Those eight tried to keep pace with one another throughout the 10-kilometer course. As the pack neared the finish line, they became a gang of five.
Then with a late burst, Menistu Nebsi, 36, pulled away and was the first to cross the finish. The native of Ethiopia completed his first St. Patrick’s Road Race in 29 minutes, 42 seconds to take top honors.
“For the first mile, everybody was watching each other,’’ Nebsi said. “When it got down to four or five us, I knew I had to move faster.’’
It was a great day, not only for the Irish, who came out in droves for the event, but for Ethiopians. The female winner, Askale Merachi, 27, is also a native of the African nation and like Nebsi, is a recent immigrant living in New York City.
“I’m proud to have two runners from my country win the race,’’ Merachi said.
She had every reason to be proud of her effort, which established a new course record. Merachi’s time of 33:14 broke the previous record, held by Leslie Lehane since 1991, by three seconds.
“I waited to make a move and took the lead at the 7-kilometer mark,’’ Merachi said. “There was a lot of competition.’’
Most of the runners were not in the elite class of the Ethiopians. Many, including a large contingent from Hampshire County, came to compete and have fun.
Samantha Presnal, of Belchertown, was one of those runners. She set a personal best with a time of 39:35 in her first time running the event.
“This was a tough course and I was pretty happy with my time,’’ Presnal said. “The hills were tough, but at least they come in the beginning so you can get your stride back and your legs going.’’
Presnal was a softball standout at Belchertown High School and did not run until after she attended Amherst College.
“I didn’t race in high school or college, but then I got into it,’’ Presnal said. “There are so many great races around here.’’
The one thing Presnal, who attends New York University, doesn’t do is put pressure on herself.
“There’s no pre-race anxiety or anything like that,’’ she said. “I train when I want and run just for fun.’’
David Johnson, of Northampton, just missed a top-10 finish. The 25-year-old finished in 32:40 and was nine seconds from 10th.
Ivan Cordero, 27 of Northampton, was 29th in 34:26.
Among the top 50 were: Chris Buell, 32 of Belchertown, was 35th (35:33), Matt Musiak, 32 of Easthampton, was 41st (36:11) and South Hadley’s Nick Davis, 24, was 45th in 26:23.
A pair of South Hadley runners, Caroline Sullivan and Grace Bailly, finished second and third, respectively, in the high school female division behind winner Maggie McAndrew (42:08) of Holyoke. Sullivan, 16, came in at 42:22 and Bailly finished at 42:32.
Blake Croteau of Westfield repeated as top high school male in 32:07 (eighth overall).
Emily Bryans, 46, of Delanson, N.Y., won the female masters in 38:04. Joseph Ekuom, 44, of Kingston, R.I., took first in the male masters in 33:22.
Carole Jones, 57, of Ashburn, Va., won the female seniors division in 47:13. Michael Spitzer, 51, of Sheffield, was first in the male seniors at 38:40.
Betty Quinn, 63, of Springfield, won the female veterans division in 51:28, while William Dixon, 66, of Brattleboro, Vt., was first in male veterans at 38:15.
The top Holyoke female was Joni Beauvais, 29, in 41.17. The top Holyoke male was Joseph Hodgins, 25, in 36:57.
The top Irish-American female was Kate MacLellan, 25 of Norwood, in 46:40. The top Irish-American male was Thomas O’Grady, 28, of Latham, N.Y., in 33:07 (13th overall).
John F. Kennedy award winners Dick and Rick Hoyt, of Boston Marathon fame, served as official starters for the race.
There were 5,934 runners and 800 walkers.