2023 Houston: Emily Sisson Is Aiming for an AR, Conner Mantz Is Focused on Racing, What Can Tirunesh Dibaba Do & Might an American Run 2:07?
By Jonathan Gault
January 12, 2023
It will take a lot for this year’s Houston Marathon weekend to top the 2022 edition, which saw American records in the women’s half (Sara Hall) and full marathons (Keira D’Amato). But the 2023 Chevron Houston Marathon and 2023 Aramco Houston Half Marathon, both of which will be held early Sunday morning in Texas, feature a mix of star power and rising talent that could see this year’s races rivaling last year’s drama.
Emily Sisson, who broke Hall’s AR in the half in May, is entered in the women’s half and will be aiming to become the first American woman under the 67:00 barrier. Former AR holder Molly Huddle is also running, as is 2016 Olympian Marielle Hall, and four-time global track medalist Jenny Simpson will be stepping up to make her half marathon debut.
Amazingly, none of them are the biggest name in the field – not even close. That would be one of the greatest distance runners ever, Tirunesh Dibaba, who will be racing for the first time in more than four years.
In the men’s race, Conner Mantz and Edward Cheserek, who own five NCAA cross country titles between them, will square off, joined by Ethiopians Leul Gebresilase (2nd, 2022 London Marathon) and Shura Kitata (2nd, 2022 NYC Marathon). One of America’s newest distance talents, 60:02 half marathoner Teshome Mekonen, is running the full marathon, his first since gaining US citizenship in August.
That’s a lot to get excited about. The weather will be warm, with a high of 72 degrees on Sunday, but the races start early, at 7 a.m. local time. That means temps in the mid-to-high 50s at the start and mid-60s by the finish of the marathon. The wind could be a slightly bigger issue — it’s expected to be in the 5-15 mph range with gusts up to 29 mph.
Below, five big things to watch in Sunday’s races with insight from Sisson, Mantz, and Mekonen’s coaches, plus a few quick-hit storylines at the end.
What: 2023 Chevron Houston Marathon & Aramco Houston Half Marathon
When: Sunday, January 15, 8:00 a.m. ET
Where: Houston, Texas
How to watch: Stream the races live starting at 8:00 a.m. ET Sunday on ABC13
*Half marathon field *Marathon field
1) Emily Sisson is shooting for sub-67:00
Emily Sisson’s 2022 campaign could not have gone much better. In May, she ran 67:11 in Indianapolis to break the American record in the half marathon. Then in October, in her first marathon since dropping out of the Olympic Trials two-and-a-half years earlier, she slashed 43 seconds off the American record by running 2:18:29. That put her #29 on the all-time world list and made her just the second non-African-born athlete to break 2:19 (Paula Radcliffe is the other).
Sisson’s coach Ray Treacy says she recovered well after taking two easy weeks following Chicago and was able to get back into training since the end of October. Workouts have gone well since then and Treacy believes Sisson is capable of lowering her American record in Houston on Sunday.
“We think the record is kind of soft,” Treacy says. “Going off her marathon time, she should be able to run under 67:00 I would say. That would be the goal, to go out and try and run that.”
Treacy says he’s not aware of any dedicated pacers for Sisson — which she had for her American records in Indianapolis and Chicago last year. But between Dibaba, fellow Ethiopian Hiwot Gebrekidan (66:47 pb), and a slew of sub-elite men (the races start simultaneously in Houston), Sisson should have people to run with. Treacy isn’t one to mince words, so when he says Sisson is in AR shape, he means it. She should contend for the win as well.
“[She’s going] out with the attitude of trying to win the race and if she hits it right, they’ll have to run fast to beat her,” Treacy says.
Treacy is also right about the American record being soft, even after being broken twice in the past year. Consider: the difference between the half marathon world record (62:52) and American record (67:11) is 4:19. The difference between the marathon world record (2:14:04) and American record (2:18:29) is 4:25. Even if you accept that the half marathon WR is a stronger overall performance than the marathon WR, the top American should be within at least four minutes of the WR in the shorter event.
Treacy also says Sisson will race a spring marathon. He was mum on the venue, but London is a good guess — Sisson made her debut there in 2019 and wasn’t part of the Boston field announced this week. From there, Treacy says, their focus will shift to the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2024, but he didn’t rule out one of the earlier fall marathons such as Berlin or Chicago.
“If the spring one goes well, I would imagine she may just wait until February,” Treacy says. “But if she recovers as well as she did after Chicago, she might be able to fit in a fall marathon as well. We’ll play that by ear.”
2) Conner Mantz hoping to battle for win, won’t run World XC
Unlike Emily Sisson, Conner Mantz’s coach Ed Eyestone says Mantz will not be shooting for the American record — the 59:43 run by Ryan Hall at this race 16 years ago.
