High Five

Runners pack Alma Real Drive at the start of last Wednesday morning’s Palisades Will Rogers 5 & 10K Run. More than 2,500 people participated in the Fourth of July race.
Photos by Rich Schmitt/Staff Photographer


By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor

As he neared the finish line last Wednesday morning at the entrance to the Palisades Recreation Center, Tonny Okello appeared to lengthen his stride, adding emphasis to his historic jaunt to history through the switchbacks of Will Rogers State Historic Park. He raised his hand in acknowledgment as he broke through the tape, one finger for each time he has emerged victorious at the Palisades Will Rogers 5 & 10K Run.

The 34-year-old Santa Monica Track Club member from Mar Vista covered the 6.2-mile course in 32:51 (his third-fastest time yet) to become the first five-time men’s champion and the first runner, male or female,  to win five years in a row.

“Almost everyone knows me now and I got a big energy boost from people cheering as I came up that last hill on Sunset,” said Okello, donning his familiar Team Oceana t-shirt. “The weather was much better this year and I didn’t push myself too hard. It felt easier. I ran about the same but mentally I know every corner, every turn, every climb.”   

Like he did two years ago, Okello wore the number 1 on his bib and by the second mile he had left the field behind.

“This is the second time they have given me the VIP treatment so I couldn’t let anyone down,” Okello joked. “When I retire I’ll hang this on my wall of fame. I keep the bibs and medals hidden  in a container somewhere. I’m running another 10K in Cypress on July 22nd and a six-mile race in Santa Cruz on July 29 and those courses are flat so this was good preparation for me.”

Originally from Lira,  Uganda, Okello came to the United States on a track scholarship in 2004 and majored in Communications at the University of South Alabama. He moved to Santa Monica in 2009 and first visited the Palisades in November 2013 when he was invited to run at Will Rogers during the filming of the 2015 movie “McFarland.” Leading up to the 41st edition of the local July 4 race he ran 60-70 miles a week and entered a few 5000-meter races, the last being the Rabbit5000 on June 2 in Santa Barbara.

“I want to shift to longer distances now and next year I want to try the LA Marathon for the first time so I’ll do more road races leading up to it,” added Okello, who, when told he could tie the record for most 10K wins, promised to return next summer. “Absolutely yes! I have reason to come back next year. Who knows? Maybe I can even break the record!”    

Okello’s best time of 31:21 in 2014 remains the 12th fastest to date. Russell Edmonds of New Zealand set the record of 29:46 in 1983. Only two runners, Katie Dunsmuir and Kara Barnard, have won the 10K race six times and neither won more than four straight, although Barnard had a record eight-year winning streak overall (five 5Ks, three 10Ks) from 1997-2004.     

The women’s 10K title was icing on the cake for 28-year-old Kaitlyn Peale, whose time of 36:19 was the ninth-fastest overall and fastest by a female in 12 years. She merely wanted to beat her boyfriend, former Brentwood School runner Peter Birney, who finished in 39:07.     

“I got him today but not always,” Peale said, laughing. “It’s my first time running this.”

    When told she could ride in the Fourth of July Parade that afternoon Peale revealed she and Birney were flying back home to Portland, where she works for Nike and trains with Bowerman Track Club. Originally from Columbus, Ohio, Peale ran distance at the University of Michigan.

   “This is a tough course, all up and down, so I tried not to go out too fast,” Peale said. “For this course, around 36 [minutes] is what I thought I could do and I just wanted to finish strong. I lived in Brentwood for two and a half years and although I was always out of town for July 4, I knew about this race.”

    Peale dueled 32-year-old Palisadian Caitlin Chrisman for the first five miles before separating  as she started back up the hill towards the Huntington.

   “She led through the 5K, I passed her on the switchbacks, she caught me on the downhill part and I finally passed her at the end of the hill (on Sunset),” Peale said, describing the battle. “We went back and forth.”

Finishing third in the 10K was 47-year-old Highlands resident Ken Rideout, whose time of 35 minutes flat was two seconds faster than his winning effort at the fifth annual Palisades Turkey Trot 10K on Thanksgiving. Jim Lubinski was 13th overall and won the men’s 35-39 age group in 36:59 while fellow Palisadian Brian Temple won the 50-54 age division and placed 16th overall in 37:34.

Encouraged to run by Janes teammate and Palisades High assistant track coach Gwendolen Twist was 32-year-old Cristina Lowry of Playa del Rey, who  was second in her division in  40:59.

“I was a little intimidated  by the course but it makes for more strategy,” said Lowry, who ran the Boston Marathon in two hours, 59 minutes in April.

Out in force as usual were the Fluffy Bunnies, led by 1999 and 2001 winner Tyson Sacco, now 44. He was joined by 1993 winner David Olds and 2008 and 2010 winner Kevin Purcell, who ran at Crossroads High and now lives in West LA.

“This has always been one of my favorite races because it’s such a challenging course and the crowds are super supportive,” said Purcell, now 42. “Nate Bowen lives in San Francisco now and comes down sometimes but couldn’t make it this year.”

