By David Monti, Race Results Weekly
(16-Jan) — Despite near-freezing temperatures at the start of the Chevron Houston Marathon (49th) and the Aramco Half-Marathon (20th), both Keira D’Amato and Sara Hall broke the American records for the marathon and half-marathon, respectively. D’Amato, 37, broke Deena Kastor’s 16 year-old USA and North American record of 2:19:36, clocking 2:19:12 in only her eighth elite-level marathon. Hall, 38, broke Molly Huddle’s USA and North American record of 1:07:25 set in Houston in 2018, running 1:07:15. D’Amato was a runaway race winner, while Hall finished second to Kenya’s Vicoty Chepngeno who ran the fastest-ever half-marathon in North America: 1:05:03.
“I don’t think I’m going to be able to find the words to describe what I’m feeling now, but I’ll try,” said D’Amato during the post-race press conference. She continued: “It’s been wild. I just don’t know what to say, sitting in front of everyone being the American record holder.”
Both D’Amato and Hall attacked those records right from the start. D’Amato and her two male pacers, Calum Neff and Silas Franz, grouped-up tightly and went through 5-K in 16:25 and 10-K in 32:45, on schedule for a 2:18:11 finish. Ethiopia’s Biruktayit Degefa –who was the Houston champion in 2016, 2018 and 2019– was still with D’Amato at that point. But by they time D’Amato’s group reached halfway in a slightly less ambitious 1:09:40, Degefa was already 21 seconds behind. The Ethiopian would fade further and recorded her last split at 35-K before dropping out.
“We were thinking 5:18 (per mile) pace,” said D’Amato, who works as a real estate broker in Midlothian, Virginia. “That would give us a little bit of a cushion if things went bad late in the race.”
Although D’Amato was in full control and had her first marathon victory was never in doubt, she wasn’t necessarily feeling great. She said she never looked at her watch, but rather trusted Neff and Franz to maintain the right tempo. She tried to stay focused.
“We started out on that pace and it never really felt that good,” D’Amato admitted. “So I started worrying a bit.”
Between 25 and 30-K, D’Amato’s split was only 16:39 and her projected finish time slipped to 2:19:34, just a hair inside of Kastor’s record. But from 30 to 35-K she dropped her pace by 11 seconds for that 5-kilometer segment, and her record chances began to improve.
“That was a struggle, man,” D’Amato said of the late stages of the race. “When you start to get so tired in a race your mind starts negotiating with your body.” She added: “I don’t think I was feeling awesome today, but I felt good enough to get it done.”
She covered the final 5-kilometer segment, from 35 to 40-K, in 16:26, just one second slower than her first 5-K of the race. In the final two kilometers as she raced towards the downtown finish line, D’Amato’s form was still crisp: chin up, shoulders back, and arms pumping. Full of emotion, she covered her mouth with her hand before raising her arms in triumph as she broke the tape. Almost immediately, she was reunited with her husband, Anthony, son Tommy, and daughter Quin.
“I just can’t believe it,” said D’Amato who is the first American woman to win the race since 2005. “I’m really tired, but I’m really, really happy.”
Two marathon debutantes, Alice Wright of Great Britain and Maggie Montoya of Boulder, Colo., finished second and third, respectively. Wright, who lives and trains in Flagstaff, Ariz., with the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite group, ran 2:29:08. Montoya, who trains with the Roots Running Project, was given the same time. Master’s runner Roberta Groner, 44, of Ledgewood, N.J., was fourth in 2:32:02.
Like D’Amato, Hall was able to focus on the record after Chepngeno bolted to the front, hitting 10-K in 30:32. Hall was back in the second pack with Kenya’s Caren Maiyo, Britain’s Jessica Judd, South Africa’s Dom Scott, and Americans Emily Durgin and Fiona O’Keeffe (31:54). They were all on pace to break 68 minutes.
Unlike D’Amato, Hall felt comfortable. She said that for over a year she had reached the fitness level where she could challenge Huddle’s time, but because of the pandemic and other race commitments she didn’t have a chance.
“I felt like I had the fitness to run that time for over a year now,” said Hall, who lives and trains in Flagstaff, Ariz. She continued: “I was excited about how I felt out there.”
Maiyo fell off the pace (she would finish seventh), but Durgin, Judd, O’Keeffe and Scott managed to stay with Hall through 15-K (47:51). But by 20-K (1:03:52, just four seconds shy of the USA record for that distance), Hall was alone in second place and only racing the clock. Wearing a headband and arm warmers to ward off the cold, she cruised to the finish where he husband and coach, Ryan, was waiting for her. Ryan Hall had set the USA half-marathon record of 59:43 at the same race 15 years ago.
“I never dreamed of doing this for a long time,” said Hall who watched her husband’s record from a lead vehicle in 2007 when she knew almost nothing about road running. “I never really dreamed of doing something like this five years ago. It was like chipping away, chipping away.” She added: “That’s, like, been my progression.”
Scott finished third in a personal best 1:07:32 (in only her second half-marathon. O’Keeffe (1:07:42), Judd (1:07:52) and Durgin (1:07:54) rounded out the top-6, all running career best times.
Chepngeno was thrilled with her performance, taking down Brigid Kosgei’s USA all-comers record of 1:05:50 set in 2019 at the same event.
“I did not imagine to run that,” she said in her broadcast interview. “Maybe I would run 66.”
In the men’s division of the marathon, Kenya’s James Ngandu won in his debut in 2:11:03, defeating Ethiopia’s Abdi Abdo (2:11:11) in a back-and-forth battle over the final kilometer. Ngandu, who lives in Van Wert, Ohio, and ran for Tiffin University during his NCAA career, was surprised and pleased with his win.
“Oh yes, I’m surprised,” he said. “Marathon is not an easy journey. I’ve been training for 12 weeks but I didn’t know I was going to win.”
Back in sixth place, Frank Lara of the Roots Running Project was the top American finisher. Originally from Houston where he ran for Strake Jesuit Prep, he clocked 2:11:32 in his debut at the distance.
In the men’s division of the half-marathon, results were on the slow side by Houston standards. Ethiopia’s Milkesa Mengesha beat Kenya’s John Korir (younger brother of 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir) in a sprint finish, 1:00:24 to 1:00:27. Kirubel Erassa of Colorado Springs, Colo., was the top American in fourth place in 1:00:44 in his half-marathon debut.
“It is is bitingly cold,” said Mengesha through a translator during his post-race television interview. He continued: “Despite that, I was able to overcome the difficulty and become champion.”
Photos: Courtesy Chevron Houston Marathon