Okello Wins Fourth Straight 10K to Highlight 40th Anniversary of Will Rogers Run
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
History was made shortly after 8:20 a.m. on July 4 when the horn sounded to begin the annual Palisades Will Rogers 5 & 10K Run.
Past winners were introduced before the 40th anniversary of the local Independence Day race, but there was no time like the present for Tonny Okello, who needed 33 minutes and 28 seconds to complete the course from the Palisades Recreation Center to Will Rogers State Historic Park and back, becoming the first male to win the 10K four years in a row.
“I used to go to Atlanta for the Peachtree Road Race on the Fourth of July, but when I discovered this one I was like enough of that,” said the 34-year-old Okello, who joined Fluffy Bunnies Track Club runner Nate Bowen (the winner in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2007) as a four-time champion. “My favorite part is leaving Will Rogers and coming back up the hill on Sunset because it’s less than a mile to the finish and it feels good seeing people cheer for you as they come down the hill. It helps to know the course. I relied on my experience to win this one.”
Early morning heat convinced Okello to adopt a more conservative approach to achieve his latest victory after a knee problem kept him out of competition for more than eight months.
“I felt great but I took my time because I wasn’t sure what kind of shape I was in,” admitted Okello, who is originally from Lira, Uganda but now lives in Culver City and trains with the Santa Monica Track Club. His personal-best 10K effort (27:55) came in an Open race on the track at Stanford University in 2013. Okello clocked 31:21 in his Will Rogers debut in 2014, repeated in 32:55 and three-peated in 31:32. He is eager to return next summer to challenge the course record of 29:46 set by Russell Edmonds of New Zealand in 1983.
“Pretty soon I’ll be running in the Masters Division,” Okello joked. “I thought I could go under 33 [minutes] today but I’m excited to come back better prepared next year and make it five for five.”
Okello came to the U.S. on a track scholarship in 2004 and majored in Communications at the University of South Alabama. A fitness coach and actor who has appeared in commercials for Apple, AT&T, Muscle Milk and Sysco, he first visited the Palisades upon being invited to run at Will Rogers during the filming of the 2015 Disney movie “McFarland.” He used last Tuesday’s run as a sharpener for the six mile Wharf to Wharf in Santa Cruz on July 25.
“The family atmosphere here is what makes it special, everyone knows everyone,” Okello said after collecting his first-place medal an hour after breaking the tape. “I rode in the parade last year so I’ve been there, done that.”
Brian Shea, who has served as director since he founded the event with fellow Ridge Runners Chris Carlson and Bill Klein, worked tirelessly to make the 40th edition one to remember and the turnout was one of the best to date with 2,940 registered runners (2,076 in the 5K, 864 in the 10K).
David Greifinger, winner of the 10K in 1979 as well as the inaugural 5K in 1986, was on hand to reminisce about being the first local winner at the age of 22.
“I was ninth the year before and in ‘79 I remember being really surprised,” the 1975 Palisades High graduate said. “I had run a race in Century City three days earlier and lost to several people in this race by over a minute. So it was a lot of fun winning.”
Actress and songwriter Kelley Jakle, wearing a race t-shirt, got the day’s festivities off to a patriotic start, nailing every note of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The 28-year-old is best known for her role as Jessica in “Pitch Perfect,” its sequel “Pitch Perfect 2” and “Pitch Perfect 3,” which is set to hit theaters in December. Her uncle, John Jakle, was a Ridge Runner, serves on the race committee and ran in the first Palisades Will Rogers Run.
Taking the microphone next was honorary mayor Kevin Nealon and the comedian had a funny message for his fellow residents: “Make sure this is what you want to do and slow runners get in the back… that’s where I’ll be!”
Steve Conforti and McKenna Porsche provided the shiny silver pace car and behind the wheel was local IndyCar driver Townsend Bell, having returned from France, where he and his Scuderia Corsa teammates were third in the GTE-Am class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
“We live right up the street and my whole family runs the race, so it’s nice to lead the way,” said Bell, who moved to town in 2010 with his wife Heather and sons Jaxon (14) and Jensen (11). “One year we couldn’t find the key. Another time I did a total burnout. It wasn’t too popular with the runners, but I got that out of my system.”
For the second straight year, the 5K winner was from Loyola High. Shane Bissell, a 17-year-old senior-to-be from Hancock Park, was first in 16:25, followed by Cubs teammates Liam Jamieson (16:29), also a senior, and junior Vinicius Giachini (16:35). Charlie Sherman, who lives in the Riviera and graduated from Loyola in June, clocked 16:07 to win last year.
“I’ve been running this race since my freshman year,” said Bissell, who was third last year in 16:31. “It’s good because the first mile is really fast and you get to see who can really run. I was doubtful I’d win because it’s the 40th anniversary and I knew the field would be strong. I wanted to run about the same time as last year but actually I was faster.”
Jamieson, who went to Calvary Christian School and whose mother attended Corpus Christi, was fourth last year in 16:54 and said sticking close by his teammates was the strategy: “We all like running together in cross country season, so we did the same thing today.”
The first female finisher was 26-year-old Regina Lopez of Alhambra, whose time of 17:54
was the fastest by a woman since Vivien Wadeck of Cal State LA won the 2008 race in 17:15.
