Veronica Nyaruai on her way to winning the Houston Half Marathon (Victah Sailer / organisers) © Copyright
Preview Houston, USA

Former champions descend on Houston

Ten past champions from the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Houston Half Marathon – including both of the course record-holders for the shorter distance – will compete at the respective IAAF Silver and Gold Label road races on Sunday (14).

Five years on from his most recent victory, Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa will be targeting a record third triumph on Sunday. The Olympic marathon silver medallist came close to achieving a hat-trick of titles last year, but was just beaten on the line by USA’s Leonard Korir.

Lilesa finished a distant 12th and 14th respectively at last year’s London Marathon and Chicago Marathon, but he was far more competitive over 13.1 miles. Following his second-place finish in Houston, he went on to win in New York and Bogota before finishing third at the Great North Run.

Korir won’t defend his title, but Lilesa – who set the course record of 59:22 in 2012 – still faces a formidable field which contains five other men with sub-60-minute PBs.

With a PB of 58:51, set just four months ago at the Copenhagen Half Marathon, Alex Oloitiptip is the fastest in the field and the ninth-fastest man in history for the distance. The Kenyan finished third in the Danish capital, replicating his finish from Paris six months earlier, both times just missing out on victory by a matter of seconds. It suggests that his finish might not be as strong as some of his counterparts, but the 27-year-old may decide to adopt different tactics on Sunday.

Guye Adola caused a stir in September when he stuck with – and even briefly led from – Eliud Kipchoge at the Berlin Marathon. Although he eventually finished second, he was rewarded with the fastest debut marathon time in history, 2:03:46. Sunday’s race will be the Ethiopian’s first competitive appearance since that run in the German capital and he may try to challenge his PB of 59:06, set in Delhi in 2014.

London Marathon champion Daniel Wanjiru, world cross-country silver medallist Leonard Barsoton and Justus Kangogo, all from Kenya, are the other sub-60-minute men in the field.

Several athletes will be making their half marathon debut, the most notable of whom is Jemal Yimer. The 21-year-old Ethiopian placed fourth at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 and then went on to finish fifth in the 10,000m at the IAAF World Championships London 2017, clocking a PB of 26:56.11.

He gave a glimpse of his potential for longer distances at the Marseilles-Cassis 20km race at the end of October, winning convincingly in 59:16.

Diego Estrada, who won the 2015 Houston Half Marathon in a PB of 1:00:51, is the fastest of the US entrants. Two-time world champion Bernard Lagat is also in the field.

As is the case in the men’s race, the women’s course record-holder will look to regain her title in a race containing runners with faster PBs than her.

Mary Wacera won the Houston Half Marathon in 2016 with a North American all-comers’ record of 1:06:29, then two months later she took the bronze medal at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016.

The Kenyan, who also earned the world half-marathon silver medal in 2014, returned to Houston last year but finished third in 1:08:38.

The women who finished ahead of Wacera last year won’t be in Houston on Sunday, but two women with even faster PBs will be.

Following a string of podium finishes at numerous half marathons in recent years, Edith Chelimo made a stunning breakthrough in October, winning the Cardiff Half Marathon in 1:05:52 to take three minutes off her PB. Now the 10th-fastest woman in history, the 31-year-old will be keen to show that her run in Cardiff wasn’t a one-off.

Bahrain’s Eunice Chumba has also established herself as one of the world’s best half-marathon runners over the past two years. The 24-year-old clocked an Asian record of 1:06:11 in September to win the highly competitive Copenhagen Half Marathon.

In US distance-running circles, much of the pre-race focus is on the participation of Molly Huddle and Jordan Hasay and whether they can challenge Deena Kastor’s North American record of 1:07:34. Their PBs, 1:07:41 for Huddle and 1:07:55 for Hasay, are just a shade outside Kastor’s record, but they will be just as focused on victory on Sunday as they will be on times.

Kenya’s 2015 world marathon silver medallist Helah Kiprop, Ethiopia’s 2015 London Marathon champion Tigist Tufa and USA’s Serena Burla, the 2014 Houston Half Marathon winner, are also in the field.

Ondoro returns while Nyaruai steps up

Twelve months on from his 2:12:05 victory on a hot and humid day in Houston, Kenya’s Dominic Ondoro returns to defend his title, but this time he – and all of the other runners – will be met with quite different conditions.

Forecasters predict a much cooler day on Sunday with temperatures just above freezing when the races start at 7am. But a man of Ondoro’s experience – this will be his 20th marathon – won’t be deterred.

With a best of 2:08:00, Ondoro is the third-fastest man in the field. Bazu Worku, the Houston winner in 2013 and 2014, owns the fastest PB at 2:05:25. The Ethiopian recorded that time when finishing third at the Berlin Marathon back in 2010, but last year he clocked 2:08:48 – a time that just two other men in the field have ever bettered.

Ethiopia’s Yitayal Atnafu is sandwiched between Worku and Ondoro on the entry list. His lifetime best of 2:07:21 was set just nine months ago at the Paris Marathon. He finished third in Houston in 2016 and then improved to the runner-up spot last year. The 24-year-old will be aiming to continue that progression on Sunday by taking the top spot.

The past 11 editions of the Houston Marathon have been won by Ethiopian women, and three of those winners will return to the Texan city in a bid to regain their title.

Mamitu Daska, the 2011 Houston winner, is the fastest entrant. Her PB of 2:21:59 was set back in 2011, but she finished third in New York last year in 2:28:08 in a competitive race.

Abebech Afework and Biruktayit Degefa, the 2014 and 2016 winners respectively, are also expected to figure at the front of the race, as is fellow Ethiopian Belaynesh Oljira, the 2013 world bronze medallist at 10,000m and cross country. Oljira won the Houston Half Marathon in 2012 and went on to compete at the 2013 Dubai Marathon and 2014 Boston Marathon, but she hasn’t contested a 26.2-mile race since then.

If anyone can put a stop to the Ethiopian dominance in Houston, it might be Veronica Nyaruai. The 2005 world U18 and 2006 world U20 3000m champion won the Houston Half Marathon last year in 1:07:58, but Sunday’s race will be the first marathon of her career.

Her PBs at other distances – 8:40.81 for 3000m, 14:44.82 for 5000m and 31:07.56 for 10,000m – suggest she is capable of a fast marathon. Whether that will come on Sunday in her first attempt at the classic distance, though, is another matter entirely.

Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF