CAPE ELIZABETH – The sun. The sand. The surf. The heat. The hordes of people.

Cancun, right? Miami?

Nope.

Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Thousands will descend on this small suburban community this morning to participate in, volunteer for, or just simply to watch the 10th annual TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10K, which has developed a reputation among the world’s elite runners as one of the best races in the world.

“In the summer racing season in the U.S., it’s really come down to three races back-to-back-to-back, so if you’re going to come to the U.S., this is your stop,” said Larry Barthlow, the Beach to Beacon’s elite runner coordinator.

Last week, many of the athletes competing in the Beach to Beacon were at the Bix 7 road race. The men’s and women’s champions in that race are both competing in today’s event.

Next week, they will move on down the road to Falmouth, Mass., for another seven-mile race, the Falmouth Road Race.

“We try to do things differently, and it’s a 10K, it’s an actual distance,” Barthlow said. “Bix is a seven-miler, and Falmouth is 11K or whatever. People want that 10K time.”

For the racers, the trip to Cape Elizabeth is more than just another road trip.

“It’s the only event in America where you are hosted by families,” former runner and goodwill ambassador Godfrey Kiprotich said. “That’s quite unique. The people are wonderful, and it’s great for us because we can talk about different cultures, we learn from them, and they learn from us. It’s all about friendship.”

Kiprotich ran his first Beach to Beacon in 1999, and comes back whenever he gets the chance. “Above all, though, it’s about Joannie,” Kiprotich said. “She is an idol to me.”

“Joannie” is race founder Joan Benoit Samuelson, a fixture in Cape Elizabeth and one of the best women marathoners of all time.

The race’s reputation, much like Samuelson’s in the early 1980s, spread quickly.

“It’s beautiful here, and when athletes keep coming back, that says a lot about the race and the community and the organization,” said Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon. “I wish I’d started coming here earlier in my career, but now I hope to come back here more and be a part of this great community.”

Eritrean-born, Keflezighi became a naturalized United States citizen in 1998, and continues to be a force in major marathons, finishing third at Boston in 2006. Even in all of his travels, though, Keflezighi said he finds plenty of unique elements about the Beach to Beacon.

“This is the first time I stay with a host family like this,” Keflezighi said. “I’ve stayed with families before, but only because I knew them before, and when I would travel through Europe, hotel to hotel, they would say, ‘Hey, instead of a hotel, why don’t you come stay with us.’ I loved that, and this is a really unique opportunity for the athletes to interact with the families, get to know each other.”

Susan Chipkemei, the 2004 women’s champion, is among the elite runners who return every year.

In his introduction, Barthlow called Chipkemei “almost a full-time resident” of Cape Elizabeth. “It’s wonderful because the sponsors, the hosting families, the people outside cheering are all wonderful,” Chipkemei said. “I love the people here.”



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