The United Airlines NYC Half is often considered a springboard to future goals for elite runners, but that's doesn't mean they take the event lightly. American Olympians Des Linden and Paul Chelimo are approaching next Sunday's race as a critical competition, even as they use their trip to New York as an important test for upcoming targets.
Linden sees the race as a key test as she prepares to defend her Boston Marathon title in April, while Chelimo, the Rio Olympic silver medalist over 5000 meters, is hoping to gain strength from his debut at the 13.1-mile (21.1-km) distance that will serve him on the track. That said, neither athlete plans to just go through the motions on Sunday.
"It's the first real big race of the year for me," said Linden, who last year became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985, prevailing in brutal wintry weather conditions. Speaking on a conference call today hosted by New York Road Runners she added: "I don't want to call it a rust-buster, because it's a really big race and I have pretty big goals tackling it, a little bit different than I have in the past."
The 35-year-old Michigan resident has spent the winter training in Phoenix via long-distance tutelage of Michigan State coach Walt Drenth. "I've had my head buried in marathon training for a couple of months now," she says. "I'm tired, and I'm ready to put on the uniform and knock heads with some really great runners." This will be her sixth time running the NYC Half, which she views as a perfect tune-up for a title defense in Boston on April 15.
The course was reconfigured in 2018 (and will be slightly tweaked again this year), starting in Brooklyn's Prospect Park and crossing into Manhattan over to the hilly roadways of Central Park for a finish not far from the iconic endpoint of the TCS New York City Marathon. "Last year's course was challenging all the way through," Linden admitted. "It kept me a little more mentally focused and sharp, which is a great thing to have during a race. And just being present for 13.1 is good practice heading into the marathon, where you have to be patient and focused for the whole thing."
The women's field in New York includes world record holder Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya, who ran 1:04:51 in Valencia, Spain, in 2017; her countrywoman Edna Kiplagat, a two-time world champion in the marathon; and defending NYC Half champion Buze Diriba of Ethiopia. Linden set her half marathon PR of 1:10:34 back in 2011 and knows she doesn't have the leg speed of these rivals, but tough courses have tended to level the playing field. "I'm looking to cover moves and make smart race decisions and just really race and engage," she says. "The legs are still marathon heavy, so I don't know if that's going to be up front battling for the podium or mixing it up in the middle. My intent is to go in and race and compete."
Chelimo also put New York on his schedule for a challenging but competitive run. He has spent the winter increasing his weekly mileage to over 100 miles (161 kilometers), part of a plan take care of what he calls "unfinished business" on the track. After winning the Olympic silver medal in 2016, the Colorado Springs, Colorado, resident followed up with a world championships bronze in 2017 and saw huge improvements against the clock last year. He lowered his PR in the 5000 to 12:57.55 (making him the fourth fastest American of all time) in a Diamond League race in Brussels, but ironically views that race as a disappointment. He finished sixth and was 14 frustrating seconds behind the winner. "I realized that I need a lot of strength to run faster than that," Chelimo says. "I figured out that I have speed, now the thing I have to look for more is strength."
He's already gotten a taste of the excitement of racing in New York, winning the USATF 5-K title last November at the Abbott Dash for the Finish Line, then riding in the lead vehicle for the NYC Marathon the next day. "All over the streets people were cheering," he remembers. "And if I'm going to look for strength, the best place to go is New York."
Though he's new to the distance, Chelimo is aiming for a spot on top of the podium. He'll face off against a strong field of Americans, including defending champion Ben True, Olympians Abdi Abdirahman and Jared Ward and 2018 USATF marathon champion Brogan Austin, as well as Canadian Cam Levins, who set a national record in the marathon last fall. Daniel Mesfun of Eritrea and Evans Cheruiyot of Kenya should also be in the mix.
Chelimo has teased that he will eventually make a move up to the marathon, but admits that his preparation for this event has been humbling. "It's been tough training for the half marathon," he admits. "It's just draining. I've been running 100 miles five weeks in a row, and that's no joke."
For now he says he will continue to focus on the track, and Sunday's race will go a long way towards his timetable to make the leap. "I don't want to rush," he says. "If I go to the marathon, I'm going to go there with a plan to run fast. I feel like my future is in the marathon."