As she rounded the north end of EverBank Field, Tara Welling knew her name would be on the Gate River Run trophy.
But she had unfinished business at the finish line.
Welling ran away with the women's race and held on to outsprint hard-charging men's winner Stanley Kebenei for the $5,000 equalizer bonus in a thrilling finish at Saturday's 39th annual race.
This year, the nation's 15-kilometer championship brought memorable debuts for Welling, a first-time Gate River Run participant, and Kebenei, who had never run any 15K race — or even a race on open roads.
"It's really exciting. I thought I could win this event and that was my plan," Welling said. "But I guess I'd never really thought about being national champion."
Fans lining the closing stretch cheered as Welling edged Kebenei by two seconds, the closest margin separating the women's and men's winners since the 2004 introduction of the bonus for the first overall finisher. Elite women begin with a six-minute head start.
For race director Doug Alred, that's what the bonus is all about.
"That was the most excited I've seen them [the finish-line crowd] in a while," Alred said.
Welling broke clear early on in the women's race, building a lead of about 50 yards at the fifth mile. By the time she descended the Hart Bridge, the only question was whether she would be the first overall runner to break the tape.
That's when she launched her $5,000 finishing kick.
"I looked over my shoulder at one point and I saw three guys coming," said Welling, a 26-year-old from Portland, Ore.
Guy number one was Kebenei, steaming down the Hart Bridge exit ramp like a locomotive — he finished the last mile in 4:08 — followed closely by Shadrack Kipchirchir, 2014 NCAA runner-up in the 10K, and national 25K record holder Christo Landry.
"I turned the corner and I wasn't sure where the finish line was," Welling said. "Then I looked up and saw it, so I figured I'd just start sprinting and hopefully I could hold them off."
Welling finished in 50:34, with a cushion of more than 30 seconds ahead of women's runner-up Stephanie Bruce and third-place finisher Lindsay Scherf.
The unseasonably warm and humid weather took a toll on Olympic challengers and weekend warriors alike.
"Today, running in the humidity was tough," said men's overall winner Kebenei.
But it wasn't too tough for the 26-year-old from Tucson, Ariz. Kebenei, the top-ranked college steeplechase runner during his University of Arkansas career, nearly didn't enter the event. Now, he's celebrating the biggest breakthrough of his career.
"I'm so happy that I came here and did what I came here to do," he said.
Kebenei, born in Kenya but a U.S. citizen for just over a year, stayed close to the front while first Brian Shrader and then Tim Ritchie led a cagey, tactical race through San Marco and St. Nicholas.
A nine-man lead pack remained tightly packed onto the Hart Bridge, where Kebenei, perennial contender Landry and Kipchirchir broke clear by the top.
"I kind of made a surge at the top of the bridge, because I knew my legs only go so fast," said Landry, who has finished in the top five each year since 2012. "I wanted to hit top speed earlier rather than later."
But Kebenei turned on the acceleration during the blazing last mile to finish in 44:37, three seconds ahead of Kipchirchir and five clear of Landry.
A total of 16,270 runners participated in the 15K run, a decrease of more than 600 from last year. Events like the Brooks Rehabilitation Challenge Mile, however, had marked increases.
"It was hot, it was fun, and I think the people really enjoyed themselves," Alred said. "That's a good thing."