“My friend runs with the Janes [Elite Racing], told me about it and gave me a free comp, so I decided to try it,” said Lopez, who ran cross country and track at Oregon State for two years and Cal Poly Pomona for three years, majoring in kinesiology. She began running in high school at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Los Angeles, where she was also MVP of the basketball team. Twin sister Sabrina also ran for Oregon State.
“The first mile was downhill and I went out fast the first mile,” said Lopez, who likes to train in Griffith Park. “It was my first time but I liked running through the neighborhood with people waving flags and showing their support.”
Not only did the race turn 40 this year, so too did eight-time 5K champion Peter Gilmore, who set the course record of 14:10 in 2003. The 1995 Pali High graduate and former elite marathoner was eighth overall and first in his age group.
“By the time I got to Pampas Ricas I was dead,” said Gilmore, now an investment reseacher living in Alameda. “It hurt just as bad today as when I was running three minutes faster,” said Gilmore, found chatting afterwards with former Pali High teammate Doug Berrios, who ran the 5K alongside his son Brock.
“Peter and I started running together at Paul Revere,” Berrios recalled, proof that old rivalries die hard. “In fact, my first college race was versus Peter [at the Wolfpack Invitational in Reno]. I was at Sacramento State and he was at Cal.”
Tania Fischer, the 5K champion in 1993 in 16:36 (still the second-fastest time ever by a female), was third this year and won the 50-54 age group in 19:09. On Thanksgiving, she became the first three-time Palisades Turkey Trot winner.
“I know this course and that helped,” said Fischer, who lingered near the starting line to congratulate Janes club teammate Erika Aklufi, who took the 10K title for the second time in 38:44. Her first victory came 11 years earlier in 35:56.
“I’ve run here twice and won both times, so I’m happy,” said the 41-year-old Aklufi, wearing brand new pink Nike shoes. “I can’t compare this to when I was in my 20s, but the last time I didn’t know what was coming and ran it stupid. This time I remembered it was real hilly and I ran much smarter. I’ve been doing a lot of trail running, which helped. It was kind of close the first two miles then I began to separate.”
Aklufi, who lives in downtown LA and is a sergeant with the Santa Monica Police Department, placed second in a 50K at the Grand Canyon on Memorial Day and won the XTERRA Malibu Creek 22K trail run May 20.
The next woman to finish was Kara Barnard, a former Pali High and UCLA distance runner who won 11 Will Rogers races (five 5Ks and six 10Ks) from 1997-2012. She got married two years ago and now lives in San Francisco.
“I have many fond memories, but it’s more about people I meet,” said Barnard, who won the 35-40 age division in 40:35. “Seeing dear friends is still the highlight for me.”
Katie Dunsmuir Younger, who won the 10K six times and set the women’s record of 35:09 in 1983, made a triumphant return to her old stomping grounds, covering the familiar 6.2 miles in 49:17.
“It’s a whole different perspective from back in the pack,” said the 51-year-old mother of two, now a massage therapist living in Marina Del Rey. “I didn’t care how fast I ran or where I finished, I just wanted to be here. Everyone has treated me like a celebrity. I had a hip replacement three years ago. Before that I couldn’t run for six years and that was tough. The year I set the record I was really fast and in really good shape.”
Another familiar face was that of 46-year-old Peter Hogan, the 10K winner in 1994 shortly after graduating from Boston College.
“I’ve run it every year since fifth grade,” said Hogan, father of 22-month-old twins Kelana and Ramsey. “I’ve always run the 10K except for one year when I ran the 5K and my mom got made at me!”
Hogan, who ran this year’s race in 51:24, grew up on Arno Way and attended Corpus Christi. He and his wife Bella moved from the Highlands to West Hills last year.
While warming up for the 10K, David Olds admitted he had no specific time goal, but would try to win his age group. That is just what he did, topping the 55-59 division in 41:52.
“The last few years I’ve been injured or out of town, but I’ve tried to keep racing,” said Olds, who won the 5K in 1990 and the 10K three years later. Olds, who trains with the Fluffy Bunnies in Santa Monica, also won the inaugural Palisades Turkey Trot in 2013.
Several other previous winners turned back the clock to run in last Tuesday’s race, like Playa Vista’s Brian Cody, who won the 5K in 16:10 in 1991 and braved the 10K this year, finishing in 52:10. Not to be forgotten was “Comet” Ray Cook, 54, of Las Vegas, who won the 10K in 1986 and 1996. This year, he ran the 5K in 23:23.
Finishing second to Okello in the 10K in 35:34 was 38-year-old Jim Lubinski, who won the 2011 race as an Ironman triathlete.
The Fluffy Bunnies were well represented, as usual. Joining Olds for the event’s milestone 40th running was two-time 10K champion Kevin Purcell (2008 and 2010), who was 20th overall and second in the 40-44 age group in 40:24.
Having run the 10K every year since it began in 1978, Paul Junger of West L.A. and Larry Meyer of Glendale kept their perfect attendance records intact and wore their t-shirts from the first race.
“They keep stretching the course out,” joked the 76-year-old Junger, whose brother lives on El Medio. “Every year it gets longer.”
“I have a drawer full of shirts of all the races,” added Meyer, 70. “My wife wants to make a quilt.”