2017 Aramco Houston Half Marathon Men’s Preview: Leonard Korir Takes on Olympic Silver Medallist Feyisa Lilesa & 59:48 Man Yigrem Demelash
January 12, 2017
Though Galen Rupp will no longer be running due to plantar fasciitis, Sunday’s 2017 Aramco Houston Half Marathon still promises to be an exciting race. Two of the men who beat Rupp in Rio last summer — Ethiopians Feyisa Lilesa (2nd in the marathon) and Yigrem Demelash (4th in the 10k) — headline the men’s field, while fellow 2016 Olympian Leonard Korir, fresh off a win at the Great Edinburgh XCountry last weekend, is the United States’ best hope. Add in Luke Puskedra and Scott Fauble, both of whom took fourth place at the Olympic Trials last year, and the men’s race is compelling. On the women’s side, defending champ/World Half Marathon bronze medallist Mary Wacera is the favorite, while Kellyn Taylor, Sara Hall, Aliphine Tuliamuk and Jordan Hasay will battle it out for top American honors.
What: 2017 Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon
Where: Houston, Texas
When: Sunday, January 15. All four races — men’s and women’s half and full marathons — start at 8 a.m. ET.
How to watch: You can stream the event live on LetsRun.com here beginning at 8 a.m. ET. The event will be shown live on TV on the Longhorn Network and streamed online on WatchESPN . Locally, the races will be shown on ABC13. There will also be pace camera footage from the four elite races on abc13.com.
Men’s Half Marathon: No Rupp, But Can American Leonard Korir Give Sub-60 a Scare?
Rupp may have withdrawn, but we could still see some fast times on Sunday morning. As of Thursday, the forecast for Houston on Sunday calls for a high of 72 degrees with 64% humidity, occasional rain showers and winds of 10 to 15 mph. Considering the race starts at 7:00 a.m. local time, it shouldn’t be too hot (sunrise is not until 7:16 a.m.). The bigger questions are the wind and the rain. If the conditions cooperate, the field and course are good enough for a sub-60 winning time (Update: The hourly forecast on weather.com isn’t great right as it’s looking like it will be a little warm (64) and windy (9 pmh)).
The fastest guys on paper are a pair of Ethiopians: Yigrem Demelash (4th in Rio Olympic 10k, 26:51/59:48 pbs) and Feyisa Lilesa (silver in Rio Olympic marathon, 59:22 pb). Demelash’s last race came on November 20, when he ran his PR of 59:48 to finish four seconds behind Eliud Kipchoge at the New Delhi Half Marathon. Lilesa, whose PR doubles as the Houston course record, will be racing for the first time since finishing fourth at the Honolulu Marathon (2:15:57) on December 11.
Of the two, we like Demelash’s chances a lot more more. Lilesa, who will be running the London Marathon in April, is a terrific runner, but has not had the most stable training situation since the Olympics. That, of course, was the race where Lilesa protested the treatment of his Oromo people by the Ethiopian government, and since then he’s been training in Flagstaff, unable to see his family and unsure when it will be safe to return to Ethiopia. His run at Honolulu wasn’t as bad as the time indicates (the course is notoriously slow), but not on par with his other 2016 marathons, a win in Tokyo and a second in Rio. After that, we assume he needed to take some down time. So we’d be surprised if he is back to top shape a month later. Demelash, on the other hand, is coming off a PR that capped a career year (he also won the Ethiopian 10k Olympic trials in a pb of 26:51) and is still just 22 years old. His star is still ascending and if he’s fit, he could be capable of something special in Houston.
We also expect Leonard Korir to be battling for the win. Korir kicked off 2017 with an epic win at the Great Edinburgh XCountry last weekend and will be eager to record a personal best in Houston. Initially, he had planned on racing Demelash and Kipchoge in New Delhi, but that race fell through, leading to his entry in Houston. It’s important to remember how good Korir was in college and the progress he made last year. Remember, when Korir won his NCAA titles (indoor 5k and outdoor 10k in 2011), Sam Chelanga, two-time NCAA XC champ and NCAA 10k record holder, was viewed as unbeatable, yet Korir destroyed him at the end of those races. Korir also ran 61:06 to win the NYC Half Marathon in 2015, but once he entered the Army, he had to undergo basic training at the end of the year, which essentially meant he could not longer train for running.
