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See Joanie run: Race co-founder returns to TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth

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See Joanie run: Race co-founder returns to TD Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth

CAPE ELIZABETH — The state's largest road race will take place for the 15th time Saturday with an expected 6,000 runners and one of the deepest and storied fields in race history.

This year's TD Beach to Beacon 10K will also include an Olympic gold medalist: race co-founder Joan Benoit Samuelson.

Samuelson will run alongside people from 16 different countries and 44 states, a field she has seen triple in size since she founded the race 15 years ago.

"One of the great things I think the race has done is pull runners off the sidelines," the Freeport resident and Cape Elizabeth native said Tuesday. "That's led to a very successful, almost too successful, race over the years."

Although the race has grown to become one of the fastest and most competitive 10K races in the world, she said the biggest takeaway for her is hearing people's inspiring individual stories.

"I don't think any of us knew where the race would go, that it would touch and improve so many people's lives," Samuelson said. "It has transcended the sport in many ways we hadn't thought that it might."

One of the most visible impacts can be seen with each race's beneficiary. This year it's the Portland-based nonprofit, Center for Grieving Children, which will receive a $30,000 donation from TD Bank through the TD Charitable Foundation.

The center, which provides support for bereaved children and families, also hopes to benefit from the increased exposure, Executive Director Anne Lynch said.

"It's a great opportunity for us to get out the word on our work over the last 25 years," she said. "As a small, nonprofit organization we receive no state or federal funding, so we are very dependent on the community to help us provide services to families in need."

In addition to the donations and exposure, beneficiaries also receive 25 of the coveted race bibs that sold out in less than five minutes this year. They use the entries as fundraising tools and can receive them every year they come back to the race after they've been chosen as an official beneficiary.

For those who don't have nimble enough fingers to snatch up the race bibs via online registration, Samuelson said volunteering at the race can be rewarding in different way.

"My husband didn't get in one year and ended up volunteering. He said he actually felt better volunteering," she said. "The race is an opportunity for people to show their colors and promote something that's genuinely good."

Samuelson said she is hoping for low humidity Saturday and looks forward to the finish line.

"My favorite part is standing at the finish line to greet the elites and the regular people who have a passion for the sport and have goals for themselves no matter what the situation," she said. "And, they often achieve those goals."

Strong elite field

Despite the 2012 Olympic Games in London, race organizers have put together an elite field of world-class runners, one of the deepest fields in race history, said Larry Barthlow, elite athlete coordinator for the race.

"One of the biggest challenges in an Olympic year is waiting to see who is going to make the Olympic team," Barthlow said.

Each country has different policies in place to choose their Olympic athletes, which leaves some runners in limbo.

"In other countries, it's a lot more political and kind of crazy," Barthlow said. "You're playing a lot of dangerous games, not knowing if they're going to get called up."

Other challenges arise when athletes obsessively train for the Olympics and then don't qualify. The disappointment can be devastating emotionally and physically, Barthlow said, which can set them back significantly.

Difficulties aside, this year's men's elite group should make for a tight and fast race.

Lucas Rotich, 22, of Kenya, who finished second in last year's Beach to Beacon, is the favorite in the men's elite group this year. He is followed by another Kenyan, Stanley Biwott, 26, who broke course records earlier this year at the Paris Marathon and Paris Half Marathon.

Barthlow said wet weather in Ethiopia over the last couple months could affect runners like Lelisa Desisa, but he still expects the 22-year-old to run a strong race.

The women's elite group has seven fast runners who can run with the elite men, despite the scratch of Aheza Kiros, the 2011 champion women's champion. The field includes two women who ran the fastest times ever on the course in 2010, Lineth Chepkurai, 24, and Wude Ayalew, 25.

The London Olympics did claim one elite women's runner, Aberu Kebede, who will be an alternate for Ethiopia.

Margaret Wangari-Muriuki, 26, of Kenya, will be a tough competitor, bringing some momentum from a win last weekend at the Quad-City Bix 7 mile in Iowa.

Maine runners

The London Olympics will have an impact on the Maine resident elite runners this year, because the favorite men's runner and last year's champion, Louie Luchini of Ellsworth, will be attending the games to watch friends compete.

In Luchini's absence, Jonny Wilson, 24, of Falmouth, is the men's favorite. This year he won the L.L. Bean 10K, Yarmouth Clam Festival 5 Mile and the Ocean Park 5K.

Another Falmouth resident, Ethan Shaw, 21, hopes to challenge Wilson, along with Robert Gomez, 28, of Westbrook and Josh Zolla, 26, of Freeport.

Zolla finished just behind Wilson in Freeport and Yarmouth, and Gomez also closely trailed Wilson in the Ocean Park race.

The women's race favorite is returning champ Sheri Piers, 41, of Falmouth. Piers is a two-time Beach to Beacon winner, setting the record for Maine women in 2009 while placing 10th overall.

Two Scarborough residents, Erica Jesseman, 23, and Kristin Barry, 38, hope to push Piers. Jesseman finished behind Piers at the Clam Festival 5 Mile and won the L.L. Bean 10K this year.

Barry, also a two-time Beach to Beacon champion, was unable to finish last year due to humid conditions, will be looking for a strong comeback this year.

Will Graff can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or wgraff@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @W_C_Graff.