2019 Houston Half/Full Marathon Preview: Hot Fields, Cold Temps, The American Debut for Sally Kipyego and the Return of Kara Goucher
January 16, 2019
Whether it’s fast times up front, the return of a legend, the American debut for an Olympic silver medallist, or the search for a breakthrough performance, there should be a little bit of everything for running fans to enjoy this weekend at the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon. The men’s half marathon features
five six entrants with PRs under 60:00 (editor’s note: 58:33 man Jemal Yimer, who ran 59:00 at RAK last year for the fastest debut ever has joined the field), led by 58:42 man Bedan Karoki and Shura Kitata, the runner-up in the London and NYC Marathons last year, while the women’s half field is even better: Fancy Chemutai (whose 64:52 PR is one second off the world record), reigning major marathon champions Gladys Cherono (Berlin) and Brigid Kosgei (Chicago), and Americans Emily Sisson (who will be chasing Molly Huddle‘s 67:25 American record) and 2012 Olympic silver medalist Sally Kipyego, who will race for the first time since declaring that she’ll be representing the US, not Kenya, moving forward
But it’s the women’s marathon that features biggest American name, as Kara Goucher will run her first marathon since finishing 4th at the 2016 Olympic Trials. Goucher, 40, isn’t going in with big expectations — “this race is for the love of it,” she wrote on Instagram when she announced she’d be running Houston — but it’s still exciting to see her name on a start list again.
And then there’s the unknown. Houston has been the site of big breakthroughs for Americans, whether it was Ryan Hall running 59:43 in 2007, Meb Keflezighi announcing his return to form with a win in 2014 after a rough NYC Marathon the previous year (he’d win Boston three months later), or Jordan Hasay emerging as a major threat on the roads with her 68:40 in muggy conditions in 2017, setting the stage for a stellar marathon debut in Boston. Could we see a similar breakthrough in 2019?
We run through the race details below, before hitting on the four things we’re most excited about in Houston.
What: 2019 Chevron Houston Marathon & Aramco Houston Half Marathon
Where: Houston, Texas
When: Sunday, January 20, 8:01 a.m. ET (marathon & half marathon start simultaneously)
How to watch: The race can be streamed live around the world on ABC13.com
1) Hot fields up front — but will Mother Nature put a damper on fast times?
Houston has earned a (deserved) reputation as a fast course. Both the men’s and women’s American records were set there, and last year’s women’s race was among the deepest half marathons in history. In case you forgot what happened last year, Molly Huddle ran an American record of 67:25 and that was only good for seventh place (at the time, she was the fastest-ever seventh-place finisher; that record was broken a month later at the RAK Half).
This year’s women’s field has the talent to match the depth of the 2018 race. It’s headed by the second-fastest half marathoner of all time, Fancy Chemutai of Kenya, and features six women who have run 66:39 or faster — in addition to the aforementioned Gladys Cherono and Brigid Kosgei, there’s Edith Chelimo (65:52), Houston course record holder Mary Wacera (66:29), and defending champion Ruti Aga (66:39), who ran 2:18:34 at the Berlin Marathon in September.
The men’s field isn’t quite as stacked, but it has a pair of studs in Bedan Karoki and Shura Kitata. Karoki’s marathon career has been (relatively) unimpressive, as he’s run between 2:07:41 and 2:08:44 in his four marathon finishes, but he was born to run the half. He’s won six of his nine career races over the 13.1-mile distance, including the last two RAK Half Marathons — one of the world’s most competitive races. Last year was his best-ever showing at RAK as he broke the course record by running 58:42 (T-#7 all-time), an even more impressive feat when you consider the guys behind him on the RAK all-time list:
The seven men to break 59:00 at the RAK Half
1. 58:42, Bedan Karoki 2018
2. 58:52, Patrick Makau 2009 (former marathon WR holder)
3. 58:53, Sammy Wanjiru 2007 (Olympic marathon champ)
4. 58:54, Geoffrey Kamworor 2013 (three-time World Half champ, two-time World XC champ, NYC Marathon champ)
5. 58:56, Stanley Biwott 2013 (NYC Marathon champ, 2:03 marathoner)
6. 58:58 Geoffrey Mutai 2013 (2x NYC Marathon champ & CR holder, Boston Marathon champ & CR holder, 2:03 marathoner)
7. 58:59 Wilson Kipsang 2009 (former marathon WR holder, 5 WMM victories)
That’s a ridiculous list, and Karoki ran at least 10 seconds faster than everyone on it. At his best, he’s nearly unstoppable in the half marathon.
That said, Karoki was beaten by Mosinet Geremew in his most recent half in Buenos Aires in August, and Kitata, whom he will face on Sunday, is a stud in his own right. Last year, Kitata soloed a 59:16 in Philadelphia despite brutal conditions (100% humidity, dew point of 66) and ran two super impressive marathons, finishing second behind Eliud Kipchoge in London and running 2:06:01 to take second in New York. We were so impressed by his 2018 marathons that we ranked him #2 in the world even though he didn’t win a race. His effort in Philly was likely worth sub-59:00 with some competition and better weather.
