotts Valley High alumnus who now runs for Pepperdine, after being nipped at the line by Watsonville’s Justin Carrancho for the title of top local last year. He was 13th overall with a time of 30:10.
For Hiltz, who has decided to hold off on turning pro despite her stellar junior season at the University of Arkansas, the race was just another year of fun with the family. The Aptos High alumna said she first ran the Wharf to Wharf at 8 and she’s run it each of the last seven years.
“I’ll always run the Wharf to Wharf,” said Hiltz, who was the eighth woman to finish at 33:49. “Even when I’m 90 I’ll run it.”
The race got off to a slower than usual start, causing the lead pack to balloon to nine runners. They all hung around until Mekonen, Chirchir, Kipruto and Mwangi started picking up speed midway through the fourth mile. By the time the fifth mile had started, the top four had broken away and as they came around the final stretch down Cliff Drive into Capitola, Mekonen and Chirchir were in a foot race for the title.
Mekonen proved to have a little more kick.