Brianne Nelson said she was super-relaxed.
Then she felt super-strong.
Still, she was “super-shocked,” when she won.
Five kilometers is not her game, but the 33-year-old from Golden, Colo., used low expectations to get comfortable early, used her strength on the hills in the middle, then gave herself a pleasant surprise by gradually pulling away from favorite Sara Hall to win the 38th Freihofer’s Run for Women 5k on Saturday.
More accustomed longer distances — Nelson was third at the 2016 USA Track & Field Half Marathon Championships on April 25 — she held the speed-oriented elite runners at bay to post a 15:46, nine seconds ahead of Hall, to earn the $10,000 first-place check.
“This was a huge surprise to me,” Nelson said. “[The] 5k is a little out of my wheelhouse. I always try to pick one race I don’t do a year, and I heard positive things about Freihofer’s.
“I booked my ticket out here and didn’t really have much expectations today, but I thought it would be better to just start from the gun and hurt from the start, because this is a short race.”
The distance may not have suited Nelson, but the hills did.
She said Freihofer’s was her first official career 5k race at sea level, but the uphill start from the State Capitol Building and the rolling inclines and declines in Washington Park offered the rough water she’s comfortable with.
Nelson was part of a tight lead pack of 11, with Hall tracking just behind, that climbed up the long Washington Avenue hill at the start.
By the mile mark in 5:15, that pack had nearly disintegrated, with just 2012 Gazette Stockade-athon champion Maegan Krifchin, Serena Burla and Jessica Watychowicz shoulder-to-shoulder behind Nelson, and Hall lurking behind them.
Nelson worked those hills in the second mile for a 5:08 split and about a 20-meter lead on Hall. That lead got longer bit by bit, while Nelson was refreshed by two cups of water she splashed on her head and by a cheering throng of Freihofer’s walkers headed in the opposite direction once she left the park and got back on Washington Avenue for the long downhill home.
“At that moment I don’t feel hot, but given another 800 meters, I could start to feel warm. That water was right there and easy to grab, and why not,” Nelson said.
“It’s super-motivating to hear these women screaming. In my head, I was thinking about all the other women out there and how strong and tough they are, and congratulations to all of them and thanks for your support.”
In the meantime, her lead over Hall, a four-time qualifier for the World Cross Country Championships who finished 12th in the London Marathon this spring, was comfortable enough.
But considering she was on the verge of an unexpected victory against runners with quicker leg turnover, she didn’t dare look back.
“No. I didn’t want to lose a second,” she said with a laugh. “I felt like this race could come down to a kick, so . . .
“I was actually super-shocked to win. I’m not a 5k runner. Like I said, there were a ton of speedy women, and I do not consider myself one of them. Hills are definitely what I feel confident and strong in, being from Colorado. And I knew they assembled a great field, and especially Sara Hall was definitely on my radar.”
Hall said the race was lost not at the end, but at the beginning.
“I got a little bit of a bad start coming up the hill,” Hall said. “That was kind of a tough start. I wasn’t too concerned, because I tend to like to work my way up in races, but, from the beginning, that was where she got away from me. She ran really strong, she’s in great shape.
“I actually felt like that was the smarter way to run. You can take the sting out of your legs going too hard up the hill like a lot of people did. As you could see, we were really strung out at the end. If I had to do it again, I’d stay a little closer, probably.”
Krifchin held comfortably for third in a time of 16:11, and Allie Kieffer of New York (16:18) and Serena Burla of Stafford, Va. (16:21) rounded out the top five.
Renee Tolan, 41, of Clifton Park was in terrific position to win the masters division, but she was outkicked by Marisa Sutera Strange in the final 800 meters to finish second.
Tolan and fellow masters athlete Sheri Piers ran together through the first mile, then it was Tolan, Piers and Sutera Strange to the two-mile mark before Piers dropped off.
Tolan just couldn’t match Sutera Strange’s speed down the hill, as Sutera Strange won the masters in 17:41, a mere three seconds ahead of Tolan, whose daughters, Sydney, 9, and Addison, 6 (soon to be 7), cheered from the bleachers.
“I actually pulled ahead of Marisa, but with about 800 meters left, my God, man, whoo . . . amazing, amazingly strong runner,” Tolan said.
“I was in position. I wanted to be a contender, and was. I missed by a few seconds. I ran probably about 30 seconds faster than last year, and there’s only so much you can do.”