Ethiopia's Belay Tilahun, Not Included In Elite Field, Wins NYC Half

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NEW YORK (17-Mar) -- Belay Tilahun pulled off a surprise win in the United Airlines NYC Half here today, taking the lead only in the final kilometer to grab the men's title.  Tilahun, who was entered by a local club and started just behind the invited pro athletes, was clocked in 1:02:10. There was no such drama on the women's side, where world record holder Joyciline Jepkosgei won by a full minute after a solo effort over the second half of the race.

This was the 14th running of the event, which featured a hilly, challenging point-to-point course from Brooklyn's Prospect Park to Manhattan's Central Park, finishing in the same spot as the TCS New York City Marathon. More than 25,000 runners competed in the 13.1 mile/21.1 kilometer race.

Tilahun, a 23-year-old Ethiopian who lives and trains in Addis Ababa, worked his way through the field, outlasting Daniel Mesfun of Eritrea in the final stretch on a cold and sunny morning. Temperatures were barely above freezing (35F/2C) as the race began, with Americans Paul Chelimo and Parker Stinson making brief attempts to control the pace in the opening two miles/3 kilometers.

Mesfun, who set a personal best 1:01:13 to win the Humana Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Half Marathon in Tempe, Arizona, in January, bolted to the front just past two miles and continued to lengthen his gap on the field. He hit 5-K in 14:43 and by 10-K (29:09), he was eight seconds ahead of Chelimo, the 2016 Olympic silver medalist in the 5000 meters who was making his half marathon debut. Tilahun had moved into third by 10-K (29:22) and was soon running with Chelimo.

At 15-K Mesfun (43:49) still had a lead of more than 20 seconds and appeared on his way to a comfortable victory. But over the final miles in Central Park, Tilahun suddenly surged into view, and with Mesfun clearly fading, seized his opportunity. Mesfun's lead was down to just two seconds at 20-K (58:53) and he could not respond moments later when Tilahun came flying by. The Ethiopian broke the tape in 1:02:10, with Mesfun (1:02:16) just ahead of the fast-closing Chelimo (1:02:19).

"When I came here I was confident that I had it in me to win," Tilahun said through an interpreter. "Starting from about 15-K I was using everything I had, and I thought with about two kilometers to go I could catch him." Though he has impressive credentials-- including a 27:11.83 PR for the 10,000 meters from 2016 and a win at the São Silvestre Road Race 15-K in São Paulo, Brazil, last New Year's Eve-- Tilahun did not come to the start line as part of the invited pro field. He wore bib 1163.

Chelimo experienced a series of weather-related travel delays on his journey from his home in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He arrived in New York City in the early morning hours of Saturday, but remained determined to score a win in his debut. "I think I'm very fit, but the New York Half is no joke," he said. "I'm used to the track [and this course was] just up and down and up and down, the terrain was hilly, flat, hilly, so I didn't have that turnover." Coming off the highest mileage of his career, he was using the event to improve his strength for the track, where he hopes to race the 5000/10,000 double at this year's IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

Olympic marathoner Jared Ward finished fourth in 1:02:33, leading a wave of American runners as the next seven finishers across the line, including Noah Droddy (fifth in 1:02:39) and Brogan Austin (sixth in 1:02:41). Defending champ Ben True finished 10th in 1:02:56.

The professional invited women, who had a 12 minute head start on the rest of the field, ran a conservative pace in the early kilometers in Brooklyn, just under 6 minutes for the first mile and a comfortable 17:31 for the opening 5-K. In the fifth mile/8th kilometer, as the runners crossed the Manhattan Bridge between boroughs, Jepkosgei, Kenyan compatriot Mary Ngugi and defending champion Buze Diriba of Ethiopia began to surge. Kenyan Edna Kiplagat, Americans Emma Bates, Des Linden and Kellyn Taylor maintained contact until the sixth mile/10 kilometer, when Jepkosgei, who holds the half marathon world record (1:04:51 in Valencia, Spain, in 2017), made a decisive move. She passed 10-K in 33:51 and continued to drop the pace through 15-K (49:55), with the chase pack (now down to Diriba, Ngugi, Bates and Linden) nearly 40 seconds behind.

Jepkosgei cruised through Central Park, hitting 20-K in 1:06:28 before breaking the tape in 1:10:07. Ngugi out-sprinted Diriba for second, with both women clocked in 1:11:07. Bates (1:11:13), who had maintained contact with the African pair through 20-K, pulled away from Linden (1:11:22) for fourth.

"I didn't think I would be running by myself like that," admitted Jepkosgei, who will make her long-awaited marathon debut in Hamburg, Germany, on April 28. "But when I started to maintain the pace there was nobody behind me, so I decided to go on my own. I did not want to chase anyone, I was running my own race."

Bates, who won the USATF marathon championship last December, achieved her goal to be the top American finisher in New York. "I wanted to shoot for that spot and try to pick off as many people as I could," said the Boise State grad, who trains in solitary in the mountains in Idaho. "The last 800 meters I just had nothing left. [Ngugi and Diriba] just have that extra kick in the end so there was no keeping up with them. But I'm proud of my effort and I ran pretty even pace."

Many athletes in the field were using the race as preparation for a spring marathon. That includes Linden, who last year became the first American woman to win the Boston Marathon since 1985 and will seek to defend her title on April 15. She came to New York hoping to test her competitive gears on a course that presents similar challenges to Boston. "I don't think I've ever had a performance in New York that was as good as this in terms of just really competing and engaging," she said. "I probably got over my head a few times and then recovered just fine. I was able to cover some things, fall back, regroup, remain in contact after that. That's what racing is all about. Really good practice and a good positive step for the last couple of weeks heading into Boston."

The winners each took home $20,000, with prize money going down to 12th place as part of a $115,000 race purse.

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