NOTE: Because this is an early report, all times are unofficial --Ed.
HOUSTON (18-Jan) -- Their tactics were different, but the outcomes were the same. Diego Estrada (Asics) and Kim Conley (New Balance) were decisive winners at the USA Half-Marathon Championships hosted by the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon here today. They clocked 1:00:51 and 1:09:44, respectively, each pocketing $13,250 in prize money and time bonuses, on a near-perfect morning for running.
For Estrada, 25 --an Olympian for Mexico in 2012 but now running for the United States-- today's win was particularly compelling as he was making his debut at the distance. Wearing a bright orange singlet untucked over black shorts, he assumed the lead from the starter's gun in downtown Houston, leading a pack of 15 athletes through the 5-K mark in a conservative 14:41. At that point he was closely shadowed by defending champion Meb Keflezighi.
But shortly after the 5-K point, Estrada surged ahead and quickly established sizable lead. By the 10-K mark (28:51) he was 20 seconds up on the chase pack. Estrada felt good, but he was sure how his body would react later in what was the longest race of his life.
"I didn't know what I was doing out there," he admitted to Race Results Weekly as he walked away from the finish area. "I knew I could run 10 miles at 4:35 pace, because I've done it in training. But, I didn't know about the extra three. So, when we jogged the first three (I thought), OK, this is my race. If they want to take it, they'll have to run really fast."
Striding smoothly as the sun finally began to rise over the gleaming office towers, Estrada did not falter. With every passing kilometer, he was increasing his lead. He hit the 15-K in 43:14 with a 45-second lead, and he padded that lead by another five seconds through 20-K (57:45). It was all over bar the shouting.
"That win was something very special," Estrada said walking to the recovery area. He continued: "I figured, if I blew-up out there, I'd get some criticism, but then again, people would understand. If I pop, I pop."
Estrada's time was the fastest at these championships since Ryan Hall clocked the still-standing American record of 59:43 in 2007. It was also the fastest half-marathon by an American since 2011.
Jared Ward, 26, finished second in a career best 1:01:42, followed by Girma Mecheso, 26, the former Oklahoma State athlete, in 1:02:16. Keflezighi, 39, finished fourth.
For Conley, 28, today's race wasn't her debut at the distance, but it was her first serious half-marathon. An Olympian in the 5000m in London in 2012, Conley ran with a big pack of women through 5-K in 16:44, including pre-race favorites Janet Bawcom, Sara Hall, Annie Bersagel and Brianne Nelson. She was sticking with her plan, she said.
"I was trying to stay as controlled as possible for 10 miles," Conley told Race Results Weekly. "And then, I was just trying to approach it as a progressive long run, which I kind of feel like is my best workout."
With ten women still in contention at 10-K (33:26) Conley was tucked in the pack and watching her rivals carefully. When Bersagel, last year's Düsseldorf Marathon champion, pushed the pace, Conley covered her move taking Nelson, Bawcom and Hall with her.
But in the next 5-K, Conley left the rest of the women behind, and started to use a male competitor she saw ahead to help pull her forward and assume control of the race.
"It was a great pack of women through 10 miles," Conley recounted. "And I saw a man coming back at that point, and soon as I started to hear women falling behind, I told myself to just focus on the man ahead. It took me a long time to catch him, but once I did, we had a great battle to the finish."
Conley went on to win by a very comfortable 32 seconds. Second place went to Nelson (1:10:16), with Bawcom in third (1:10:46), Hall in fourth (1:10:50), and Bersagel fifth (1:10:58).
Both the men's and women's races had exceptional depth. In the men's contest, 30 men ran 1:03:37 or better, and on the women's side, 30th place was 1:15:42. Dozens of men and women qualified for the 2016 USA Olympic Marathon Trials by breaking 1:05:00 and 1:15:00, respectively.
The Aramco Houston Half-Marathon is part of the USA Road Circuit.
PHOTO: Diego Estrada wins the 2015 USA Half-Marathon Championships in Houston in 1:00:51 in his debut at the distance (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)
PHOTO: Kim Conley celebrates her 2015 USA Half-Marathon title in Houston after running a personal best 1:09:44 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)