Comeback Queen Hitomi Niiya Breaks Japanese Record (66:38), Jemal Yimer Wins (59:25), Big American Depth at Houston Half Marathon

By Jonathan Gault
January 19, 2020

The 2020 Houston Half Marathon had a little bit of everything. Redemption, a record, and a riptide of fast times — particularly among Americans.

Ethiopia’s Jemal Yimer (59:25) and Japan’s Hitomi Niiya (66:38) earned the overall victories, the latter smashing the Japanese record of 67:26, which was set by Kayoko Fukushi back in 2006. 

Fourteen-mile-per-hour winds out of the north didn’t present much of an issue during a race that featured temperatures in the high-40s. Yimer was one of nine men to break 60:00 — just the fourth time in history that’s happened — making this the deepest half marathon ever contested on US soil. A little farther back, Jared Ward earned top American honors in a pb of 61:36 to place 11th, leading a staggering 14 Americans under 62:00, easily the most ever in one race.

The women’s race was similarly deep, with nine women under 69:00 (just the seventh time that’s happened) and seven Americans under 70:00 (a record for a single race). Sara Hall was the top US finisher in 9th in 68:58.

Yimer broke the tape in Houston

The redemption came on the men’s side as Yimer rebounded from a runner-up finish last year — during which he lost time after incorrectly following the lead vehicle off the course — to win over the 13.1-mile distance for the first time. Just as in 2019, the race was tight throughout, with Kenya’s Bernard Ngeno (59:07 pb) repeatedly surging but failing to create any gaps in a deep front pack (13 men passed 10k in 28:07, which is 59:19 pace). By the final mile, four men remained: Ngeno, Yimer, and Kenyans Shadrack Korir and Philemon Kiplimo. Just after 20k, Yimer made his move, opening up a two-meter gap on the chasers. Ngeno responded, and managed to separate from Korir and Kiplimo, but he never succeeded in closing the gap to Yimer, who missed Feyisa Lilesa’s 2012 course record of 59:22 by three seconds. Ngeno (59:26), Korir (59:27), and Kiplimo (59:28) all finished close behind.

The women’s race could not have been more different as the 31-year-old Niiya, who left the sport for almost five years after taking 5th in the 10,000 at the 2013 Worlds, was out of sight early and would never be challenged. Cocooned by her male pacer and a pack of male sub-elites for the first two-thirds of the race, Niiya led by 14 seconds at 5k (15:37) and was on 65:47 pace at 10k (31:11), at which point her lead had ballooned to 1:17. She would slow over the second half, but still won the race easily, 48 seconds up on Fukushi’s Japanese record and 1:29 ahead of runner-up Brillian Kipkoech of Kenya (68:08). Hall was the only American in the top 10 (9th, 68:58), well ahead of Molly Huddle (69:34) Molly Seidel (69:35), and Katy Jermann (69:35) who finished closely-packed in 12th, 13th, and 14th.

*Full results

Quick Take: What a story for Hitomi Niiya

From retired at 25 to national record holder at 31

Six years ago, Hitomi Niiya announced her retirement at the age of 25. She was one of the best distance runners in the world, but that wasn’t enough for her. Niiya finished 5th at the 2013 World Championships in the 10,000 meters, and after battling plantar fasciitis, declared she was done.

“I couldn’t win a medal in a race that took absolutely everything I had,” she said of her race at Worlds, according to Japan Running News. “That disqualifies me from being a professional.”

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Niiya didn’t race again for almost five years. She resumed running in 2017, finally returning to the track with a 15:35 5,000 in June 2018. 

“I still totally hate running,” she said upon her return. “but unfortunately it seems like this is where I belong. I hope I can produce results.”

Last year, she qualified for Worlds and finished 11th in the 10,000 in 31:12 — a solid performance, but nowhere close to indicative of her race today, during which she came through 10k in 31:11. Per Tilastopaja, this was her first road race since running 2:30:58 at the Nagoya Marathon in March 2009.

Niiya beat some studs today in Houston. Third-placer Caroline Kipkirui owns a 65:07 pb, while 6th-placer Ruti Aga ran 66:39 to win here two years ago and has run 2:18 in the marathon.

For more details on Niiya’s comeback, check out these articles from Japan Running News:

Hitomi Niiya to Make Comeback After Four Years Away From the Sport
Hitomi Niiya Runs First Race in Almost Five Years: “I Still Totally Hate Running”

Quick Take: 58:33 man Jemal Yimer finally gets that winning feeling

It seems hard to believe, but until today, Yimer — tied for the third-fastest half marathoner in history at 58:33 — had never crossed the line first in a half marathon.

That’s right. A guy who had run 58:33, 59:00, 59:09, 59:14, and 59:45 had never broken the tape in eight starts over the 13.1-mile distance. Those results include last year’s mishap in Houston as well as a runner-up finish in Bahrain, where Yimer accidentally let up early before the finish line. The win clearly meant a lot to Yimer today, who pumped his arms repeatedly upon crossing the finish line.