“So many of these races come down to time trial events,” Eyestone says. “Sometimes it’s fun to just get in and race, be competitive, not really worry about the time. Having said that, I think there’s enough good guys in there I’m sure there’s going to be guys running 60-low, maybe faster than that. So I think he wants to be in a place where he can see how that feels and just be competitive. If he’s competitive, I think we’ll see a PR.”
Mantz’s pb is 60:55 from the 2021 US Half Champs.
As great as Hall’s run was for its time, it is stunning that 59:43 has endured this long considering we now live in an age of supershoes with runners splitting 59:51 during a full marathon.
Mantz certainly has the tools to challenge Hall’s mark one day, but he’s not at a point in his training right now to mount a serious challenge. He didn’t take much time off after his marathon debut in Chicago, where he ran 2:08:16 in October, continuing to train all the way through Thanksgiving, where he set a course record at the Manchester Road Race. After that, Eyestone says, Mantz took a few weeks off, and while he’s in decent shape now — Mantz is one of those runners who is pretty much always in shape — his main focus is building fitness for his next big goal, the Boston Marathon on April 17.
Eyestone also confirmed that Mantz will not be running next week’s USATF Cross Country Championships in Richmond, which means he will be skipping World XC in Australia. Eyestone says it was a tough decision — Mantz loves racing, and loves racing cross country. They had a serious discussion about the two events and considered running both. But once Mantz committed to Boston, they believed they owed it to that race, given its significant financial investment in Mantz, to put everything toward preparing as best as possible for the marathon.
“If you’re going to Australia, I think you’re just gonna be losing maybe a couple weeks [of training],” Eyestone says. “Obviously you’re going to race, which is a great quality training effort, but just the travel over there halfway around the world is not conducive to great marathon prep.”
Eyestone is a huge advocate for World XC — he raced there nine times — and during his own career in the ’80s and ’90s, it was not uncommon for athletes to run World XC followed by a spring marathon a few weeks later. Now, Eyestone says, the marathon has become so specialized that few athletes are willing to attempt the double. But if World XC is in a more conducive location for travel, Eyestone says he believes Mantz could run World XC and a spring marathon. World XC is in Croatia next year and Tallahassee, Fla., in 2026.
“I would almost guarantee we’ll see years in the future where Conner will do that double,” Eyestone says.
3) Tirunesh Dibaba returns
Tirunesh Dibaba hasn’t raced anywhere since December 31, 2018, so it’s worth remembering just how good she was. When Dibaba took her hiatus, she left with the following resume:
- Three Olympic golds and three Olympic bronzes
- Five world titles on the track and four more in cross country
- World record at 5,000 meters (14:11.15), #4 all-time at 10,000 meters (29:42.56), #3 all-time in the marathon (2:17:56)
You can see why many regard her as the greatest female distance runner of all time.
Dibaba gave birth to her second child in 2019, and it’s not totally clear why she missed so much time after that. (UPDATE: She had a third child in 2021). In her absence, the emergence of supershoes has pushed her down the all-time lists, but that also offers hope for her return. If Dibaba could run 2:17:56 in April 2017, when supershoes were in their infancy, what is she capable of now?
Yes, she’s older now, but there are plenty of 37-year-olds still running well on the roads. And yes, the long absence is concerning, but…I’m sure I’ve heard this phrase somewhere before…talent doesn’t go away. Consider Dibaba’s fellow Ethiopian Almaz Ayana, who barely raced from 2018-21 and ran 2:17:20 to win the Amsterdam Marathon last fall.
Could Dibaba fall flat in her return? Maybe. That’s what happened to 2012 Olympic champ Tiki Gelana when she returned after a six-year break in Valencia last year (Gelana, who ran 2:18:58 in 2012, finished 29th in 2:33:59).
Houston will be a test. On Sunday, we’ll find out where Dibaba is at right now — and perhaps gain a hint at where one of the legends of the sport might be able to go over the next few years. Everyone should be excited about that.
4) Jenny Simpson debuts in the half
Simpson was America’s best-ever female miler on the track, winning the 2011 world title at 1500 meters and three other global medals during her glittering career. But this weekend’s race represents a whole new challenge for the 36-year-old Simpson, and it comes after a stressful 2022 season that saw her battle the most significant injury of her career (a sports hernia and stress reaction in her pubic bone) and part ways with longtime sponsor New Balance (Simpson signed with Puma in October).
Houston will be the longest race of Simpson’s career so far. She has raced twice at 10 miles, and while the first went well (52:16 at 2021 Cherry Blossom — 68:31 half pace), the second, more recent effort was slower (54:16 at the Army 10-Miler in October — 71:08 pace). The latter effort came when she was still rebuilding her body from injury.
During her track career, Simpson was a fairly high mileage runner for a 1500 specialist and did win a national title at 5,000 in 2013 (her pb is 14:56). Now healthy, does she have anything left to give on the roads?
