National Records and Monumental Comebacks rule the day in Houston

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© Copyright – 2020 – Athletics Illustrated

Malindi Elmore. Photo credit: Malindi Elmore/Graham Hood

The Chevron Houston Marathon and accompanying Aramco Houston Half Marathon have become defacto annual trials of sorts. It’s where many athletes go to achieve standards for global championships or to qualify for the World Half Marathon Championships. The race brings out the best in many athletes.

Sunday, January 19 was no different.

In the marathon event, the performance of the day could have been by Canadian marathon runner Malindi Elmore. The 39-year-old mother of two is a former 1500-metre specialist who retired after competing internationally during the early 2000s.

During her second-ever marathon, Elmore finished third overall and in a new Canadian record time of 2:24:50. According to Canadian physiologist Trent Stellingwerff, her training runs projected out to a 2:24, so she went for it from the gun, running at 5:30 per mile pace for the first 5K and running each 5K split from 5:30 to 5:34 per mile or plus or minus 3:25 per km. She picked up the pace a little over the final 2K to capture third.

In taking the record, she improved on Rachel Cliff’s 2:26:56. The Vancouver athlete set the record in Nagoya, Japan in March of last year.

Kelowna’s Elmore competed in the 2004 Athens Olympics. She did not make it out of the preliminary rounds. Sixteen years later, she may very be Olympic bound again.

“The race went perfectly for me today,” Elmore told Athletics Illustrated. “I ended up tucking in with the lead women and it felt really smooth and comfortable most of the way.  The group started to splinter around 4-5K to go and I rallied in the last 200m to kick in for third.  I was thrilled to execute the race I believed I could!”

Her coach, two-time Olympian and husband Graham Hood and Elmore competed in triathlons in retirement. She kept herself fit with distance training for the half and full Ironman events. During the Houston Marathon last year, she debuted in the time of 2:32:15 to raise a few eyebrows. She prepared for the 2019 Toronto Marathon however met with injury and was unable to compete.

Should she compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, she will be 40 years of age and four Olympiads will have come and gone since and including Athens, Beijing, London and Rio.

After Houston, she told David Monti, “I just felt so lifted by so many people that helped me to get here and all the positive energy I received from friends and family from all over and it felt like a real team effort.”

As for Tokyo, Team Canada currently has four athletes that have met some or all of the qualification requirements including Lyndsay Tessier having finished ninth at the 2019 Doha World Championships marathon, Cliff, Elmore and Dayna Pidhoresky who was the top Canadian in Toronto. Athletics Canada has their work cut out for them to decide on which three athletes that they will nominate – qualification continues until May 31, one week after the Ottawa Marathon is run. Canada has never had such depth in the event. The Tokyo Olympic standard for women is 2:29:30.

Ethiopian Askale Merachi won the Houston race in the time of 2:23:29, while fellow Ethiopian Biruktayit Eshetu finished second in the time of 2:24:47. It was Merachi’s second-fastest marathon. In Santa Monica last year she ran a not legal 2:24:13. So Houston will be her new official personal best when it is officially ratified.

Eshetu ran 2:22:40 in Toronto last October.

In the men’s race, Ethiopian Kelkile Geahegn won in the time of 2:08:36, his best is 2:05:56 from Rotterdam in 2018. Bonsa Dida and Eritrean Amanuel Mesel went 2-3 running 2:10:37 and 2:11:04, respectively.

The first non-African was Irishman Stephen Scullion, who ran a new personal best time by 20 seconds, finishing in 2:11:52. Scullion set out to run the Olympic standard of 2:11:30, which is 5:01 per mile or 3:07 per km, give or take. Some parts of the middle of the race had kilometres that he ran a little off the pace at 5:07 to 5:11 per mile, knocking him off the Olympic standard. He tried to rally with a final 2K at approximately 2:57 per km but left it a little too late.

Sixty-five men ran under 2:30:00, 28 under 2:20:00 and 17 women ran under 2:40:00, while 66 ran under 2:50:00.

Half Marathon

In the men’s half-marathon distance, nine of them ran under the 60-minute benchmark. Ethiopian Jemal Mekonnen won in the time of 59:25. Kenyan Bernard Ngeno was close behind finishing just one second back, while fellow Kenyan Shadrack Korir finished in third place clocking a 59:27 – it was an exciting finish.

The 23-year-old Mekonnen has run as fast as 58:33 in Valencia in October 2018.

The first non-African was Jake Robertson, a Kiwi who has trained in Africa for more than a decade. He finished 10th in the time of 60:12. His personal best is just 11 seconds faster in 2017 from Lisbon, POR.

