SOUTH KINGSTOWN — Among the group of elite runners who make the Run 4 Kerri Road Race an annual tradition, Will Sanders is known as the guy who starts fast.

The four-mile race features bonus prizes for the leader at each milepost, and Sanders seems to earn the first-mile bonus every year.

On Sunday, he stayed in front.

Sanders won the 18th annual race in 19 minutes, 35 seconds. The former University of Connecticut star outdueled defending champion John Busque to claim top honors.

“I’ve had some pretty good workouts, so I knew I could do a reasonable two miles and hold on for top five,” Sanders said. “My intention was to get the first mile with the least amount of effort, then try to push it to two and get that bonus, then hang on for top five. But nobody went, and I didn’t have to really work too hard. It got a little dicey right around three, but I was able to pull it together and stay strong.”

Rosa Moriello was the top female finisher, winning her second Run 4 Kerri crown. She had previously taken the title in her 2016 debut in the race. Top local finishers included Dylan Ferdinand of Narragansett and former high school cross country state champion Ellie Lawler of South Kingstown.

A field of 527 took on the heat and humidity of a steamy Matunuck morning, the largest crowd at the event since 2014.

“Brutal sun,” Sanders said. “Just jogging to the start line, I was dripping sweat.”

As usual, Sanders led the pack to the first mile marker. Outside of his 2011 debut, when he took first place, he typically ends up falling off the lead.

“I won it the first year I came out,” Sanders said. “Then I haven’t won it since. I’ve been top five or top three, but it’s been a long time since I won the thing.”

When he cleared two miles in the lead and had an answer to a challenge by Busque, he realized this year might be different.

“Busque pulled up ahead of me around two-and-a-half. He didn’t really get that far and I kind of just went with him,” Sanders said. “Once we took those sharp turns in a neighborhood, I pulled back into the lead and he sort of fell off a little bit. We passed three, and I was like, ‘I’ve just got to keep going and hope he doesn’t catch me, because I feel like I’m going to throw up.’”

Sanders was all alone as he rounded onto the final straightaway at Matunuck Elementary School. He raised his hands in triumph as he crossed the finish line, celebrating a win in a race that’s always on his calendar.

“It’s just the camaraderie of this race,” Sanders said. “I came into this race in either 2011 or 2012, right out of college. Started to look for all these races. I stumbled into all these guys. Ever since then, I keep coming back because I know all these guys and it’s just a great atmosphere.”

Bronson Venable of Warwick, Matt Pelletier of Oneco, Connecticut – the former Blessing of the Fleet king – and Keith McAteer of Westerly rounded out the top five behind Sanders and Busque.

Moriello finished 11th overall for the top spot among female runners, clocking in at 22:15. Moriello, a former Boston University runner, hadn’t participated for the last two years, following her 2016 title.

Margaret Connolly of Providence, Rebecca Snelson of New London, Connecticut, Sybil Shapiro of Vernon Rockville, Connecticut, and Steph Reilly of Northbridge, Massachusetts, made up the rest of the top five.

Ferdinand was the top area finisher, taking 14th place in 22:29. The local contingent also included Greg Motta of Saunderstown in 19th, Eric Lonergan of North Kingstown in 27th and Warren Angell of Wakefield in 33rd.

Lawler was the area’s top female finisher in 46th place with a time of 25:25. Now heading into her second year in the Division I ranks at Syracuse University, Lawler always finds time for the hometown race.

“I love this race,” Lawler said. “I’ve been doing it since seventh or eighth grade. It’s always really warm, but the community here is great. You see the same people every year. It’s really fun.”

A three-time state champion at South Kingstown High School, Lawler posted some good performances in her first cross country season with the Orange before missing much of the track season with an injury.

“I love the team and I love the atmosphere. The tactics my coaches use are great. Unfortunately, I got injured about halfway through the year so I was out for a while,” Lawler said. “I’m lucky to have a swimming background so I was in the pool every day. I was able to stay in shape. I treated the summer as getting back into the volume and getting ready for cross country.”

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