I wrote more about Simpson and her road to Houston after a traumatic 2022 in this article: LRC Jenny Simpson Puts Her Most Challenging Year Behind Her as She Turns to the Roads in 2023
5) Could we witness the emergence of America’s next great marathoner?
Teshome Mekonen, who finished 11th at the 2016 World Half for Ethiopia, became an American citizen in August (I wrote here about his journey to the US from Ethiopia’s Tigray region). Mekonen’s 60:02 half marathon pb immediately places him among America’s best in that event — when he raced Mantz at the 2022 NYC Half, Mekonen finished a minute ahead in 60:40. Mekonen’s big aim, however, is to become a top marathoner, and so far he has struggled in two attempts at the 26.2-mile distance. In his debut at 2021 New York, Mekonen was 20th in 2:22:16. In Ottawa in May 2022, he improved to 2:13:27 — but that’s still a disappointment from a 60-minute half marathoner.
Both Mekonen and his coach Haron Lagat are feeling optimistic ahead of Houston, where Mekonen will run the marathon on Sunday. Lagat, an 8:15 steepler best known as an ace pacemaker on the Diamond League circuit during the 2010s, established his own Colorado Springs-based training group, Peak Running Elite, in 2021. Its members include 2:09 marathoner Elkanah Kibet and 13:00 5,000m man Emmanuel Bor, both former members of the US Army WCAP team (both remain in the Army but have left the WCAP). Mekonen trained with the group intermittently upon moving to Colorado last year and has been coached formally by Lagat since October 2022.
After getting the opportunity to work with Mekonen up close, Lagat has been incredibly impressed. He says Mekonen can crush marathon workouts while still being able to hang with Bor during track sessions.
“His talent is not questionable at all,” Lagat says. “He works hard…He handles everything brilliantly. He handles 400s like a 5k guy, then he handles mile repeats like a 10k guy then he handles the long runs and the tempos like a marathoner.”
Lagat says he thinks he knows what went wrong in Mekonen’s first two marathons. Ahead of New York in 2021, Mekonen trained with Kibet, who would go on to have an excellent race, finishing 4th. But Mekonen was overeager and pushed too hard in practice. By race day, he had nothing left.
“A week before New York, he did a 20k, running a 59,” Lagat says. “It was crazy to me. When he showed up at the track on Tuesday, I was kind of mad at him, like, What did you do? You kind of blew up your chances with a week to go.”
Then, in Ottawa, Lagat says Mekonen’s hydration suffered because other athletes repeatedly took his drinks from the aid tables before Mekonen could reach them.
Lagat says he’s been working with Mekonen to mentally prepare for the pain for the marathon and how to endure the rough patches that inevitably arise. But he believes, based on his pedigree and training, that a fast time is possible in Houston.
“[2:07], that is reasonable,” Lagat says. “2:09 maybe for him is going to be underperformance. I feel like he’s 2:07:30, if he can squeeze it a bit, we’ll see if he can squeeze it at the end.”
That sort of time would put Mekonen in elite company — only five Americans have ever broken 2:08 — and perhaps convince a shoe company to take the plunge and sign the unsponsored Mekonen to an endorsement contract.
6) Quick-hit storylines
- Molly Huddle, who gave birth in April, returns to the race where she set the American record in the half five years ago. Huddle, 38, will look to improve on the 73:29 she ran at the B.A.A. Half in November in rainy conditions on a much tougher course.
- Dom Scott of Team Boss will be chasing the South African record of 66:44 set by Elana Meyer in 1999. Scott ran her pb of 67:32 in Houston last year.
- Edward Cheserek should battle for the win in the men’s half. Last year, he smoked Mantz at the NYC Half, finishing 2nd in 60:30 behind only Kenyan road maestro Rhonex Kipruto. Cheserek ran a pb of 60:13 in Valencia in October; can he get under 60:00 on Sunday?
- Rory Linkletter set the Canadian record of 61:08 in Houston last year but that record lasted just seven months as Ben Flanagan (61:00) and Cam Levins (61:04) both ran faster in Valencia. Can Linkletter wrest the record back in Houston and become the first Canadian under 61:00?
- CJ Albertson will be lining up for his third marathon in six weeks. He DNF’d Valencia on December 4, then ran 2:13:36 in Malaga on December 11. Other American men in the full marathon field include Parker Stinson and Shadrack Biwott.
- Maegan Krifchin has been even busier then Albertson. She ran marathons in New York, Philadelphia, and CIM in the span of four weeks last fall, running a pb of 2:29:21 in the last one at CIM. Six weeks after that race, she’s running Houston on Sunday.
- Hitomi Niiya (2:21:17) is the top seed in the women’s marathon. She set the Japanese record of 66:38 in winning the Houston Half in 2020.
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MB: Official 2023 Houston discussion thread: Will an American run 2:07 in the full marathon? Will Sisson break 67 in the half?
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