Two Canadians factored well as Rory Linkletter ran a big personal best with his 61:44, while Cameron Levins finished one second faster than his old best of 62:15. The national record of 61:28 by Jeff Shiebler from Tokyo 1999 remains, for now.

Rory Linkletter leads Ben Flanagan and Luc Bruchet at 2019 Pacific Distance Carnival. Photo credit: Christopher Kelsall

Linkletter’s previous half-marathon best is a not-legal 68:40 from Mapleton, US in 2014. There was no question going into Houston that he would perform better. His 10,000-metre best is 28:12.42, while his marathon pb is 2:16:42, which the 23-year-old ran in Toronto three months prior.

The Brigham Young University Cougar Alum is focussing on distance events, after a strong NCAA career.

In August, Linkletter said, “In my heart, I want to run in the Olympics, and I feel the marathon offers me the best opportunity to do that. I think my ceiling in the marathon is pretty high in comparison to the 5,000m or 10,000m, I like the intrigue of the marathon at the Olympics itself.”

Despite his age, it appears he has an understanding of the nuances of international championship running where, for example, a man like Eric Gillis can finish 10th in the Olympics although his personal best is ‘just’ 2:11:28.

“There’s another good example of that with Jared Ward,” Linkletter offers. “I trained with him at BYU quite a bit. He got sixth at that Olympics. And his personal best going into that was 2:12:56. This is a guy who had never run what is now the Olympics standard, but he got sixth at the Olympics.

Ward finished eight seconds up on Linkletter for 11th place and was first American. This performance represents a new personal best. Previously, he ran Houston in 2015 in the time of 61:42.

Cameron Levins, the Canadian marathon record holder at 2:09:25 had entered Houston with a best of 62:15 from Valencia 2018. He ran one second faster. Coach Jim Finlayson just told him to run by feel.

“I told him to just listen to his body and enjoy racing,” said Finlayson. “We didn’t have a pacing strategy for this one.”

Levins had planned on running the Toronto marathon in October 2019, but ended up with an injury. As the half-marathon is not his primary distance, it was useful to get in a quality effort well in advance of a late winter or spring marathon and his attempt to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The standard is 2:11:30.

Women’s half marathon – a tale of record-smashing:

Japanese runner Hitomi Niiya smashed her own personal best time of 1:11:41 from 2008, 12 years later with a 66:38. It was a five-minute and three-second improvement for the win. She did, however, run better performances than that 2008 half-marathon, for example in 2013, she raced the 10,000m in the time of 30:56.70 and closed hard, but was beaten by even faster closers – she finished fifth in that World Championships event.

She was a prolific high school, Ekiden and cross-country runner, but retired due to chronic plantar fasciitis. She made comeback-like attempts in 2017 and 2018, but Houston 2020 was a statement race as she brought down the Japanese record that was 14 years old and set at 67:26, by Kayoko Fukushi.

Niiya, a self-deprecating type had left the sport believing that there was no future for her. She didn’t love running and certainly didn’t like putting everything she had into the sport and yet not be in contention for a medal. That all changed in Houston.

Two Kenyans followed for second and third including Brillian Kipkoech and Caroline Kipkirui who finished in 68:08 and 68:13, respectively.

Natasha Wodak. Photo Credit: Christopher Kelsall.

Brit Stephanie Twell and American Sara Hall went eighth and ninth in the times of 68:55 and 68:58, respectively. American Molly Huddle wasn’t far behind in 12th with her 69:34 performance. Several more Americans followed within the next minute. Huddle currently owns the American record at 67:25 from Houston 2018.

If Niiya hadn’t stolen the show, Wodak may have earned the performance of the day as the Canadian finished in 17th position with a new national record of 69:41. It was a 52-second improvement on her personal best. She is the first Canadian to run under the 70-minute barrier. She now owns the national 8K road best, the 10,000m national record and when Houston is ratified will have the national half-marathon record too.

Although Rachel Cliff ran well, she watched as at least two of her national records went down on the day. She finished in 23rd position in a solid 70:13, just seven seconds off of her own former national record.

Scot Sarah Inglis, who trains with the Langley Mustangs Endurance Group in Greater Vancouver also had a solid run finishing in 25th position in the time of 70:24. It was the third-fastest Scottish performance all-time and a one-minute and 59 improvement for Inglis.

She ran to at least 15K on pace with a pack that included Wodak and Cliff, however, faded a little over the final 4K or so.

SHOESTRINGS: It is unknown at this time if Elmore’s 20K, 25K and 30K times on the way to the marathon finish are also national records officially. She did run faster than the national record at 30K with her 1:42:53. Cliff’s current national record is 1:43:19 from Nagoya and her 25K record of 1:26:00 was bettered too at 1:25:48 by Elmore.

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