Emily Sisson Breaks the American Record Plus 5 Thoughts on the 2023 Houston Half Marathon

Tirunesh Dibaba Only Runs 71:35 In Her Return To Racing;
Hitomi Niiya Just Misses Japanese Record, Wins Full Marathon In 2:19:24

By Jonathan Gault
January 15, 2023

After a 2022 season in which she broke American records in the half and full marathon, Emily Sisson made a bright start to her 2023 campaign by running 66:52 to shave 19 seconds off her own American record and finish second in the Aramco Houston Half Marathon on Sunday. Ethiopia’s Hiwot Gebremaryam (also known as Hiwot Gebrekidan), the 2021 Berlin Marathon runner-up, broke away from the field early and was never challenged up front, running 66:28 for the win. Fellow Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, last year’s London Marathon runner-up, won the men’s race in 60:34 in a sprint finish over Wesley Kiptoo of Kenya and HOKA NAZ Elite.

Sisson, though, was the story for American distance fans. Few Americans have ever had a better 12-month stretch on the road than Sisson, who kicked her American record spree off with a 67:11 in Indianapolis in May 2022. She followed that up with a 2:18:29 at the Chicago Marathon to become the first American woman under 2:19, and today became the first American woman under 67:00 on a record-eligible course (Kara Goucher ran 66:57 on an aided course at the 2007 Great North Run).

Conditions were good for running (high 50s, partly cloudy, 5 mph wind), and Sisson went out quickly, hitting 5k in 15:31 (65:28 pace) with Brit Jess Warner-Judd – though they still trailed Gebremaryam by 17 seconds at that point. Sisson and Warner-Judd would run together for much of the race before Sisson pulled away over the final 5k; Warner-Judd would finish 3rd in 67:19, a pb of 33 seconds that puts her third on the all-time UK list behind Eilish McColgan and Paula Radcliffe.

Emily Sisson En Route To Breaking US Half Marathon Record in Houston 2023
© 2023 Kevin Morris

Each of Sisson’s 5k segments was slower than the one that preceded it as she went 15:31-15:48-16:01-16:06 before kicking it in by splitting 3:26 for her final 1.0975k (15:38 5k pace).

“I think I could have run a little more evenly so I’m hoping to run another half and run even faster,” Sisson said after the race on the ABC13 broadcast. “I wanted to try and go for the win but [Gebremaryam] was just too good today. My main focus was on competing and hoping the time was fast at the end of the day. I went a little too fast the first few miles so the last few miles I was definitely feeling it.”

Five men were still in the men’s lead pack at 15k, including American Conner Mantz, but just after 10 miles the group had winnowed to two with Kiptoo, the 2021 NCAA indoor 5k champion at Iowa State, pushing the pace and Gebresilase the only man to come with him. The two were shoulder-to-shoulder with 400 meters to go, and Kiptoo edged ahead by a stride as they made the turn into the short home straight. As he sprinted toward the finish, Kiptoo repeatedly looked over his shoulder and drifted toward the advertising boards on the far side of the course in an attempt to block Gebresilase from passing him. Ultimately, Gebresilase found space to pass just before the finish line and won by a second, 60:34 to 60:35. Had Gebresilase not won, a DQ would have been warranted for Kiptoo (Editor’s note: We at letsrun have always felt the rule book needs a change. In our mind, if Kiptoo had won, the proper punishment would have been to place him 2nd, not totally throw his result out).

See for yourself.

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Mantz finished as the top American in sixth in 61:12.

Ondoro outkicked Ayana FTW
© 2023 Kevin Morris

In the full marathon in Houston, Kenya’s Dominic Ondoro won a dramatic race in 2:10:36, defeating Ethiopia’s Tsedat Ayana in the final meters. Ondoro, who also won Houston in 2017, was locked in a fierce battle with Ayana in the home straight, and though Ayana briefly pulled ahead, he stumbled from exhaustion just steps from the finish line, allowing Ondoro to power past him to win by one second. American Teshome Mekonen, who was with those two until the final mile, was 3rd in 2:11:05, with Parker Stinson 4th (2:12:11) and Tyler Pennel 5th (2:12:16).

Hitomi Niiya, who set the Japanese record in the half (66:38) in her last trip to Houston in 2020, was going after the Japanese marathon record of 2:19:12 held by 2004 Olympic champ Mizuki Noguchi. Niiya went out well under record pace (69:09 at the half) and was still under record pace as late as 40k but couldn’t hold on and wound up running 2:19:24. She still won the race in a pb of almost two minutes and is now #2 on the all-time Japanese list.

Quick takes and observations on other notable finishers below.

Hitomi Niiya after Winning Houston Hitomi Niiya after Winning Houston
© 2023 Kevin Morris

*Full results


Quick Take: Emily Sisson is making it look easy

Emily After Breaking US Half Marathon Record in Houston 202 Emily After Breaking US Half Marathon Record in Houston 2023 © 2023 Kevin Morris

American records are meant to be tough, yet Emily Sisson has been in such good form recently that we expect her to break the American record pretty much every time she races. And that’s what she has done, breaking three ARs in the last nine months. Sisson is making it look easy, but it most definitely is not. Even for athletes who can get into AR shape like Sisson, they have to avoid problems and execute on race day. Doing that consistently is incredibly tough, yet Sisson has done exactly that. We should not take her brilliance for granted.

