ALBANY -- Three runners, three interior monologues.
Sarah Pagano: Hey, I don't have to settle for second or third. I'm still in this.
Stephanie Bruce: Go as hard as you can.
Diane Nukuri: Oh, maybe I have this.
The dreaded "maybe."
Nukuri led the 40th Freihofer's Run for Women 5k almost all the way on Saturday, but "almost" and "maybe" didn't quite cut it, as Pagano put her foot down and refused to settle for anything less than first, pulling out a dramatic victory in 15:48.
She kicked past Nukuri with just under a quarter of a mile left in the 3.1-mile race, as they went by One Commerce Plaza on the Washington Avenue downhill toward the finish in front of City Hall. Bruce (15:53) also improved her place just before the line, catching Nukuri (15:56) for second.
The Freihofer's Run celebrated its 40th running with one of the most competitive finishes the race has seen in recent years, as the trio of runners pulled out of an early lead pack of 10 and stuck together until Pagano's decisive late burst.
The 26-year-old New Jersey native, who lives in Brighton, Mass., while running for the Boston Athletic Association, was making her Freihofer's debut, but said she still found a comfort zone considering she's a former Syracuse University distance runner.
"Upstate New York seems like a home to me, so it feels very familiar coming back, anywhere in upstate New York," she said. "My family actually is all here, my grandparents and my parents and my brother and my aunt, so it kind of feels like home to me."
And they're off pic.twitter.com/JjCwNpcavO— Mike MacAdam (@Mike_MacAdam) June 2, 2018
Nukuri was the tip of the arrowhead for most of the race and appeared comfortable, but the 5k distance caught up with the three-time Olympian, who prefers longer races, before she could quite get to the finish line first.
At the two-mile mark in Washington Park, after the runners had made it through the series of rolling hills, Nukuri led Bruce, then Pagano, in a tight line, and Nukuri still led making the right turn onto Washington Avenue for the long downhill straightaway.
Pagano moved past Bruce into second by the 4k, where Nukuri's split time was 12:56, and the three runners stayed in lockstep for much of the runway descent, until Pagano made a move for which Nukuri had no answer.
"I knew there was a big downhill, and from the looks of it on the way out, I knew we would have a tailwind, so use everything you can," Pagano said. "I was hurting. We all were. But that's what got me thinking, 'Hey, I don't have to settle for second or third. I'm still in this.'
"So I decided to give it one last push, which got me up to Diane, and I thought, 'Hey, I could still do this.' Just fight to the end, and it worked out."
Of the top three, Pagano was best equipped for the Freihofer's Run based on the 5k distance.
Nukuri, who was ninth at the New York City Marathon in 2017, prefers much longer races, and Bruce, who frequently trains with Nukuri in Flagstaff, Ariz., was coming off a 2:32:28 for 10th place at the London Marathon on April 22.
Still, Nukuri liked her chances on Saturday when she came out of Washington Park.
"I thought I got them," she said. "I felt pretty good and thought, 'Oh, maybe I have this.' Then all of a sudden, my legs were just ... bad. And that's a really long finish. I gave it everything I had. I did all the work, and it didn't take me there."
"Diane's really strong and trains in Flagstaff, so we do a lot of running together, but I know with a downhill finish, that lends to the kickers," Bruce said. "I'm not necessarily the fastest, but I've committed over the last year to, the last minute of every race, I just say, 'Go as hard as you can.' I knew the race is never over until you cross the finish, and I wanted to give myself a chance to the very end."
Allie Kieffer of Buffalo even gave Nukuri a run at the end, finishing less than a second behind her in fourth after watching the lead trio from 15-20 meters behind for much of the race.
Based on resumes, Nukuri was considered the favorite coming into the race, if not a prohibitive one in a deep elite field. Pagano, who earned a check for $10,000 for the victory, took charge when it mattered most.
"Diane is always strong ... stay with her as long as possible and stay smooth and relaxed," she said. "It was anyone's race, and that's always fun, not knowing."
Saratoga Springs High school junior Kelsey Chmiel, two days after finishing first in the 3,000 at the Section II state meet qualifier, finished 10th in the Freihofer's Run in 16:45.
A total of 2,781 runners finished the race. See complete results here.