Right now, it’s looking like he’ll have the former in Houston but not the latter. Weather.com is calling for a high of 55 degrees Fahrenheit on Sunday, which is really good. The temperature at race time (7 a.m. local) is going to be colder than that – probably around 36, which isn’t too bad, but the real concern is the wind. On Thursday and Friday, it’s going to be in the 70s in Houston but on Saturday an Artic cold front is sweeping into town and gusts of over 40 mph are expected. That’s truly horrific. Things should die down a bit on Sunday but findmymarathon.com says we can expect 15 mph winds which certainly are higher than ideal.
So keep a keen eye on the wind forecast for the next few days.
2) Could the AR go down for the second year in a row?
Given the windy forecast, the answer to that is probably no, but there are two American women in the race with the talent level to give it a scare if the conditions are right and they are at closet to top fitness, Emily Sisson and Sally Kipyego.
And we know at least one of those women is in good shape – Sisson. Sisson’s camp is talking a big game ahead of Sunday’s race. The 27-year-old Sisson, whom we’ve long been touting as a future star in the marathon, is going to make her 26.2 debut this spring, according to this Competitor article. Before that, she’s running Houston, where her coach Ray Treacy told Competitor that her goal is to run sub-68:00 — something only three American women have ever done on a non-aided course. Sisson’s training partner Molly Huddle was even more bullish: “For Houston, she is in really good shape and hasn’t had a shot to run a fast course yet, so I would not be surprised if she broke the American record and ran 67-teens or so.”
Huddle is correct: Sisson has only run two half marathons, both at the NYC Half. She was 2nd in 2017, running 68:21 to finish two seconds behind Huddle, and was second again last year in 72:24, one second behind winner Buze Diriba. She’ll have plenty of women to chase in Houston, but we’d be shocked if she broke the AR given the forecast.
We’re pretty much shocked that that Sally Kipyego’s American debut isn’t getting more hype. The nine-time NCAA champ and 2012 Olympic silver medallist became a US citizen in 2017 but wasn’t sure who she would run for moving forward. Last year, Kipyego, who sat out 2017 to give birth and only raced once last year, said she’d run for the US moving forward and this is her first race since that news broke as she missed the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon with malaria.
The 33-year old Kipyego boasts incredible PRs of 14:30 (four seconds faster than the AR) and 30:26 on the track in addition to 68:31 in the half marathon, but the reality is that we have no idea where her fitness is at right now — she’s only raced once since November 2016, clocking 34:32 at the BAA 10K last June. Right now, Kipyego’s camp isn’t saying anything — as of publication, her coach Mark Rowland did not respond to our interview request, and we did not hear back after requesting an interview with Kipyego through her agency — so Houston will be telling.
3) Will any Americans step up on the men’s side?
There are a few familiar names on the start list as far as American men are concerned, but none pop quite as much as Sisson and Kipyego on the women’s side. Diego Estrada (60:51 in 2015) and Luke Puskedra (61:29 in 2016) both ran their PRs in Houston but haven’t been at the same level in recent years. Shadrack Biwott, who was 3rd at last year’s Boston Marathon, is another established guy to watch.
And then there are the men on the fringes — guys like Noah Droddy (61:48 pb), Parker Stinson (62:38), Reed Fischer (62:57; 4th at USAs in the 10k last year), and Futsum Zienasellassie (63:39) — who will be looking for a breakout performance in Houston. If one of those guys — all of whom are 28 or younger — pops a big one, it will add some excitement to the US road racing scene.
Also watch out for Australian Patrick Tiernan. He ran just 63:53 in his half marathon debut last year at the Great North Run, but the 2016 NCAA XC champ boasts impressive PRs over shorter distances (13:13/27:29) and projects as a strong half marathoner.
For more on Stinson, check out our feature on him and new coach Dathan Ritzenhein: LRC Parker Stinson Heads To The Houston Half Marathon With A New Coach: Dathan Ritzenhein
4) The return of Kara Goucher
Goucher doesn’t plan on running for the win in Houston, something she made clear when the elite fields were announced earlier this year. But after battling back from a torn meniscus in 2016 and some allergy problems in 2017, Goucher gradually ramped up her training last year and got the itch to try another marathon — her first since the 2016 Trials. She settled on Houston, where she made her second Olympic team in 2012.
Goucher told Runner’s World that she’d “love to run around 2:32,” which would be the same pace that she ran at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half in December (75:59). It’s natural to wonder whether, if all goes well, the 40-year-old Goucher would consider seriously targeting the 2020 Olympic Trials, but that is not something Goucher is concerned about right now.
“I have no racing requirements in my four sponsor/partnership contracts,” Goucher wrote on Instagram. “I no longer feel like I need to prove anything to anyone, this is just for me. For my joy of running, training hard, and running the marathon.”
Professional Fields (From ChevronHoustonMarathon.com)
|Jose Luis Santana Marin||MEX||2:17:15|
|Juan Joel Pacheco Orozco||MEX||2:18:20|
|Biruktayit Eshetu Degefa||ETH||2:23:51|
|Belaynesh Fikadu Beyene||ETH||2:30:47|
Men’s Half Marathon
|Bedan Karoki Muchiri||KEN||58:42:00|
|El Hassan El Abbassi||BRN||59:27:00|
|Bernard K. Lagat||KEN||1:02:22|
Women’s Half Marathon
|Mary Wacera Ngugi||KEN||1:06:29|