By Barbara Matson
For the second straight year, Dejen Gebremeskel set an event record in winning the Boston Athletic Association 5K on Saturday, crossing the finish line on Charles Street in 13 minutes, 26 seconds to improve on the 13:37 mark he set last year.
But this time, the 24-year-old Ethiopian and 2012 Olympic 5,000-meter silver medalist had to lean in to gain his victory. Ben True, 28, a native of North Yarmouth, Maine, and a two-time winner (2011 and 2012) of the race, matched Gebremeskel stride for stride down the final 100 meters and the two crossed the line almost as one. True also recorded a time of 13:26. Stephen Sambu of Kenya was a step back in 13:27.
In the women’s race, Molly Huddle, 29, of Providence worked her way from fifth to first over the last half-mile, then snuck around leader Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia with 100 meters to go and sprinted to victory in 15:12, tying the event record set by Werknesh Kidane of Ethiopia in 2012. It was Huddle’s first victory in the BAA 5K. Daska, 30, was second in 15:14.
The 5K is the first event in the BAA Distance Medley, which includes the 10K and the Half-Marathon.
“I’m really excited today because it’s the Boston Marathon season, there’s no doubt lots of people are coming,’’ said Gebremeskel. “I think the moment is really nice. At this moment, I win the race and I’m so glad.
“It was very challenging to run a fast time. The course is not easy, it’s a morning start, and it can be windy and it can be cold. It’s not like other times or summertime, so it’s really a challenge.’’
Gebremeskel went right to the front when the runners left the start line at Boston Common and led a pack of 12 as they pulled away from the field. The leaders ran 4:23 for the first mile, and clung together for the next mile, Lani Rutto moving in front as the pack went under the Massachusetts Avenue bridge. By the 2-mile mark, which the leaders passed in 8:49, the pack had dwindled to five: Gebremeskel, True, Sambu, Rutto, and Daniel Salel. The quintet was so tightly packed at times they were running five abreast. Gebremeskel moved back in front, but the foursome behind him stayed close.
Gebremeskel said he tried to push the pace in the first 2 miles as he did last year, but the pack stayed with him. Among the jostling, True said, the race became more about the competition. “You’re just trying to beat the other person.”
When it came time for a kick in the last 200 meters, Gebremeskel was confident because “I’m coming from track.” But he added that he enjoyed sprinting with True.
True said he had a rough winter of training in Hanover, N.H., where he lives, and he tried to work around a left leg injury. He stuck with the repeated surges along Boylston Street.
“I was trying to be the last one to make a move,’’ said True, “and I thought I timed myself well, to get a nice jump on them — [Gebremeskel’s] a better fast runner, real tough. I was coming even with him the best I could, just fighting for the line the last 10 meters. I think he got me by just a hair.”
Nonetheless, the result was a boost for True.
“I haven’t been able to do anything fast,’’ he said, “and I didn’t know where my finishing speed was going to be, so this kind of tells me that I haven’t really lost anything.’’
Huddle, a 2012 Olympian who holds the American record for 5,000 meters (14:44.76) seemed to catch her competitors unaware.
“I was in fifth, and then fourth, and then with half a mile to go, I kind of jumped up to third,’’ Huddle said. “I just gradually picked people off. I surprised myself; I wasn’t sure if I had that in me. It was a good day to run.”
There were 8,652 starters Saturday as the 5K kicked off Marathon weekend.
“It was definitely a special race this year,’’ said Huddle. “Even though it was just the 5K and not the Marathon, I felt like everyone was cheering for us. With all that’s gone on I think it’s great for an American to win this race, so I think it gave me an little extra boost.’’