When he joined coach Scott Simmons‘ group in Colorado Springs at the start of last year, that lack of training meant he was nowhere close to where he is now. But Korir steadily improved throughout 2016, highlighted by a 14th-place finish in the 10k in Rio, and took minimal time off after Rio since he was still building back fitness after his break for basic training. Since then, he’s grown even stronger, and Simmons believes Korir is in the shape of his life and ready to PR on Sunday.
“I think he’s just going to focus on racing,” Simmons said. “And you know who else is in the field, so he’s going to get in there and mix it up and the time will come with the race.”
We asked Simmons if Korir would be comfortable doing that even if the race went out on sub-60 pace.
“I think he can do that,” Simmons said. “He’s run close to 61:00 before on the New York City course, which is tough. Callum Hawkins, who he beat last week, has run under 61:00 so I don’t think he’s afraid of anyone there.”
Simmons did not mention a specific time as a goal, but given his current fitness, Korir may even have an outside shot at Ryan Hall‘s American record of 59:43, set at this race 10 years ago. Remember, Hall’s run was a solo effort. Korir will have Demelash, Lilesa and two rabbits to chase. It’s unlikely, but it could happen.
“Leonard is extremely tenacious,” Simmons said. “He never gives up. And I think that’s what you saw [in Edinburgh]. He just was not giving up.”
After this, Korir will run at the U.S. Cross Country Championships on February 4 in Bend, Ore., with the goal of making the team for March’s World Cross Country Championships in Uganda. This summer, he will once again focus on the 10,000 meters with hopes of qualifying for the World Championships in London.
The Rise of Scott Fauble
Another American to watch on Sunday is 25-year-old Scott Fauble of Northern Arizona Elite, who enjoyed rousing success in his first full year as a professional in 2016. Fauble wasn’t the most attractive professional prospect upon graduation from the University of Portland in 2015. Though he had finished 13th and 12th in his last two NCAA XC appearances, his track PBs weren’t incredible (14:00/28:43) and he had developed a stress fracture, which he tried (unsuccessfully) to run through in his final race at the NCAA outdoor championships in June. He wound up with NAZ Elite, and after he got healthy, he strung together some good training in the fall before traveling to Scotland for the Great Edinburgh XCountry in January 2016. In that race, Fauble ran with the leaders and took the lead with a half mile to go. Though he ultimately wound up third behind Garrett Heath and Mo Farah, the performance proved to be a turning point in Fauble’s career.
“There’s two kinds of breakthrough races that I’ve seen,” said Fauble’s coach Ben Rosario. “You’ve got your breakthrough, like, let’s say Ryan Hall’s breakthrough [half marathon] at Houston, which is a good example considering the timing. When [Hall] ran that, all the interviews afterwards, he was just like, ‘Oh, I felt great.’ And those happen every once in a while where you just feel like a million bucks. And that’s one kind of breakthrough.
“But the kind of breakthrough [Scott] had in Edinburgh really wasn’t that kind. It’s not like he felt that great, in fact, he almost got dropped a couple of different times. But it was more so the kind of breakthrough where he just put his head down and just went and just didn’t care about how he felt. And it worked, and he pulled it off. And I think he’s sort of done that pretty much every race since. He’s been able to get the most out of his body every time since.”
Rosario said that after the Edinburgh race, it was as if a switch had been flipped in Fauble’s head. Fauble saw how hard he could push his body, that he could compete at a high level against good competition, and from then possessed an unshakeable confidence in his own abilities.
“His biggest strength is his mind, really,” Rosario said. “And that’s what’s helping him make all these improvements. I really think it’s his mental approach, that’s what separates him from what I’ve seen.”
Rosario felt that Portland had prepared Fauble well for a professional career and didn’t make any significant changes to his training, instead choosing to just gradually increase his mileage (he was around 80 mpw by the end of college) and the intensity of Fauble’s workouts.