Quick Take: It’s good that the American record is under 67:00 and it’s good that Sisson wants to go faster

Some context: as good as Sisson’s run was today, her American record of 66:52 is exactly four minutes slower than Letesenbet Gidey’s world record (for context Ryan Hall’s men’s AR of 59:43 is 2:12 slower than Jacob Kiplimo’s men’s WR of 57:31 and Hall’s run was run without super shoes). The top Americans know that gap has to close, and it should over the next few years, whether it is Sisson lowering her own record or someone like Elise Cranny, Karissa Schweizer, or Alicia Monson stepping up to the roads.

MB: Sisson 66:52 American Record!

Quick Take: Molly Huddle takes a big step back, Jenny Simpson posts solid debut, Tirunesh Dibaba struggles

There were a number of compelling storylines beyond Sisson’s AR, with some big names further back in the field. Thoughts on each of them:

Molly Huddle in Houston Molly Huddle in Houston
© 2023 Kevin Morris

Molly Huddle (5th, 70:01): This was a solid step in the right direction for the 38-year-old Huddle, who gave birth to daughter Josephine in April 2022. Huddle ran a few low-key road races last fall, then clocked 73:29 at the B.A.A. Half in November in wet conditions. The Houston course is faster than the B.A.A. Half course, so some improvement was expected, but to take over three minutes off her time is a nice boost. Huddle last two half marathons pre-pregnancy were 69:35 and 69:34, so to be within spitting distance today in Houston was a good result – even though it will take a lot more than that if she is to be competitive at the Olympic Marathon Trials a year from now.

Jenny Simpson (9th, 70:35): Simpson was the 5th American finisher, behind Sisson, Huddle, Erika Kemp (70:14), and Lindsay Flanagan (70:20). 70:35 is a decent debut. It won’t turn many heads, but it’s definite progress from the fall when a less-than-100% Simpson ran 54:16 (71:08 pace) at the Army Ten-Miler. It’s also an Olympic Trials qualifier, which is nice to have in her back pocket.

“Not quite setting the world on fire… yet,” she joked in a text message to Race Results Weekly.  “Stronger than my racing in the fall, so that’s good.”

Tirunesh Dibaba (16th, 71:35): Dibaba had been fairly quiet about expectations and the reason behind her return to the sport after a four-year break from racing during which time she gave birth to two children. But for one of the greatest distance runners of all time, 71:35 is a poor result. Dibaba was never near the front, and at 5k (16:26) was with the likes of Kemp, Flanagan, and Simpson. But even that pace proved too aggressive for her, as she went 16:26-16:47-17:15-17:27 for her four 5k segments. Probably not what she flew all the way to Houston looking for.

Quick Take: Kiptoo impresses, Cheserek does not, and the LRC singlet returns

Some thoughts on some of the more notable men’s finishers in Houston:

Gebresilase Outkicks Kiptoo
© 2023 Kevin Morris

Wesley Kiptoo (2nd, 60:34): Kiptoo came very close to posting one of the biggest wins ever by a member of the HOKA NAZ Elite team but this was still an impressive result. In just his second half marathon, Kiptoo took almost a minute off his pb (previous best: 61:26 in hilly Pittsburgh) and ran last year’s London Marathon runner-up right down to the wire. And he did so without his famous gloves! Kiptoo is known for wearing gloves no matter the conditions, so you know he meant business when he discarded them today.

One thing Kiptoo has to work on is how to handle a close finish. He looked over his shoulder way too often in the final straight and adjusted his position after each of those frequent glances to ensure he remained directly ahead of Gebresilase. Memo to Kiptoo: you’ll get to the finish line faster by looking ahead and running in a straight line.

Conner Mantz (6th, 61:12): Not a bad run, but somewhat disappointing. Mantz’s coach Ed Eyestone told LetsRun coming in that he wasn’t in tip-top shape but still felt he was capable of PR’ing (Mantz’s best is 60:55). Mostly, Mantz wanted to run for the win, and he was competitive for most of the race, even pushing the pace in the middle stages of the race. He didn’t quite have it over the final 5k though. Mantz’s main aim this year is the Boston Marathon, and that’s the result on which he will be judged, but he will likely be disappointed he couldn’t respond to Kiptoo’s move late in the race.

Edward Cheserek (8th, 61:51): A disappointing result. Like Mantz, Cheserek was with the leaders through halfway and only five seconds off the lead at 15k. But Cheserek faded badly at the end (he ran his final 1.0975k in 3:34, which is 16:14 5k pace) and finished well behind Mantz, a guy he beat by over a minute at the NYC Half last year.

LetsRun.com Singlet LetsRun.com Singlet in Houston © 2023 Kevin Morris

Dan Michalski (21st, 63:39): We had to give a shoutout to Michalski, the 4th placer at the 2021 Olympic Trials in the steeple who rocked the LetsRun.com singlet in his half marathon debut. Michalski held things together fairly well to run 63:39. Though he missed the Olympic Trials standard of 63:00, he did beat a number of athletes in the pro field – not bad considering he had to wear bib #20423 and start with the masses. 63:39 is now the official LetsRun.com singlet record.

Quick Take: Teshome Mekonen runs two-minute pb but is still figuring out the marathon

The good news for Teshome Mekonen is that he took two minutes off his personal best, dropping it from 2:13:27 to 2:11:05 today in Houston. He was also competitive in the race until the final mile, another good sign. The two men who beat him have far more marathon experience, as Ondoro has run 2:08:00 and won 13 marathons in his career and Ayana has a pb of 2:06:18 and ran 2:08 twice last year.

Teshome Mekonen after Houston

The bad news for the unsponsored Mekonen is that he didn’t boost his chances of earning a pro contract all that much. The fact is, despite a 60:02 half marathon pb, Mekonen has a pb of just 2:11:05 through three career marathons. And in the supershoe age, 2:11:05 doesn’t move the needle all that much for an American.

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