HOUSTON (14-Jan) — On a chilly and sunny morning here, several significant records fell at the Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half-Marathon. In the marathon Zouhair Talbi became the first Moroccan man to win the race, and his time of 2:06:39 broke the race’s 12-year-old course record by 12 seconds.
In the half-marathon, Sutume Kebede of Ethiopia ran the fastest-ever half-marathon on U.S. soil by a woman: 1:04:37. Behind her Weini Kelati smashed the USA half-marathon record, clocking 1:06:25 in her marathon debut.
Kenyan Edna Kiplagat, 44, smashed the world best for masters women, clocking 1:07:52.
OBIRI IS UPSTAGED
Reigning Boston and New York City Marathon champion, Hellen Obiri of Kenya, attacked the half-marathon course right from the start, clicking through 5-K in 15:16.
But Kebede wasn’t intimidated. She stayed with Obiri as did her compatriot Buze Diriba, running with a group of men. Kelati, running in her first half-marathon, chose to hang back.
Obiri kept up the high pace, hitting 10-K in 30:28, putting her on track to run 1:04:17, well below the pace needed to break Vicoty Chepngeno’s course and all-comers record of 1:05:03. But that pace proved to be too fast, and past the halfway mark, Obiri began to fall back.
By the 15-K mark Kebede had five seconds on Obiri (her time of 45:42 was a pending USA all-comers record), and the Ethiopian was never challenged for the remainder of the race. She won a total of $27,000 for the win plus the course record.
“I’m very happy to be here, and I’m very grateful for the support that I received from the Houstonians,” Kebede said in her post-race broadcast interview. Speaking through an interpreter she added: “The course was really great. It is my first time running here. If the organizers want to invite me back I can try to run faster.”
Obiri held on for second in 1:06:07, and another Ethiopian, Buze Diriba, sprinted past Kelati in the final meters to take third in 1:06:24. Nonetheless, Kelati’s 1:06:25 was 13 seconds under Keira D’Amato’s 2023 record of 1:06:38.
“I can’t believe it,” said Kelati. “It’s amazing. It’s my first half-marathon.” She added: “I would just like to train and run more half-marathons. I would love to get faster and faster in the half marathon and move up to the marathon.”
On the men’s side, the pace was more conservative. A pack of five were still together at the 20-K point: Milkesa Tolosa and Jemal Yimer from Ethiopia, Wesley Kiptoo of Kenya, and Biya Simbassa and Diego Estrada from Flagstaff, Arizona. Yimer had won the race in 2020 and knew the course.
He waited for the final 400 meters to show his cards and pull away from his rivals. He was timed in 1:00:42, just one second up on Kiptoo who made a late charge for the line to secure the runner-up spot. Tolosa got third (1:00:45), Simbassa fourth (1:00:45), and Estrada fifth (1:00:49).
“The course is a really great course, and I also came here really prepared to show how good the course is,” Yimer said through a translator in his post-race broadcast interview. He continued: “It worked out very well.”
Four-time Olympian Galen Rupp, who used today’s race as a tune-up for the USA Olympic Team Trials Marathon in three weeks– finished 14th in 1:02:37.
TALBI COMES FROM BEHIND
Ignoring the fast early pace, Talbi chose to run his own race today.
“He hasn’t been in our picture the whole time,” said commentator Jon Warren, the head track and field coach at Rice University who was commentating on the local television broadcast.
Indeed, at the halfway mark when Germany’s Hendrik Pfeiffer was leading a pack of four at 1:03:02, Talbi was back in sixth place 38 seconds back. He was comfortable there and simply biding his time.
“I needed not to get too excited and go too fast in the beginning of the race,” said Talbi. “That’s what I did. I was patient all the way.”
But at 35-K Talbi put the hammer down. He ran 14:46 from 35 to 40-K and quickly built a 22-second lead. Ethiopia’s Tsedat Ayana –who lost last year’s race in a sprint finish against Kenya’s Dominic Ondoro– was still within striking distance, but could not make up the distance on Talbi by the finish.
Talbi broke the tape in 2:06:39, 21 seconds ahead of Ayana. Pfeiffer finished third with an Olympic qualifying mark and personal best of 2:07:14, and Australia’s Pat Tiernan also got a Paris 2024 qualifier and personal best of 2:07:45.
For Talbi, today’s result put him into a good position for gaining Olympic team selection. He is now the second-fastest Moroccan within the qualification window, and his victory here should bolster his case with Moroccan federation selectors.
“I’m the second fastest Moroccan right now,” Talbi said. “I put myself in a position for the federation to select me for the Olympic Games.”
Pfeiffer is now the fourth-fastest German qualifier, and Tiernan is the second-fastest Australian. Tiernan is nearly assured of Olympic team selection because he is only the second Australian to run under the standard of 2:08:10.
The women’s race went out aggressively, and through 35-K the leaders were on course record pace. Behind male pacemaker Callum Neff, three women –Bosena Mogesie and Rahma Tusa of Ethiopia, and Vicoty Chepngeno of Kenya– were running together through 30-K (1:38:40).
All three women looked strong, especially Chepngeno who was making her marathon debut.
Mogesie was the first to falter, and struggled in the latter stages of the race. She would only finish sixth in 2:26:59. Tusa dropped Chepngeno from 30 to 35-K and was strong enough to hold the lead to the finish.
Her finish time of 2:19:33 was excellent (the third-fastest ever in Houston), but she missed the additional $35,000 she would have earned had she broken Hitomi Niiya’s course record of 2:19:12.
“I’m very, very happy to be here,” Tusa said through a translator. “I’m very happy to be in Houston. My coach wanted me to run in Dubai (which was last Sunday), but I wanted to race in Houston.” She continued: “I praise God that I came here and raced well.”
In fourth place, Germany’s Deborah Schöneborn ran an Olympic qualifier of 2:24:54 (she had already run a qualifier in Sevilla in 2023 of 2:25:52, but she is now the fourth-fastest German woman in the qualifying window).
Jovana De La Cruz of Peru claimed an Olympic qualifying spot by just one second, running 2:26:49. She is just the second Peruvian woman to make a qualifying time, so she is nearly assured of Olympic team selection.
Canada’s Natasha Wodak, who was on 2:24:16 pace at halfway, faded in the second half and ended up ninth in 2:28:42. She had hoped to qualify for her third Olympics here.