Bowen won four 10Ks  from 2000 to 2007 and shared the record for victories by a male with Okello, who entered a league of his own last Wednesday.

Following a stirring rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner”  by native Palisadian and St. Matthew’s Parish School alum Mikaela Hong, a recent graduate of  Washington University in St. Louis, co-honorary mayors Billy and Janice Crystal blew the horn to begin what has been a proud Independence Day tradition in the Palisades since 1978.

The 5K winner was Loyola High senior-to-be Ethan Stauber of Manhattan Beach, who broke the tape in 16:05 after placing eighth last year in 17:25. He was pushed the whole way by Cubs teammates Vinnie Giachini (16:26) and Roberto Ruelas (16:34), who finished second and third, respectively. The first Palisadian to complete the 3.1 miles was James Kahn, a former prep standout at Brentwood School, who won the 19-29 age division in 16:39.    

“My friends have run this race for years and we have to do a 5K as part of our training, so I picked this one,” said Stauber, the third straight Loyola runner to win the Palisades Will Rogers 5K, succeeding Riviera resident Charlie Sherman (16:07) in 2016 and Shane Bissell (16:25) last year. “We were all running together and we had some alumni out there representing too. There was also the guy who won the 10K. I learned from last year that I could go out faster the first mile. The hill isn’t that hard so I wasn’t afraid. It’s a pretty fast, flat course. This is a PR for me. I definitely want to come back.”

Bissell, who graduated in the spring, tried the 10K this year and took fifth in 35:36. while Brandon Cobian, another recent Loyola graduate, was the 10K runner-up in 34:47.        

It must have seemed like old times for Natalie Marsh, who won the women’s 5K in 18:57. She ran cross country and track at Pali High, captaining the Dolphins to the City Section cross country crown her senior year. She just completed her junior year at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps where she runs the 1500 meters and 5K on the track team and is majoring in Media Studies with a focus in digital design

“The past three years I’ve run it, my friends are here and it feels like my home turf,” said Marsh, who lives in Westchester.

Marsh, 21, was 18th overall and was sixth among females in 2016 with a time of 20:39.

“Coaching styles are a little different from high school to college,” added Marsh, who became the fourth female 5K winner in the last eight years to break 19 minutes. “There’s more of a focus on time and heart rate so the body recovers faster. The competition is better and there are more distractions.”

Paul Junger and Larry Meyer, meanwhile, proved that it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf. After running the 10K for the 40th time last summer, both switched to the 5K this year. Not surprisingly, both finished and, as has been their custom since the beginning, they reunited at the finish line wearing their shirts from the inaugural race.      

“I was getting lonely the last couple of miles on the 10K course, so I decided I’ve graduated,” joked Junger, who lives in West LA and turned 77 the week before. “The police escort was already clearing the course.”

The 71-year-old Meyer, who lives in Glendale, was proud to start a new streak.

“I don’t know if I can last until I’m 111 but it’s been a good run,” Meyer said. “There has to be a first time for everything.”

Junger, whose brother lives on El Medio, was happy to see a familiar face at the finish and Meyer claimed his wife could make a quilt out of all of the race t-shirts he’s collected over four decades and counting.

Also running the 5K for the first time was Pali High senior-to-be Brittany Darrow, who was still euphoric after running a personal-best 2:19 to capture the City 800-meter title in May. She PR’d again at the state prelims.

“I just did this as a workout with my teammate Jessie [Bierschenk],” Darrow said. “I’m still trying to stay in track mode. It hasn’t totally hit me yet that I won City!”     

Palisadian Natalie Mitchell, 45, was first in her age group and third among females in the 5K, Patricia Collins won the 65-69 age group in a stellar 35:09 and Judith Collas won the 80-and-up  female division in 36:43.     

As the temperature started to rise, children ages 10 and under gathered at the park entrance for the start of the Kids’ Fun Run at 9:30. The course, a flat half-mile loop starting and finishing at the Rec Center entrance, has become a favorite for local youth, many of whom also run the 5K.

One of them was 7-year-old Mila Humby, daughter of retired  local kickboxing champion Baxter Humby. She ran the 5K for the first time with her dad, then  hustled back for the the Fun Run.    

    Now in its fifth decade, the event is the brainchild of founder and director Brian Shea and fellow Ridge Runner Chris Carlson, who pondered the possibility of a local race as they picknicked on San Vicente after the Brentwood 10K in 1977. “Wouldn’t it be great for the Palisades to have its own 10K before the Fourth of July parade?” they asked each other. Over the next 12 months, the Ridge Runners mapped out a course and fought through rolls of bureaucratic red tape to get the necessary city and state permits and the rest is history. The 5K was added in 1986, followed 10 years later by the Fun Run.

    This year’s field consisted of of 2,524 participants (1,797 in the 5K and 727 in the 10K), including 100 U.S. military veterans. Saint John’s Health Center  was the title sponsor and Pacific Palisades Baseball Association Commissioner Bob Benton provided commentary. Results are available at palisades10k.com.