By Jonathan Gault
January 15, 2015
Early Sunday morning, the Aramco Houston Half Marathon will play host to the 29th USA Half Marathon Championships. In the past, the event has been a springboard to marathon success. In 2007, Ryan Hall stunned the world with a 59:43 American record win and then led the London Marathon at 35k a few months later, before settling for the #2 time in American history. Meb Keflezighi won the event in 2009 and 2014 and went on to win major marathons each year. Deena Kastor prevailed in the 2004 edition and claimed Olympic bronze two months later.
The 39-year-old Keflezighi is back and will go for his third straight title on Sunday (fourth overall; he crossed the line second in 2013 but the winner that year was drug cheat Mo Trafeh), while 2014 women’s champ Serena Burla will run the full marathon instead. Josphat Boit (third last year), Matt Llano (fifth) and Jeffrey Eggleston will challenge Keflezighi, while Norwegian-based Annie Bersagel (13th at World Half Marathon Champs in ’14), Lauren Kleppin (second last year; 14th at World Half Champs) and USA 10,000 champ Kim Conley lead the women’s half marathon field.
The key details for Sunday’s races are below, followed by previews of each event.
What: Chevron Houston Marathon & Aramco Houston Half Marathon (with the latter doubling as the USA Half Marathon Championships)
Where: Houston, Texas
When: 6:55 a.m. Central Time
How to watch: Online at USATF.tv here starting at 6:50 a.m. Central Time
Men’s Half Marathon
Meb is obviously the biggest name in the field and if he’s fit, there’s no reason to think he won’t be able to defend his title on Sunday. He’s coming off one of the best years of his career, as he won the USA Half Marathon Championship in January, the Boston Marathon in April and finished fourth in the New York City Marathon in November.
Keflezighi’s 61:00 pb is the fastest in the field, and while that time isn’t totally relevant (it’s from 2009), he did run 61:23 to win in Houston last year, the fastest time by an American in 2014. Shadrack Biwott (61:25) and Josphat Boit (61:32), the #2 and #3 Americans last year, are also entered; Keflezighi isn’t leaps and bounds ahead of this field. But given his tremendous 2014 and past success in this event, he has to be considered the favorite.
The question about Keflezighi — and really, everyone in the field — is where is he at in his training? Many of the top guys in this race will have a spring marathon on their radar (Keflezighi committed to Boston last week), but the dates of those marathons will vary, so guys will be at different points in their buildup. For other guys, Houston could be the culmination of a fall of training, one last race before taking a break and building up again for the summer road race season.
The prize money in Houston ($12,000 for first, $10,000 for second, down to $250 for 10th, plus time bonuses) is serious enough that the top guys will enter this race in good shape. Cash isn’t a concern for Keflezighi, and he doesn’t necessarily need a good tune-up race before a marathon (last year, he ran just 29:59 for 10K at Beach to Beacon three months before finishing fourth in New York), but he won’t want to run poorly here with a slew of Americans hungry to hand him a defeat. He won Houston before winning Boston last year, and opening 2015 in similar fashion would be a nice confidence boost for Meb.
Going by PR, Biwott and Boit, both of whom ran well here last year (Biwott was seventh in 61:56; Boit third in 61:41) are the two biggest threats to Keflezighi, though it’s hard to know how fit they are right now. Biwott had a solid second half of 2014, running 61:25 in San Diego in June, taking third at the U.S. 10K Championships at Peachtree in July and running 2:12:55 in Frankfurt in October. He seems more likely to upset Keflezighi than Boit, who hasn’t raced since taking 12th at Peachtree on July 4.
Outside of those two and Meb, there are two other men in the field who have broken 62:00 for the half: Mammoth Track Club’s Gabriel Proctor and Northern Arizona Elite’s Matt Llano. Proctor was 10th last year and went on to set personal bests in the half marathon (61:40) and marathon (2:13:45 in Chicago). 2014 Houston was a breakout race for Llano, as he was fifth in 61:47, but he fizzled after going out ambitiously in his marathon debut in Chicago (24th in 2:17:43). Proctor, still just 24, has the best chance to break through for the win as it will be more difficult for Llano, 26, to make a big jump two years in a row.
Diego Estrada (USA 5K road champ) and Girma Mecheso (USA 20K road champ) are the two most accomplished debutantes in the field. It’s not a stretch to imagine either running in the 61-minute range and perhaps battling for the win on a good day. Mecheso’s victory at the USA 20K champs last year suggests that he in particular may be suited to the half marathon distance (20K is just over 12.4 miles).
One interesting name to watch is Jeffrey Eggleston. Eggleston, who finished as the second-fastest American marathoner of 2014 (2:10:52 at Gold Coast), cranked out 10 half marathons last year. Based on those results, he probably won’t contend for the win here (his pb is 63:00) but he still managed to run under 64:00 in six of his 10 half marathons, an impressive feat. Houston could be sub-64:00 #1 of 2015 for Eggleston.
Women’s Half Marathon
One of the nice things about the half marathon is that it’s short enough for 10K runners to be competitive and long enough for marathoners to use their strength. Ideally, you’ll get a mix of each type in a half marathon and that’s the case in the women’s race in Houston.
