Can’t catch ‘Le-Fever’

By on July 10, 2019

Ephrata grad breezes to second Firecracker title; Lititz’s Shields takes women’s crown


At left, Ephrata’s Zach Lefever is about to cross the finish line to win the 42nd annual Ephrata Firecracker Run last Thursday. At right, Lefever and female champion Sam Shields get together following the race. Shields, from Lititz, is a teammate of Lefever’s at the University of Pittsburgh. Photos by Dick Wanner

Zach Lefever and female champion Sam Shields get together following the race. Shields, from Lititz, is a teammate of Lefever’s at the University of Pittsburgh. Photos by Dick Wanner


The last time Zach Lefever won the Ephrata Firecracker Run, which was his first title, the Ephrata High School graduate barely had enough energy left in the tank as he crossed the finish line.

Two years later, the now junior-to-be at the University of Pittsburgh was smooth as silk last Thursday for the 42nd running of the annual Fourth of July race. Lefever went out fast and went wire-to-wire, cruising in well-ahead of the rest of the field with a winning time of 25:38, which happens to be the fastest time posted in 12 years.

“I was just a lot more confident throughout the course this year,” Lefever said when asked of the difference between this race and his last Firecracker title run. “From the second the race started, I wanted to take it from the gun because I thought that if I took it from the gun and make a huge gap, then I could keep it and just be a little more confident. I prefer to run out in front. It gives me confidence because the pace is mine and I can control it. And so I think I was just a little more confident this year and I controlled the race a bit more than the last time.”

Lefever was never pushed as he finished well ahead of the pack. Chris Myers was a distant second, finishing some 45 seconds off the pace with a time of 26:23. Duncan Hopkins was third at 26:41, while the rest of the top 10 included: 4. Jake Underwood (27:00); 5. John Wallace (27:08); 6. Alex Smith (27:23); 7. three-time champ Daryl Weaver (27:42); 8. Andrew Friesema (27:44); 9. Andrew Hinrichs (27:58); and 10. Brad Sweigart (28:41).

“Winning this race is really big,” Lefever said. “I grew up being a runner in Ephrata and I’d come here and see Daryl (Weaver) win it seemingly every year. He was the guy to beat all of the time and I was like, I want to be that guy that everyone is looking to beat. Running is what I love to do and so being able to show Ephrata what I do, it’s pretty special.”

On the women’s side, Lefever’s Pittsburgh teammate, Samantha Shields, a Warwick High School grad, opened up a big lead early and cruised to her first Firecracker title. Shields finished with a winning time of 29:54 (19th overall), which was nearly two and a half minutes ahead of runner-up Brenda Hodge (32:20).

“This was my first time (running the Firecracker)…It was a lot of fun,” Shields said. “I feel like I didn’t really have a plan going in because I was looking at it more as like a fun thing. I always just think about fun…work hard but still enjoy it. And that’s what I did.”

Ephrata senior-to-be Mary Campbell, who recently earned a sixth-place medal in the 1,600 at the State track meet, took third place with a time of 33:19. Rounding out the top 10 on the women’s side were: 4. Maria Anderson (33:28); 5. Vanessa Andes (33:28); 6. Kristen Martin (33:51); 7. Alix Sheakley (34:04); 8. Nichole Diller (34:51); 9. Daria Neaves (35:06); and 10. Jessica Gockley (35:11).

Lefever, who two years ago became the youngest winner in the history of the race at age 18, said while it was pretty much smooth sailing the entire way last Thursday, there was a point in the race where doubt did creep into his mind a little bit.

“I was at the top of Pine St. and was like, wow, I went out pretty fast. I don’t know if I can hold this. But I was able to keep it together. The top of Pine was definitely the biggest test of the race though.”

With another Firecracker title under his belt, Lefever will train the rest of his summer to prepare for his junior season at Pitt. This past Spring, Lefever was the last of 48 competitors to advance to the National prelims in the steeplechase, where he ended up finishing 20th.

“I ended up running really well there,” he said. “I broke 9 (minutes) in the steeplechase for the first time there so that was a big PR and a big milestone for me.”

Shields said her first Firecracker experience was quite enjoyable, particularly because of the hometown crowd.

“I almost feel like racing is just so fun because you have so many people cheering for you and it just kind of makes you excited,” she said. “That’s why I liked it so much because I feel that everyone will say hi or cheer for you. I was a swim team coach last year and one of the kids that I coached came up and said hi to me. That sort of thing I just love. That’s why I like Lititz and Lancaster County so much. You just see so many people you know, even when I’m on regular runs. I always run on the Ephrata trail. You always pass the same people and they are always like, ‘good job, keep going.’ I love that.”

Shields is entering her final college season and hopes to improve upon her junior year which she said was a little up and down.

“It was good. I was happy with my cross country season but I kind of went through some stuff for in-door and outdoor and didn’t hit the goals that I wanted, but I’m more excited for this year,” she said.

The fact that a pair of Pitt runners and teammates won the race was not lost on Lefever.

“I ran with her all throughout high school, and now with both of us being teammates at Pitt, it kind of brings everything home which is pretty cool,” he said.

One other note, because both runners are still competing in college, neither could keep their prize money from the race because of NCAA regulations. Lefever donated his prize to the Ephrata High School cross country program while Shields gave hers to Warwick cross country.

A total of 557 runners finished Thursday’s running of the Firecracker, one of the bigger fields in recent memory.


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