The Governor’s Cup will be loaded with intrigue, but perhaps no more so than the women’s 5,000-kilometer race, starring two of Helena’s distance running titans.
While the other races – 10K, half-marathon, marathon, marathon relay – have talented entries, the 5K this year could be the Governor’s crown jewel.
Former Carroll College standout Leah Esposito will make her first appearance in the race, challenging longtime Olympic-caliber runner Heather Lieberg of Helena, who is aiming to set another record.
More than a fair share of ink has been written about the two.
Esposito recently wrapped up a cross country and track and field career at Carroll College. The Clancy native ended her collegiate with 20 NAIA All-American performances, most recently placing second in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NAIA national outdoor track and field meet. In nearly any season over the past eight years, through Esposito’s high school and college careers, you were likely to find the runner’s name appearing in the Independent Record, usually with a high finish in tow.
This will be Esposito’s first 5K in the Governor’s Cup, though she certainly has run similar distances on the track and manicured cross country courses. A road race will present a different running condition and speed, styles that Esposito hasn’t trained for since focusing the majority of her attention on the steeplechase. Esposito said in road or cross country races, she leans on pace or position per mile. When she’s running on a track, she’s on a per-lap pace, which she said she found repetitive and easier to lose focus.
“I see road and cross-country 5Ks as pretty similar besides the fact that a road race is usually faster depending on the course,” Esposito told the Independent Record. “A track 5K seems so much longer in my opinion and I race it a lot differently. In a road or cross 5K I usually go by a pace or position per mile, where on the track I go per lap, which makes it repetitive, and I find myself losing focus easier."
This race is Esposito’s first step outside of competing for Helena High or Carroll College, one that has her coach excited to see what’s in store for her running future. While she is a fiery competitor, Esposito wasn’t sure about making a run at Lieberg.
“I think she is an amazing athlete, and from the interactions I have had with her she is humble and very nice,” Esposito said. “As far as racing her goes, she is going to kick my butt for sure -- not only because she is an Olympic-caliber athlete but also because since nationals I haven't really done any speed work.”
Lieberg, meanwhile, has been carving out her own space in the competitive running world, and winning in her home town to boot. Lieberg qualified for the 2016 U.S. Olympic marathon trials, and shares a Governor’s Cup record of championships at four separate distances with Karen Sanford Gall of Billings. Lieberg has won the Governor’s Cup in the 5K, 10K half-marathon and marathon. Last year’s victory was the seventh for Lieberg.
She’s a record-setting runner at her best.
Lieberg won the 5K last year in a time of 17:34, set the record in the 10K in 2015 at 35:24, set the record in the half marathon in 2014 at 1:17.25 and set the record in the marathon in 2013 at 2:45.59.
To grab the record in the 5K, she’ll have to best Nicole Hunt’s 17:11 set in 2003.
“The record is still standing from Nicole and it very well may be still standing after Saturday,” Lieberg told the Independent Record. “It’s an awesome record and it would take a perfect day and a little luck to break it … but I guess never say never.”
Lieberg, too, is primarily focused on her marathon and longer distances.
“These distances are so foreign to me, so again this will be another learning experience,” Lieberg said. “My hope is that if I can get more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in these shorter races it will result in a better marathon time, which is my main goal and focus with my training.”
The two will make for a dynamic race, whether they’re racing each other or themselves. Esposito said she’s running for fun, and Lieberg has the record in the back of her mind.
“I think what they have in common is that they always get the work in,” said David Morris, Carroll’s distance running coach who coaches both athletes. “They know that to run well they have to get the work in before race day.
“Most people don’t have the drive or self-discipline to do that. They are both very competitive as well.”
Morris said the two have been training extensively. Esposito has kept running since her college career ended, a weekly regime that includes Sundays. Lieberg, Morris said, might be doing two training sessions in a day while teaching and parenting, or finding time for a long run of over 20 miles.
Lieberg, who at one point swore her 5K in the Governor’s Cup last year would be the last time she ran that particular race, has a goal to finish feeling much better than she did last year.
“I’m the new girl on the block with the 5K. My theory is to expect the unexpected,” Lieberg said.