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HOUSTON (20-Jan) -- Despite near-freezing conditions, the top women running the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon and Chevron Houston Marathon posted very fast times, including the fastest-ever half-marathon run on American soil by Kenya's Brigid Kosgei (1:05:50), nearly an American record by Emily Sisson in the same race (1:07:30), and the third-fastest time ever by a woman in the marathon in the Houston Marathon by Ethiopia's Birutayit Degefa (2:23:28).
At the start at 07:00 in Downtown Houston, the temperature was only 1C/33F, and the warm Texas sun hadn't yet come up over the horizon. However, conditions were dry and the winds were only light, at least by Houston standards.
While the men in the half-marathon made a tepid start, only running 14:30 for the first 5 kilometers and immediately leaving the $15,000 course record bonus on the table, the women showed a potent combination of ambition and restraint. With the help of a male pacer, the contenders hit the 5-K mark in a reasonable 16:07, about a 68-minute pace. That was fast enough to keep the 1:06:49 course record in the frame, but not so fast that everyone risked blowing up early. Nine women were in that lead pack, including Sisson who was worried that things were moving a bit too slowly since her stated goal was to break sixty-eight minutes and possibly threaten Molly Huddle's national record of 1:07:25.
"That's one of the mistakes I made," Sisson told reporters after the race. "I talked to my coach, Ray (Treacy) about wearing a GPS watch or not. We thought it would be better to go off the splits on the course (which she had trouble seeing). I think we went out a little too slow and it cost me some time."
Kosgei, and the other top contenders including Kenyan compatriots Fancy Chemutai, Edith Chelimo and Gladys Cherono, felt that the pace was too sluggish, and took things up a notch. They squeezed down to 15:26 for the second 5-K segment, then to a very fast 15:18 for the third. That put everyone out of contention except for Kosgei and Chemutai.
"Everyone wanted to be in position-one, and everyone wanted to be a winner," Kosgei explained. "Everyone was just trying to push the pace."
Kosgei, who won last October's Bank of America Chicago Marathon, was finally able to shake Chemutai in the race's final quarter. By the 20-K mark she had an insurmountable 43-second lead, and was now racing the clock. She said later that she was fit enough to run in the 64's, but it was simply too cold to run at top speed.
"I was hoping to run 64, but due to coldness (I didn't)," she lamented.
Nonetheless, her mark of 1:05:50 smashed the 1:06:29 course record of Mary Wacera set here in 2016, which was also the USA all-comer's record. That translated into a $45,000 payday for Kosgei here today: $20,000 for the win, $15,000 for a new course record, and $10,000 for breaking 1:09:00.
"In my training I prepared well; that's why I ran sixty-five," Kosgei said. "I was surprised, due to the coldness."
Chemutai finished second in 1:06:48, Ethiopia's Ruti Aga got third in 1:06:56, and Kenya's Monicah Ngige was fourth in 1:07:29.
Sisson, who split 31:49 for the first 10-K, faded a bit over the next 10 kilometers (32:14) and lost valuable time against Huddle's record. Nonetheless, she ran the second-fastest time ever by an American woman on a record-quality course, surpassing Olympic medalist Deena Kastor on the USA all-time list.
"I felt some mixed feelings," Sisson said when evaluating her race. "I think I was a little disappointed at first because I was so close to Molly's record. I think I made some mistakes that cost me a bit, but tomorrow I'll be pretty happy with it. Given some perspective, I'm like around Molly and Deena Kastor's half-marathon times and they're incredible runners."
In the full marathon, Degefa's primary competition was the clock. Through halfway (1:12:52) only two other women could match the tiny Ethiopia's pace, compatriots Meseret Belete and Etaferahu Temesgen. By 30-K (1:42:23) only Belete was still with her, and with a 16:58 split to the 35-K mark Degefa was alone. She knew she was off of course record pace, but she tried to make up time. She had won the race twice before and was getting extra motivation from spectators.
"By the half of the race I knnew I would not be able to break the record," she told reporters through a translator. "But I was determined to make it up. When I was 800 meters from the finish line I knew it was close."
Her time of 2:23:28 was just 14 seconds off of Alemitu Abera's 2012 record of 2:23:14. Still, she earned a $10,000 bonus for running under 2:24, giving her a total payday of $55,000: $45,000 for the win plus $10,000 for breaking 2:24:00.
"When I prepared to come here to Houston I really get excited," Degefa gushed. "I come to win."
Belaynesh Fikadu, an Ethiopian attached to the West Side Runners club in New York City, moved up from fifth position at halfway to take second in a personal best 2:26:41. She passed the flagging Meseret Belete between 40-K and the finish. Belete had to settle for third in 2:26:56.
The top American woman was Kelsey Bruce of Brackettville, Texas, who rebounded from a disappointing performance at last November's TCS New York City Marathon finishing sixth overall here in a personal best of 2:31:53.
Olympian Kara Goucher, who started her first marathon in nearly three years here this morning, was unable to finish, dropping out at 31 kilometers. She had run the first half of the race on her goal pace of a 2:37 finish, but an old hamstring injury flared up forcing her to first limp, then stop.
"I was just trying to stay around six-minute pace," Goucher told Taylor Dutch who recorded an interview with her for Flotrack. "I got through 16 (miles) and I felt like there was a good ten miles left in the body. Then, this old hamstring injury, I started to feel it." She continued: "By the time I hit 18 it was causing me to walk."
In the men's competitions here, the top times weren't as fast as the women's, but there was some exciting, head-to-head racing. Shura Kitata of Ethiopia, second at both the London and New York marathons last year, overcame a directional bobble near the finish when the top-4 contenders momentarily followed an exiting lead vehicle. That might have cost the fastest man in the field, compatriot Jemal Yimer, the win. Kitata clocked 1:00:11 to Yimer's 1:00:14. Bedan Karoki of Kenya, who was responsible for picking up the pace in the middle of the race, was third in 1:00:18. Impressively, nine men broke 62 minutes and 19 broke 63 minutes.
"It was a very stiff competition," Kitata said through a translator. "It was a really hard race, but I was well-prepared for it. I took the bull by the horns and I had to finish well."
Reed Fischer was the top American in a personal 1:02:06.
In the men's marathon, three men were still in contention at the 40-K mark. Kenya's Albert Korir was running side-by-side with Ethiopia's Yitayal Atnafu, last year's runner-up, while another Kenyan, Justus Kimutai, was only five seconds behind. Korir, who kept his warm hat on until the final meters before the finish, was chilled to the bone but knew he had to keep pressing the pace if he was going to stay in front.
"It was a very tough race," he said, wearing the traditional winner's cowboy hat in the post-race press conference. "The weather was terrible, windy and cold."
Korir, who was on his first-ever visit to the United States, gently eased away from Atnafu in the final kilometer to get the win in 2:10:02, six seconds up on the Ethiopian. Kimutai, who seemed to be making up ground earlier, faded to finish third in 2:10:25. Korir won $45,000 in prize money, but was not eligible for a time bonus.
"I am grateful to win this race for the first time in America," he said.
The top American man was Tyler Jermann of Minneapolis in 2:13:29, a personal best.