NEW BALANCE FALMOUTH ROAD RACE: ICONIC SUMMER EVENT FEATURES DEFENDING CHAMPS AMONG 12,000 RUNNERS

CAPE COD TIMES

Elite running is rooted in the DNA of the New Balance Falmouth Road Race.

It’s one of the many reasons why the late-summer seven-mile running event surged in popularity from less than 100 runners back in 1973.

Now there’s over 12,000 runners getting set to run the 46th annual Falmouth Road Race, set for Sunday morning in Woods Hole and finishing to the roar of the packed crowd on Grand Avenue in Falmouth Heights.

The weekend actually begins Thursday evening with the first race packet pickup, followed by Saturday’s Falmouth Walk and the Falmouth mile competitions and ending Sunday when the final runner crosses the line in front of Casino Wharf.

Tommy Leonard laid out the vision for the race back in 1972. After watching U.S. Olympian Frank Shorter win the 1972 Olympic marathon famously said, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could get Frank Shorter to run in a race on Cape Cod?”

Before he became a Boston-area running legend, Bill Rodgers won the second annual race, and the next year Shorter competed and won the showdown.

“Without them, it would have struggled,” said Matt Auger, the Falmouth Road Race’s Elite Athlete Programs Manager. “They built something that those elite would come to.”

Winners returning is nothing new — Rodgers and Shorter both won the race multiple times and have participated in recent years — but this year’s 46th running of the road race has brought back the men’s, women’s and both wheelchair champions.

The last time all four champions successfully defended their respective titles was in 1982 when Alberto Salazar and Joan Benoit won the men and women’s races, respectively, while Bob Hall and Natalie Bacon won the wheelchair races.

Though it isn’t an anniversary year — last year’s finishers all received medals for the 45th running — this year is special given the talent returning to defend their titles.

Kenya’s Stephen Sambu, who last year became the first man to win the race four times, has returned to try to win his fifth straight title, something no other runner has done in the race’s history.

Women’s champ Caroline Chepkoech of Kenya is also in the field, while American wheelchair champions and course record holders Daniel Romanchuk and Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist, will also try to repeat.

“I don’t know if something will ever happen like this again,” said Dave McGillivray, who is in his seventh year directing the race. “It’s one thing to win three or five. To win them in a row is pretty extraordinary.”

Sunday’s racing begins right outside Captain Kidd Restaurant in Woods Hole. The early start is at 8 a.m., followed by the wheelchairs at 8:40, elite women at 8:50 and the elite men and open start at 9.

With the total purse of $126,000, first prize for the men’s and women’s winners are $10,000 each.

In addition, Sambu and Chepkoech have a bit of a score to settle after Chepkoech has won “The Countdown” clock the past two years, earning the bonus $5,000. The clock will start at three minutes (down from 5:27 in 2017) when the first women’s winner crosses the line. If the winning man crosses before then, he wins the bonus, otherwise the woman takes it.

Though she isn’t racing, another elite runner will be in the middle of the action.

Des Linden, who in April became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon in 33 years, will be the women’s elite field race starter and then jump into the open race and run with the public.

Linden will also take part in a panel discussion at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the race expo.

It’ll be a similar scene to 2014 when Meb Keflezighi became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon since 1983. He later came to Falmouth and ran with the field.

“To be able to give our runners and our community the chance to not only meet Des but to run alongside her is an honor,” said Geoff Nickerson, president of the Falmouth Road Race board of directors.

The elite runners aren’t alone as there are 140 charity teams featuring about 2,700 runners who have collectively raised over $4 million to various causes, according to McGillivray.

The Sunday race is just the main event in what has morphed into an entire race weekend.

To the public, it will commence Thursday afternoon at Falmouth High School when runners can begin picking up their race numbers and gifts, as well as check out the race expo inside the school gym.

If you feeling like waiting until Saturday to get your stuff, you might run into legendary Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who will be handing out goodie bags and signing autographs from 9:30 to 10:30 a.m. at the high school.

The racing events begin around 4 p.m. Saturday at Falmouth High School when the track festival takes place with the Aetna Falmouth Elite Mile and Tommy Cochary High School Mile.

After some of the best middle-distance runners from around the world race the four laps around the track, top Massachusetts high school runners will get their chance to compete.

If running isn’t your thing, you can also participate in the Falmouth Walk at 10 a.m. Saturday, a 3.2-mile stroll from Town Hall Square on Main Street that ends at St. Barnabas church.

“Those activities make for a festival,” said McGillivary, who will also speak Saturday with fellow runners who completed seven marathons in seven day on seven continents this past winter.

“The stories we can tell are interesting.”