By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2023 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
HOUSTON (13-Jan) — Like most things in Texas, Marathon Weekend here is big. Really big. The Houston Marathon Committee expects a total of 33,000 runners between the We Are Houston 5-K on Saturday (6,000) and the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half-Marathon on Sunday (27,000). City officials confirmed that it will be the largest sporting event in Houston this year.
“What a way to start 2023!” Mayor Sylvester Turner exclaimed at a press conference here this morning. “When you have 27,000 runners, that’s a pretty big number. They’re coming from every single state in the United States. All 50 states are represented this year. In addition to that, 47 countries are represented.” He added: “This is indeed an international event.”
That is definitely true for the elite fields which have been assembled for both the half-marathon and the marathon where there is a good chance that several records will be broken. Temperatures will be about 56F/13C at the 07:00 start time, rise to 63F/17C by 09:00, then reach about 71F/22C by noon. Surely, it will be on the warm side for the race’s recreational runners, but right in the sweet spot for the elites, especially in the half-marathon.
Indeed, it is in that race where hopes are highest for fast times, and much of the pre-race buzz centers around Emily Sisson’s chances for breaking her own USA record of 1:07:11. She didn’t say that it was her goal, but by extension it must be because she wants to win the race. She’ll likely need to run faster than that to get the win here. Over the last four editions, the women’s winning times have been 1:06:39, 1:05:50, 1:06:38 and 1:05:03.
“I plan to be competitive,” said Sisson who is also the USA marathon record holder (2:18:29). “I think going into the race if I can be competitive… then a fast time will follow. “I’ll talk to Ray (Treacy, her coach) later this afternoon, or tomorrow probably.” She continued: “I’m going for the win and a fast time will follow.”
Sisson, 31, who recently relocated to Flagstaff, Ariz., ran an excellent 1:08:21 in her half-marathon debut in New York City back in 2017, and two years later began to chase Molly Huddle’s national record of 1:07:25 set here in Houston in 2018. Sisson ran 1:07:30 in Houston in 2019, 1:07:26 in Valencia in 2020, then finally 1:07:11 in Indianapolis in 2022.
“I think the key is just persistence,” said Sisson, who does much of her training with her husband, Shane Quinn. “I’ve been trying to run the half-marathon record for years. I got really close two years ago and missed by a second. I think you just keep trying, keep putting in the work.”
Sisson should have plenty of company at the front, including Ethiopia’s Hiwot Gebremaryam (1:06:47 PB) and Tirunesh Dibaba (1:06:50), South Africa’s Dom Scott (1:07:32), Britain’s Jessica Warner-Judd (1:07:52), and compatriot Marielle Hall (1:10:19). Dibaba, 37 –who hasn’t competed since September, 2018 and has since given birth to three children– sounded upbeat today on her return to competition, but was mum about her fitness.
“This year I decided to come back and run again,” she said cryptically through a translator.
Two Ethiopians, Leul Gebresilase (59:18 PB) and Shura Kitata (59:16), lead the half-marathon men’s field and have a good chance of breaking compatriot Feyisa Lilesa’s course record of 59:22 set in 2012. Kenya’s Edward Cheserek should also be in the mix. This will be the fourth half-marathon for the 17-time NCAA champion from the University of Oregon who has a personal best of 1:00:13 and is still transitioning from the middle distances –where he has a mile best of 3:49.44– to longer distances.
“I think I’m getting used to it,” said Cheserek of his higher mileage loads in training.
Conner Mantz, the 2021 USA half-marathon champion, is the fastest American man in the field with a 1:00:55 personal best. This will be the first time the 26 year-old will be running in Houston.
“I’ve heard about a lot of good experiences here from my training partners,” said Mantz. “Jared Ward has had a lot of success here. It’s always been one I’ve wanted to do.”
The marathon has an interesting mix of athletes, but it is Japan’s Hitomi Niiya who is generating the most buzz. Niiya, 34, who came out of a five-year retirement in 2018, would like to break the Japanese marathon record of 2:19:12 set by Mizuki Noguchi in Berlin in 2005. Coincidentally, that mark is also the Chevron Houston Marathon course record, set a year ago by Keira D’Amato. Niiya’s previous best is 2:21:17 set in Tokyo last March. She won the half-marathon here in Houston back in 2020 setting a Japanese record of 1:06:38 and enjoyed running in Houston.
“I am very happy to come back to Houston,” Niiya said today through a translator. She continued: “Houston is a special race, and I have a lot of good memories for this course.”
Sintayehu Lewetegn of Ethiopia (2:22:36 PB) should be Niiya’s top competitor. Maegan Krifchin of Atlanta, who will be running her fourth marathon in 10 weeks, is the most experienced American in the women’s field. She has a 2:29:21 personal best, but said today that she is running more for enjoyment than time right now.
“Honestly, I’m having a lot of fun right now,” said Krifchin. “I just try to find the joy in running. Being a professional runner, I feel like there’s big stress with it.” She continued: “You don’t really see the passion and the joy anymore because you just want to produce results. Now, I’m just, like, having fun.”
Kenya’s James Ngandu, who lives in Van Wert, Ohio, is back to defend his title in the men’s marathon. Last year, in his debut at the distance, he ran 2:11:03, and has since improved to 2:10:17. He said that he just felt his way along last year and was surprised to get the win.
“I would say the race was pretty tough,” said Ngandu, who ran for Tiffin University in Division II of the NCAA system before turning pro. “My first time running a marathon, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Japan’s Kenta Uchida, who finished fourth here last year, is also back to run. He has a personal best of 2:08:12 set in Otsu back in 2021.
“Last year I received an invitation to run Houston and had a really good experience here,” said Uchida through Brett Larner, founder and editor of Japan Running News. “I thought the course was very fast, a good race to go for good times. When I had the opportunity to run again this year I definitely wanted to come back.”
There is significant prize and bonus money on the line here. In the marathon, the winners will receive $30,000 and a new course record would trigger a $35,000 bonus (sub-2:06:51 for men and 2:19:12 for women). In the half-marathon, the winners will earn $10,000 and a course record is worth $15,000 (sub-59:22 for men and 1:05:03 for women).
Both the marathon and half-marathon here are World Athletics Gold Label road races. The Houston Marathon Committee is the only race organizer in the United States to stage two Gold Label races with contemporaneous starts.
PHOTO: Four of the top competitors for the women’s title at the 2023 Aramco Houston Half-Marathon (left to right): Anna Dibaba, Tirunesh Dibaba, Jenny Simpson, and Emily Sisson (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)