Ethiopians Belete Assefa and Wube Ayalew win Crescent City Classic

Belete Assefa wins the men's division in the 33rd annual Crescent City Classic in New Orleans

It was an Ethiopian celebration Saturday at the 33rd annual Crescent City Classic sponsored by The Times-Picayune, with Belete Assefa, 20, of Ethiopia taking the men’s crown in 28:14 and his countrywoman Wude Ayalew, 24, capturing the women’s title in 31:34.

By winning the Crescent City Classic on Saturday in 28:14, Belete Assefa – a little-known 20-year-old Ethiopian – served notice he is a powerful new force on the international running scene, deserving of a place in the rarefied ranks of the planet’s elite athletes.

Then he did something the 20,000 everyday runners, joggers and walkers behind him could identify with: He staggered to the medical tent, and flopped onto a stretcher in a pool of sweat seeking aid for cramps and breathing difficulties.

Belete Assefa wins the men's division in the 33rd annual Crescent City Classic in New Orleans
Belete Assefa wins the men's division in the 33rd annual Crescent City Classic in New Orleans

“It was the humidity,” Assefa admitted after recovering. “In my country, it gets hot. We run in hot weather. But this (humidity) is not there. That made it very, very tough today.”

But not too tough for Ethiopian runners. Assefa’s countrywoman, Wude Ayalew, captured the women’s crown in 31:34, crushing defending champion Lineth Chepkurui of Kenya by 11 seconds.

Twenty-three-year old Ethiopian Wude Ayalew, who had been trailing the top two all morning, made the move that won the race as the course wound around the New Orleans Museum of Art.

“I was well-trained,” Ayalew said. “I trained with the national team in Ethiopia, and I knew I was going to win this one.”

With just inches between the three runners for most of the race, Ayalew picked up speed, something her competition wasn’t able to do after moving from shady Esplanade Avenue into the bright, sticky sunlight of the Classic’s final mile.

By the time she crossed the finish line, Ayalew had run away from the field, posting a winning time of 31:33 that was 11 seconds better than the two-time champ.

“She’s my friend. I know her well,” Ayalew said of Chepkirui. “She has beaten me many times, and I have beaten her many times. I know she is a strong runner.”

Both winning times, which earned each winner $5,000, were well off the course marks of 27:11 for men, 30:27 for women, but no one had expected record times. As the 8:30 a.m. start approached, the temperature was pushing 80 with humidity to match, less than ideal racing conditions. Besides, many of the sport’s top stars had taken the week off after Monday’s Boston Marathon.

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