FAIRFIELD -- For centuries now, America as the "land of the free" has held more meaning to foreigners as the land of opportunity. For 20-year-old Habtamu Arga Wegi, of Ethiopia, running his first race in the United States on Sunday morning at the 34th Stratton Faxon Half Marathon, Fairfield's Jennings Beach became the place to seize his opportunity and begin to join the list of many African runners who have dominated much of the American distance road race scene over recent years.
Wegi made a dominant move just before the 11-mile mark, pushed his lead to close to 10 seconds, then held on in the final half-mile for a two-second victory over Kenyan Philip Lagat, 31, who won the Cleveland Marathon in May. Wegi, who has been living in Springfield, Va., for nearly a month, began to bolt past Lagat and Ayele Megersa Feisa, of Ethiopia, 100 meters before the 12th mile began of the 13.1-mile race that was run in cool-for-summer conditions with its 8:15 a.m. start on Fairfield Beach Road.
A field approaching 4,000 runners completed the race that wound into Southport and Westport -- over level streets and along rolling hills and in and out of tree-shaded roadways past stately mansions -- before returning to the sun-drenched and breezy beach where friends and family awaited the diverse throng. Some runners said they have plans to run a marathon in the fall; others are content with the challenge of the half-marathon distance.
Approximately 100 meters past the 12-mile mark, Wegi was two seconds, or nearly 10 meters, in front of Lagat and Feisa. Within three more minutes of running, Wegi led them by almost 10 seconds. By then, it became apparent that Wegi had broken free, leaving the battle for the silver medal, though Lagat had charged back by the time the course was winding down at the beach.
Wegi finished with a time of 1 hour 5 minutes and 31 seconds (1:05:31), Lagat in 1:05:33 and Feisa in 1:05:37. Their average pace per mile was 5:01. Mike Popejoy, of Somerville, Mass., who is 28, was the first American to finish, placing sixth in 1:06:37. Kevin Hoyt, of Newtown, celebrating his 24th birthday on Sunday, was the first area runner to place, finishing 13th in 1:10:55, averaging 5:25 a mile. Julian Saad, 22, of Trumbull, was the next area finisher, winding up 15th in 1:12:56. Hoyt and Saad were 13th and 15th in last year's race, too, as well as 14th and 18th in 2012 and 11th and 16th in 2011.
Askale Merachi, 27, of Ethiopia, won the women's competition by nine seconds in 1:17:47, edging Kenyan Alice Kamunya, 23, who ran 1:17:56. Merachi, who was the runner-up in last year's race, said she planned to use a kick at the finish. She pulled away from Kamunya in the final 100 meters.
"She came up to me and asked if we could run together, and I said, `yes.' " Josef Tessema, an American short-distance runner of Ethiopian heritage, said in translating what Merachi told him while she was being interviewed. "She (Merachi) didn't tell her (Kamunya), but she was going to try make her move with 50 meters to go," Tessema said.
Merachi was three seconds faster in 2013, but she had been running many races leading up to last year's half marathon and was not fresh because of too much competition, she said. Her most recent race this year was a 10K in New York on June 14. "I had more energy (this year)," she told Tessema.
Amos Sang, of Kenya, who placed fifth (1:06:20), was a few seconds off the lead when Wegi started to pull away. Sang, 26, who was third in last year's half marathon, was impressed with the move by Wegi, who had won a half marathon in India in December in 1:04:21.
"That was a huge surge," Sang said. "There was no way to stay with him. I could have stayed with him but that would have cost me at the end. I tried to but I wasn't going to stay with him, so I decided to pace myself (the rest of the way). You're not expecting that. When it happens, it kind of shocks you."
Wegi told Tessema he was comfortable throughout the race. "Since it was his first half marathon in the U.S., he did not want to push the pace and die at the end," Tessema said Wegi had said. "It was easy and it was fun. I like to give thanks to the people who cheer for me."
Recent Fairfield Prep graduate Matthew Scholl was surprised to learn during the awards ceremony that he was the first town resident to finish. He was 48th in 1:25:42. He ran cross country and in both track seasons for the Jesuits, but won't run at Providence College next year. His goal was to break 90 minutes.
"I'm pretty happy. It's a good way to start the summer," he said. "I really didn't expect this. I just wanted to run well and wasn't worried about my finishing place. This is kind of a nice surprise," said Scholl, whose pace was 6:33 a mile. The half marathon is the longest race he's completed.
email@example.com; 203-337-4879; twitter.com/ReidWalmark