One thing worth noting: Yimer finished second at the 2018 Valencia Half Marathon, which was won by Abraham Kiptum in a then-world record of 58:18. But Kiptum was banned last year for ABP violations and his result at Valencia was disqualified. So Yimer technically won that race, but he didn’t get to cross the line first in a half until today.

Quick Take: Jared Ward is ready to go

It’s always dangerous reading into half marathon results approaching a major marathon as there is so much we don’t know — who is nursing an injury, who is resting up for this race vs. training through it — but today’s result could only be good news for Jared Ward. The four men with the best shot to make the US Olympic team at next month’s trials are Ward, Galen Rupp, Scott Fauble, and Leonard Korir. Ward was the only one of the quartet racing in Houston, and as such, the measuring stick for the rest of the US elite field.

Ward delivered on his status as the favorite, clocking a six-second pb of 61:36 and finishing as the top American across the line. He’ll be even tougher to beat next month in Atlanta, but there will be plenty of guys who will think they can hang with him there; 10 Americans finished within 15 seconds of Ward today. (The results site lists Ward as the second American in the overall results, behind Nico Montanez, but it’s clear Ward crossed the line first).

Quick Take: Sara Hall takes down Molly Huddle

Though Hall DNF’d her last race at the NYC Marathon, overall 2019 was a humongous success for her, with national titles at 10 miles and 20k and a US-leading 2:22 marathon in Berlin. The 36-year-old’s form carried over to her 2020 debut, as she slashed 29 seconds off her half marathon pb to run 68:58 and finish as the top American today.

It was a convincing win over fellow Trials contender Molly Huddle, but it should be accompanied by a grain of salt. Hall races a lot and recovers quickly, so you would expect her to be sharper and more willing to go to the well during a marathon buildup than Huddle, who was under instructions from coach Ray Treacy to “step on the brakes a little bit” so that she could recover more quickly from today’s effort.

Obviously 68:58 is a good result no matter how you slice it for Hall. For inspiration, Huddle may want to remember 2018, when she lost to Hall at the US 10-mile champs during her buildup for NYC, which turned out to be her strongest marathon to date (though Huddle was only one second behind Hall in that race compared to 36 today).

Quick Take: The depth in Houston was ridiculous

Three months after 10 Americans broke 2:12 at the Chicago Marathon, 14 Americans broke 62:00 in the half in Houston. That’s stunning when you consider that just three Americans broke 62:00 in all of 2019.

The Nike Vaporflys (and the other brands’ response to those shoes) certainly help (though not everyone who ran fast today wore Vaporflys), but so does competition. Just as in Chicago, there was a large American group pushing the pace together, and that rising tide lifted all boats.

Here are the 14 sub-62:00 Americans in Houston, with their PR before today in parentheses. All ran PRs today except for Sam Chelanga (who came out of retirement to clock a 61:52) and Matt Llano (who missed his PR by 11 seconds).

Jared Ward, 61:36 (61:42)
Reed Fischer, 61:37 (62:06)
Nico Montanez, 61:38 (64:29)
Futsum Zienasellassie, 61:44 (62:33)
Reid Buchanan, 61:45 (67:31)
Willie Milam, 61:46 (62:26)
Colin Mickow, 61:47 (64:47)
Harvey Nelson, 61:48 (63:05)
Alex Monroe, 61:50 (62:44)
Frank Lara, 61:50 (64:23)
John Raneri, 61:51 (62:51)
Sam Chelanga, 61:52 (60:37)
Brogan Austin, 61:52 (62:39)
Matt Llano, 61:58 (61:47)

The women were also impressive, with seven under 70:00. All but Huddle and Aliphine Tuliamuk set PRs.

Sara Hall, 68:58 (69:27)
Molly Huddle, 69:34 (67:25)
Molly Seidel, 69:35 (70:27)
Katy Jermann, 69:35 (70:27)
Lindsay Flanagan, 69:37 (72:05)
Becky Wade, 69:40 (71:15)
Aliphine Tuliamuk, 69:49 (69:16)

Quick Take: Several athletes appeared to be wearing an unreleased adidas prototype

Other shoe companies have been scrambling to keep up with Nike ever since the Swoosh silently debuted a prototype of its Vaporflys in 2016. Today, at least two athletes — RunCzech Racing’s Philemon Kiplimo (4th, 59:28) and Abel Kipchumba (5th, 59:35) — appeared to be wearing an adidas prototype with allegedly even more foam than the NEXT%. The marathon arms race continues.

Quick Take: Father-son record broken

The stat below from Jon Mulkeen is pretty neat (the Leaches’ combined time was 2:14:07 — 2:20:33 was the previous record).

Discuss the race on our messageboard:

MB: Official 2020 Houston Discussion Thread
MB: Who’s Hitomi nitya? Houston half winner
MB: Carbon-plated doping @ Houston

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