A year later, Maine running rivals still reliving dramatic Beach to Beacon finish

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Robert Gomez, right, helps Jesse Orach at the finish line of the Beach to Beacon 10K last August after Orach had collapsed. Race founder Joan Benoit Samuelson said Gomez’ sportsmanship was perhaps the “most inspirational story” in the race’s 20-year history. Staff photo by John Ewing

Rob Gomez has been celebrated for his unselfishness at last year’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race, and understandably so. Gomez helped fellow runner Jesse Orach to his feet and pushed him across the finish line, allowing Orach to win the title as the top Maine finisher.

Race founder and Olympic gold medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson said it was perhaps the “most inspirational story” in the race’s 20-year history.

Gomez’s act of sportsmanship was highlighted by NBC’s “Today” show, ABC News and Runner’s World magazine, among others. In December, Gomez was named one of six finalists for the Maine Sunday Telegram’s inaugural Mainer of the Year award.

Orach, meanwhile, has had to answer questions about collapsing with the finish line in sight.

“Rob’s a great guy and it was a pretty special moment in my life that I’ll never forget,” said Orach, 24, who split with Gomez the $1,000 prize he won for being the top men’s finisher from Maine.

“It was kind of cool to have that moment in the spotlight, but I’d rather be known for things other than being that guy who fell at the finish line of the Beach to Beacon. I’m not upset that it happened and I don’t get mad when people talk about it, but it did reach a point where it got kind of saturated.”

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Usually lost in those conversations is that Orach needed no help when he was the top finisher from Maine at the 2016 Beach to Beacon. Or that the Gorham native was one of the University of Maine’s top all-time runners, compiling a 3.95 GPA while majoring in chemical engineering before earning a master’s degree in business administration.

The 2017 edition of Beach to Beacon was held on a hot, muggy morning on Aug. 5. Orach took the lead among Maine runners before collapsing from heat exhaustion. He got up and ran a bit farther before hitting the ground once again. That’s when Gomez, once trailing Orach by as much as 30 seconds, stopped and hauled Orach to his feet. Gomez held Orach upright the last 50-plus meters before giving him a final nudge forward, allowing Orach to win the race.

Emergency medical personnel rushed Orach to the media tent. His body temperature peaked at 107.3 degrees.

Last year’s race, and its aftermath, have been “a life lesson,” Orach said. He is convinced one reason he collapsed was that he had put undue pressure on himself to repeat as the Beach to Beacon Maine champion. “I’m an extremely competitive person and that’s why I did so well in college,” Orach said, “but at the end of the day there’s no reason to put that sort of pressure on myself. I’m not a professional runner, as much as I’d like to be. I’m not at that level where my life depends on how fast I run.”

‘HOW MUCH IT MEANT TO PEOPLE’

From the start of the whirlwind media attention, Gomez has tried to downplay the perception that he was some type of hero, in part because he understood that image could cast Orach in a less-than-flattering role.

“If I were in his shoes in the same spot, yes, I would have been grateful,” Gomez said, “but at the same time, it’s not a place you want to be at the end of a race, on the ground in need of assistance.”

Gomez and Orach will race again on Saturday, when the 21st Beach to Beacon is expected to draw over 6,500 runners to Cape Elizabeth. Orach is bidding to become the first man to win three straight Maine titles. Gomez has never won.

“I’m guessing for both of those guys, they’d rather (have last year’s incident) just go away,” said David Weatherbie, the former Beach to Beacon race president who still coordinates the field of top Maine runners.

However, both runners know their intertwined story is sure to be retold many more times.

“For me, it gave me a perspective of how … a small moment like that, as quick and trivial as it may seem, how much it meant to people; the symbolism of something like that,” said Gomez, 35, a Waldoboro native who now lives in Portland.

“It was an amazing story and I understand why it kind of maintains that momentum going forward,” said Orach, who now lives in Auburn.

COMPETITORS HAVE MUCH IN COMMON

Orach and Gomez had never met until a news conference the day before last year’s race. Since then, their paths have crossed more frequently. Orach joined the Dirigo running club, which Gomez had been part of for years. Orach also joined a group of Mainers who call themselves the Maine-iacs to participate in the Cabot Trail Relay in Nova Scotia in late May. Gomez has been part of that group in the past.

They learned they shared many interests. Both men grew up in Maine, competed collegiately in Maine, and are now engineers.

Gomez is a quality assurance engineer at General Dynamics in Saco and ran for Bates College. After Orach graduated from Maine, where he was the America East cross-country champion in 2016 and twice honored as the Dean Smith Award-winner as the school’s top scholar-athlete, he was on the job as a process engineer for Verso Corporation at its Androscoggin Mill in Jay.

Gomez said he and Orach sat down together for a chat a few days after last year’s race. “We both agreed that it really is something where we were both at the right place at the right time,” Gomez said.

Going into this year’s race, both runners said they have raced less than previous years. Gomez just finished a “big hiking trip out West,” that took him to national parks in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Montana.

Orach’s job – and a week-long trip to California – has cut into his racing, he said. But when he has competed, he’s been sharp, winning a 5K in Gorham in April and another 5K in Auburn in early June when he beat several of the other top men from Maine. In late June, he competed in his first 13.1-mile race, winning the Old Port Half Marathon by nearly five minutes.

The Auburn race was notable in that Orach once again shared his prize money ($200, plus a $100 bonus for breaking the course record set by none other than Gomez in 2010) with Ryan Smith of Farmington and Ben Decker of Yarmouth. They finished second and third after taking a wrong turn while leading Orach by roughly 10 seconds two-thirds of the way through the race.

“I was pretty blown away at how kind both of them were throughout that whole situation,” said Decker, who also will compete in the 2018 Beach to Beacon. “I’m excited for a good race with them on Saturday.”

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan contributed to this report.

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