As he waited for his trophy and winner’s check, Dominic Ondoro licked a green lollipop, a toothy grin lighting up his face.
The post-race treat was well-earned, as the 28-year-old Kenyan powered to victory in Saturday’s 39th Cooper River Bridge Run, winning the nation’s third-largest 10K race for the second year in a row.
Ondoro nipped Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Getachew at the Meeting Street finish line in Charleston, though both covered the 6.2-mile course, from Mount Pleasant and over the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, in 29 minutes, one second. Kenyan John Muritu Wanjiku was just behind in 29:04.
Monicah Wanjuhi Nigige, a 22-year-old Kenyan, won the women’s race in 32:57. Both winners collected a prize of $10,000.
Forecasts of possible thunderstorms and lightning for the 8 a.m. start on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant may have discouraged some of the 35,902 who registered for the Bridge Run. But the rain held off and the gray skies cleared as runners and walkers made their way over the Ravenel Bridge.
A headwind at the top of the span was the main weather concern for the elite runners.
“It was a good running day except for the wind,” said Caitlin Judd Batten, who won the Marcus Newberry Award as the top local finisher among women. “It wasn’t a total headwind, but coming down the bridge, you couldn’t really relax. But in terms of what they were predicting yesterday, it was great.”
Ondoro, who won last year’s Bridge Run in 29:22, set a conservative early pace for the lead pack. But as the elite runners came down the bridge, Ondoro attacked several times, eventually reducing the lead pack to five, and then three for the final sprint to the tape on Meeting Street.
“It was conservative early,” said Bobby Mack, who in 14th place was the top American male finisher. “But the race really picked up at the peak of the bridge, around mile three. That’s when the international runners really took off.”
It was Mack, a 31-year-old from Raleigh, who set the early pace last year before finishing seventh.
“I was very aggressive last year, and this year I tried to hang in there longer and make a push at the end,” Mack said. “But I felt the international field was way stronger this year.”
Indeed, Ondoro has had a terrific road racing season thus far, placing third in New Orleans last week and winning the Azalea Trail run in Alabama two weeks ago. He ran at a pace of 4:40 per mile, and his time of 29:01 was 21 seconds faster than he ran last year. In fact, the top five finishers bettered Ondoro’s winning time of 29:22 from 2015.
“Anyone who can run those times on this bridge is world class,” said Mack, whose own time was 30:23.
On the women’s side, Wanjuhi Nigige averaged 5:50 per mile on the way to a fairly comfortable win over Ethiopia’s Etaferahu Temesgen.
“I felt really strong at the end,” Wanjuhi Nigige said. “I’m really happy with how I ran.”
The top American woman was 37-year-old Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, who won the 2012 Bridge Run and represented the U.S. in the Olympics the same year. She finished in sixth place with a time of 33:51.
Mackenzie Johnston, a 22-year-old former College of Charleston runner, won the men’s Marcus Newberry award with a time of 33:55, while Batten ran 37:40 to win the Newberry Award for women.
Kenya’s Meshack Kirwa won the male master’s division with a time of 30:08, 11th-best all-time at the Bridge Run for runners over 40 years old and the fastest since 2002. Russia’s Lyubov Denisova was the top female master’s runner in 37:22.
James Senbeta of Savoy, Ill., won the wheelchair division after finishing second last year, and Emanuel Sugar of Mount Pleasant won the mobility impaired division at 48:11.
There was an emotional moment at the start of the race, as walkers Marka Daniell Rodgers and Adam Gorlitsky got underway. Both have suffered spinal cord injuries that leave them unable to walk, and both used high-tech gear in their attempts to become the first paraplegics to walk the bridge in the Bridge Run. Rodgers, 59, used an “E-MAG active stance control brace” and finished her walk in little more than two hours, celebrating with supporters and on-lookers at the end.
Gorlitsky, 29, used a robotic exoskeleton called “ReWalk”, and made it across the bridge to finish his effort Saturday afternoon at the Charleston Martime Center.
Bridge Run director Julian Smith was pleased with the preliminary number of registrants (35,902), up considerably from last year’s 33,803. The Bridge Run’s website showed an unofficial total of 26,755 finishers. That means 74.5 percent of registrants finished the run or walk, the lowest figure since 2006.
“Last year, we ran during spring break,” Smith said. “And even though our numbers dropped, we moved up from the fourth-largest to the third-largest 10K in the country. And this year our numbers were back up, so that’s great.”
The Bridge Run was held two days after a double suicide on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, but Charleston police chief Greg Mullen said Saturday’s event went off without incident.
“There’s nothing routine in the world we live in now, but we had a good plan put together,” Mullen said. “Working with departments from three jurisdictions, we had a good plan and executed it well. There were no incidents, and everybody seemed to have a good time.
“The incident on the bridge the other night really had nothing to do with the Bridge Run, so it was not a factor in our planning. It did not change anything we were doing. We always have a very heightened awareness with events like this, because of what is happening around the world.”