Yonas Mebrahtu, from Eritrea, breaks the ribbon at the finish line to win the men’s

By MYLES SCHRAG,
Eritrean Sport News: Yonas Mebrahtu, from Eritrea, breaks the ribbon at the finish line to win the men’s elite division at the Fourth of July Downtown Mile Friday morning. (Taylor Mahoney/Arizona Daily Sun).

On Independence Day, the Downtown Mile awards stand had a distinctly international flavor.

In an elite field with no shortage of star power, Yonas Mebrahtu held off a hard-charging Andrew Lemoncello by two seconds to win the elite men’s race in a time of 4:16. Diane Nukuri-Johnson broke the five-minute barrier in 4:56 and cruised to a 30-second win over Ioaha Citireag.

Yonas Mebraht from Eritrea breaks the ribbon at the finish line to win the men's
Yonas Mebraht from Eritrea breaks the ribbon at the finish line to win the men’s

Mebrahtu is from Eritrea and Lemoncello is Scottish, having ran for Great Britain in the 2008 Olympics. Both train in Flagstaff.

Nukuri-Johnson was the flagbearer for Burundi in the 2012 Olympics, where she ran the marathon and also ran the 5,000 meters at the 2000 Olympics. She lives in Iowa City, but is in Flagstaff for a month of altitude training.

Citrieag, who trains in Flagstaff, is from Romania.

Both winners enjoyed the low-key atmosphere and shorter distance compared to the large races they are accustomed to.

“It was nice to change it up,” said Nukuri-Johnson, who runs for ASICS and just decided to enter on Thursday night. “I loved the crowd and running with the guys.”

Mebrahtu was fresh off a victory in the Shelter Island 10K in New York City last month, a race in which he defeated fellow Eritrean Meb Keflezighi. It was the first competition for Keflezighi, now an American citizen, since his inspirational Boston Marathon victory this spring.

“I wasn’t running for the money,” said Mebrahtu, who hopes to become a U.S. citizen. “I just celebrated the United States on Independence Day.”

The purse certainly can’t match what some of the 17 elite runners normally lace up their shoes for. Mebrahtu and Nukuri-Johnson each took home $125 — “I can go to dinner tonight,” Nukuri-Johnson quipped.

Lemoncello and Citrieag earned $75 apiece, and third-place finishers Katie McGee of Duluth, Minn., and Nick Hilton of Flagstaff got $50 each.

The third annual event, presented by Team Run Flagstaff and the Greater Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, instead counts on festive participants and fun costumes.

It has grown each year, with 168 people in the master’s, citizen and elite categories, plus a large number of children in the kids’ half mile.

The crowd that showed up early to get seated before the holiday parade was treated to blistering times by elites close to home, and from all over the globe.

The non-elites had strong showings as well. Robin Lyon of Scottsdale took the master’s women’s race in 6:29, while Rob Decot of Duluth, Minn., was the master’s men’s winner in 5:16. Anna Long of Scottsdale was the citizens winner among women in 5:54, and Cyphrus Lee of Flagstaff ran a 5:20 to win the citizens men’s race.

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