It worked. In Fauble’s first race on the track in 2016, he slashed 43 seconds off his 10k pb to run 28:00 at the Stanford Invite in April. Four weeks later, he took second at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships. After taking sixth at the BolderBOULDER 10K on May 30, he convinced himself that he was going to make the Olympic team in the 10,000 meters — despite the fact that he did not even have the Olympic standard. He wound up finishing fourth at the Trials.
“He can get really locked in on something like I’ve rarely seen,” Rosario said. “The Trials..he got into this mode, I don’t know man, it was like a trance, for a month, month and a half where he just convinced himself that that was what he was going to do. And then he went out and he dang near did it.”
Now Fauble’s focus has shifted to next month’s U.S. Cross Country Championships, where he’ll attempt to make the World XC team. Beyond that, a possible fall marathon debut looms. But first, Houston, where Fauble’s main goal is to smash his 63:06 personal best.
“He can run way faster,” Rosario said. “His workouts have been really good. I don’t know that we have a real [time in mind], especially with the weather.”
Luke Puskedra is hoping track training will pay off on the roads on Sunday
Luke Puskedra, 4th at last year’s Olympic Marathon Trials, will return to Houston for the fifth time in six years. It was here that he made his road debut back as a senior at the University of Oregon in 2012, and last year he ran a PR of 61:29 to finish 4th, the fastest half marathon by an American on a record-eligible course in 2016. Puskedra was disappointed with his performance in his last race at the Chicago Marathon in October (19th in 2:20:18), particularly his final 10 kilometers (from 30k to the finish, Puskedra averaged 5:58/mile, or 2:36 marathon pace). He took 10 days off, then got back to running at his wife’s family’s farm in South Africa, which sits at 6,000 feet. When he started up again, he wanted to check if there were any lingering effects from his rough day at Chicago.
“I know it sounds kind of silly, but when you hit a wall like that, you kind of question yourself like, man, I don’t know if all of my runs now I’m going to feel like that, the way I did the last 10k of that race,” Puskedra said.
Puskedra didn’t feel great on his first few runs back thanks to the combination of altitude and the hilly terrain in South Africa, but he’s worked himself back into shape for Houston. He felt it was good to stress a different system after two intense marathon buildups in 2016, so recently he’s eschewed the long tempos and hard long runs of his marathon prep in favor of track work.
“The last two races I’ve kind of built up [in my head],” Puskedra said. “With the Olympic Trials, I had this mental buildup and huge expectations and things didn’t go as well as I would have liked there, with getting fourth place — you want to be top three. Chicago, I wanted to replicate the same thing that I had done before, to feel the same way that I did before (when he was 5th in 2:10:24 in 2015). A lot of mental energy went in to trying to almost force something to happen rather than just let it happen.
“I don’t know if I’m going to knock it out of the park [in Houston]. Like I said, I’ve kind of worked back into training pretty slow. With doing Houston, I needed to have a race to focus on rather than just going out and training for a longer period of time. I like to break up the training, whether it’s once a month or once every two months to have purpose in the training.”
Puskedra felt excited by his return to track-style training, and he debated whether to pursue a track season this spring and summer. But after thinking it over with his wife Trudie, he realized that the end of his track career had not gone very well, and felt that it would make more sense to put his efforts into another marathon. On Thursday, that marathon was revealed: Puskedra will run Boston on April 17. For now, Puskedra is excited to see how his 5k/10k training pays off in Houston on Sunday.
“The race always plays out well for me,” Puskedra said. “Even if I’m not having great training or I’m in a rut during the six months before, I can always get excited about doing Houston.”
As for the rest of the field, Eritrea’s Samsom Gebreyohannes Gezahai (60:12 pb) returns after taking third last year in 61:28. Kenyan Daniel Salel, a 60:41 half marathoner who won the BAA Half Marathon in October, is also entered. Aaron Braun (who ran 61:38 in Houston three years ago) and NAZ Elite teammates Ben Bruce and Scott Smith are among the other Americans entered.
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