HOUSTON (18-Jan) -- One of America's oldest road racing records was toppled here today, as Ethiopian star Deribe Merga crushed Richard Kaitany's 19 year-old Chevron Houston Marathon record with a superb 2:07:52 solo effort. On the women's side, Dire Tune's one year-old course record was also surpassed by her friend Teyba Erkesso, who ran 2:24:18 in her first completed marathon.
Merga, who finished fourth in the Beijing Olympic Marathon and who was the overwhelming favorite here with a 2:06:38 personal best, attacked the course from the gun with the assistance of three pacemakers: Gebo Burka and Tilahun Regassa of Ethiopia, and Festus Langat of Kenya. Actually running ahead of the USA Half-Marathon Championships field on a parallel course through the first mile, Merga reached 10 km in 29:57 and half-way in 1:02:44.
"I was racing with a team," said Merga through a translator about the first half of the race.
The race starts before dawn, and when the sun began to show itself over the horizon in a cloudless sky after about 45 minutes of running, the temperature pushed past 60°F. Sweat poured from Merga's body because of the high Southern Texas humidity. He was still on pace to run sub-2:06 through 30 km (1:29:17), but a new foe began to show itself: the wind.
"There as also a wind factor," said Merga who slowed significantly in the final seven kilometers.
Nonetheless, as the crowd lining the finish straight cheered for Merga on his way to breaking the finish tape, race director Brant Kotch had to be a happy man. Kaitany's 1989 course record of 2:10:04, long a thorn in Kotch's side, was history.
"We are on the verge of the 20th anniversary of the men's marathon record," Kotch had told the media at last Friday's press conference shaking his head. "We've really put a target on the back of that record."
Also vanquished was three-time champion David Cheruiyot who was unable to finish the race. Kenyan Benson Cheruiyot finished a distant second in 2:11:53, and Russian Yuriy Abramov was third in 2:12:21.
Like Merga, Erkesso also ran aggressively. She was assisted by a male pacemaker, Mindaugas Pukstas of Lithuania, but she also had the company of an experienced rival: Romania's Nuta Olaru. She and Erkesso went through half-way just slightly slower than course record pace (1:12:23), but only Erkesso was able to hold that pace in the second half of the race. In fact she went faster, dropping a 1:11:55 for the second half to get under Tune's 2008 course record by a comfortable 22 seconds.
"I'm not good speaking English, sorry," Erkesso told the press after the race wearing the ceremonial cowboy hat given to the race winners. "My shape was good. Really, I'm happy."
When asked if Tune would be mad at her for breaking her course record, she laughed and looked a little embarassed as Tune looked on from the side of the podium. "No, she's happy," she said. "We're best friends."
This was not Erkesso's first marathon, but it was the first she had finished. She had made her debut in Chicago in 2007, the year it was extremely hot. She reached 30 km in 1:52:17, on pace to run about 2:38, but she dropped out.
Behind Erkesso, Olaru held on for second in 2:27:25, and Canada's Lioudmila Kortchaguina ran a solid 2:30:43 in third.
Both Merga and Erkesso earned $35,000 in prize money, plus $10,000 bonuses for breaking the course records.
Keflezighi Impresses With Dominant U.S. Half-Marathon Victory - Lewy Boulet Leads Women
Coming off of an injury-riddled year he might rather forget, Olympic Marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi convincingly demonstrated his return to form with a dominant victory here at today's U.S. Half-Marathon Championships hosted by the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon.
Keflezighi, 33, from San Diego, Calif., dropped the hammer early in the race to reach 5 km in 14:07, on pace to break Ryan Hall's course and American record of 59:43. His key rival, 26 year-old Dathan Ritzenhein, was about 8 seconds back and the rest of the field was quickly relegated to running for the minor places. Ritzenhein did his best to keep Keflezighi close, but the gap began to widen.
"I was trying to chase him down the whole way," said Ritzenhein after the race. "It felt rough. The legs didn't quite have anything."
Keflezighi reached 10 km in 28:40 with Ritzenhein 15 seconds behind. He seemed to have the race well in hand, but in the final 3 km he slowed slightly and Ritzenhein was able to narrow the gap. Ritzenhein's coach, Brad Hudson, offered to bet a reporter on the press truck $10 that his athlete would get the win.
It was not to be. Keflezighi stayed strong enough to clock a personal best 1:01:25 to win his first USA Half-Marathon title. Although he had won many other national championships in track, cross country and road running, he said that this one was particularly special.
"It was a rough year, period," he said of 2008 when he battled a stress reaction in his pelvis for the first half of the year which caused him to see some 25 different doctors for help. "This is probably the sweetest national title I ever got. I've won about 15, 16 national titles, but this one is the most special one because of what I've come over."
Ritzenhein finished a solid second in 1:01:35, the second-fastest of the three half-marathons he's run. He considered it to be a very good effort because he has yet to begin his build-up for the Flora London Marathon on April 26.
"I'm still getting in shape," said Ritzenhein.
Finishing a surprising third was McMillan's Elite's Brett Gotcher in a two-minute personal best of 1:02:09. Andrew Carlson, also part of the Flagstaff-based McMillan group, also set a career best time of 1:02:21 in fourth place, as did marathon Olympian Brian Sell of the Brooks-Hanson Distance Project in fifth place (1:02:36).
Lewy Boulet Earns First National Title
Magdalena Lewy Boulet, who made her first Olympic team last year at 35 years-old, enjoyed another first here today: her first national title.
Running at a modest pace in the early kilometers, Lewy Boulet mostly stayed at the back of the lead pack, just following the pace.
"My breathing was really under control until ten miles," said Lewy Boulet. "I was itching to go."
Just ahead of the 15-K mark, Lewy was with 44 year-old Colleen De Reuck, veteran Amy Rudolph, and unheralded Kelly Jaske, a 32 year-old lawyer from Portland, Ore., who did no competitive running in either high school or college. Lewy Boulet felt like the group was working together.
"Plenty of ladies were taking the lead," she said.
The drama from there to the finish was subtle, as Lewy Boulet eased away from the pack to set a personal best 1:11:47. Holding the silver belt buckle which is presented to the half-marathon champions here, she was clearly very happy with how her competitive year had begun. She was disappointed about having to drop out of the Olympic Marathon because she had banged her knee while getting off of a bus a few days before the race, and was hoping to make a better showing at the ING New York City Marathon last November where she finished 11th in 2:33:56.
"After New York I was a little down," said Lewy Boulet who lives in Oakland, Calif., and works as an assistant coach at the University of California at Berkeley. She went to Flagstaff, Ariz., to work with her coach Jack Daniels and said she focused exclusively on base work. "Honestly, I hadn't done a single work workout," she added.
Jaske, who is coached Hudson, finished a shocking second in 1:12:06. Last year she was the first woman to finish the open, non-elite division of the Boston Marathon in 2:49:07, and Hudson had never heard of her until she won a local race in Eugene, Ore., he lives.
"She's a huge talent," said Hudson marveling at how she could challenge such established athletes at this level.
De Reuck ran an incredible 1:12:16 for third place (she turns 45 in April), while Desire Davila (1:12:24) and Amy Rudolph (1:12:35) rounded out the top-5.
Both Keflezighi and Lewy Boulet earned $12,000 for their titles and scored valuable points in the USA Running Circuit Grand Prix. In addition, Keflezighi --and the other top-18 men who broke 65 minutes-- received a qualifying time towards the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. The qualifying window for women has not yet opened.