From the marathon side, the two women to watch are the U.S.’s top two finishers at last year’s World Half Marathon Championships, Annie Bersagel and Lauren Kleppin. Bersagel (70:09 pb) won the Dusseldorf Marathon last year in 2:28:59 and was 10th in New York in November. Kleppin (70:15 pb) ran 2:28:48 to take third in Los Angeles last March and was 15th in New York. She was also second in this race a year ago, and though her time of 72:12 was 1:24 back of winner Serena Burla, Burla is doing the full marathon in Houston this year, making Kleppin the top returner. Both Bersagel and Kleppin finished in the top five on the 2014 U.S. list for both the half marathon and the marathon, and if you prefer strength over speed, they’re probably the two women to beat.
Their chief competition figures to be Olympian Kim Conley. The 28-year-old has made steady progress on the track, lowering her 5000 pb in each of the last seven years and making U.S. teams at 5000 in 2012 and 2013. She moved up to win her first U.S. title, at 10,000, last year, and Houston will mark her second half marathon and her first serious one. Conley ran 75:41 in October at the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon but told David Monti of Race Results Weekly that, “We actually did that as the beginning of this build-up. We definitely approached that as a 12-mile steady state (after an easy opening mile). It was definitely more like a workout. It was a target pace of 5:40 to 5:45 (per mile) that we were trying to hit.”
So what can we expect from Conley on Sunday? A couple of good examples to follow are Shalane Flanagan and Molly Huddle, who made their half marathon debuts at similar points in their careers. While Flanagan and Huddle were clearly better runners than Conley when attempting their debut half marathons, they’re both runners who, like Conley, started as primarily 5000 types before moving up in distance.
|Athlete (age at debut)||Date||5k pb at time of race||10k pb at time of race||HM time|
|Shalane Flanagan (28)||1/17/2010||14:44.80||30:22.22||69:41|
|Molly Huddle (29)||3/16/2014||14:44.76||31:27.12||69:04|
|Kim Conley (28)||1/18/2015||15:08.61||31:48.71||???|
The data here doesn’t tell the whole story. Huddle was in better 10k shape than her pb indicated (she ran 30:47 a month and a half later) and Flanagan didn’t have a huge incentive to run faster (she won that race — also the Houston Half Marathon — by 27 seconds and ran 68:37 later that year).
Any conclusions from just two data points aren’t going to be reliable, but let’s try and estimate what Conley might be capable of running on Sunday. If we skew Flanagan/Huddle’s average time a bit closer to Huddle’s time (giving Flanagan extra credit for the win), it’s realistic to say that a woman who has run 14:44 for 5000 should be able to run in the 69:10-15 range for 13.1 miles. Conley’s 15:08.61 pb is 2.7 percent slower than Flanagan/Huddle’s 14:44.78 average pb; if we multiple 69:10 by 1.027, it comes out to 71:02.
Of course, there are other variables at play here. Logically, Flanagan should have run faster in her first half than Huddle did based on her far superior 10k pb, but Huddle’s time was way faster (though Huddle didn’t win the race as Flanagan did). Perhaps Conley is less suited to the longer distance than Flanagan or Huddle? Conley has also said that, while she wants to run fast, her main focus is on racing the field, not the watch, according to Race Results Weekly. But in terms of analyzing her performance for Conley, a victory or anything close to 71:00 has to be considered a major success.
The other notable name is Janet Bawcom, the 2012 Olympian at 10,000 meters who has the fastest pb of anyone in the field (69:55 from the 2012 NYC Half). Bawcom has won a pair of low-key half marathons over the past few months (73:06 at the Savannah Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in November; 73:30 at the San Antonio Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in December), but she was just 16th at the .US 12K champs on November 16. Bawcom will need to regain the form that saw her take second at the U.S. 15K champs and the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler early in 2014 if she is to be a factor on Sunday.There are two other women who could contend for the win in Houston. Sara Hall, who was 11th last year, has won her last four half marathons, though none have come against serious competition. She did beat Conley at the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon in October, but Conley was treating that as a workout. Hall’s average margin of victory in those four races — the Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon in July, Healdsburg, the San Jose (Costa Rica) Half Marathon in November and the Dallas Half Marathon in December — 5:31, even though her average time was just 72:54. Hall will get a real test this time (she was 11th in Houston last year, and her 73:38 time was her slowest of the year) and in a fast field, it’s not hard to imagine her getting down to the low-72:00/high-71:00 area, which would put her right among the leaders.
Men’s and Women’s Marathons
I’ve combined the marathons into one section because there are fewer Americans, they’re less interesting races and there’s no U.S. title on the line (the U.S. Champs are scheduled for March 15 in Los Angeles). Twenty-four-year-old Ethiopian Bazu Worku leads the men’s field; he has a 2:05:25 pb and has won the last two editions of this race. The American contingent includes Aaron Braun (who was second at the USA Half Marathon Champs last year but only run 2:19:51 in his marathon debut in LA) and veteran Craig Leon, who was 14th in Boston last year and 16th in Chicago. 2:07 Ethiopian Debebe Tolossa is also in the field (full elite entries here).
The women’s race boasts several Ethiopians, with Beijing Marathon champ Fatuma Sado (2:25:39 pb) the most accomplished of them. American Serena Burla, who won the half marathon at this race last year, will look to improve on her 2:28:01 pb from Amsterdam in 2013.
First place in each marathon earns $40,000 (down to $2,000 for seventh), with an extra $5,000 for the first American.