Houston Elites Undeterred by Inclement Weather
by Jon Gugala
HOUSTON, Tex. - The Chevron Houston Marathon and Aramco Half Marathon elite fields are set for Sunday, January 13, and despite a 70% chance of rain forecasted, the athletes aren't giving the conditions much thought.
Bazu Worku, of Ethiopia, leads the men's field with a 2:05:25 best, set in Paris in 2010. Since then the 22-year-old was part of the Ethiopian assault on the Dubai Marathon last January, where after a 62:21 first half, finished 13th (11th among his countrymen) in 2:07:48. Three months later he was 12th in London.
"I prefer cold weather," Worku said when asked about Sunday's conditions, which predict a 43 degree start temp (6 degrees Celcius).
Chief among his rivals will be Debebe Tolossa and Teferi Balcha, both of Ethiopia. Tolossa, 31, and Balcha, 26, have comparable PBs (2:07:41 and 2:07:35, respectively). In last April's Paris Marathon, the pair came through the half in 61:54, finishing 7th and 5th, respectively, showing they're not afraid to go with aggressive moves.
While it would be nice to see an American in the marathon lead pack, unless the leaders go out conservatively, a U.S. challenger will have to come from behind. If one does, it maybe be either Andrew Carlson or Fernando Cabada, who lead the domestic field by PRs (2:11:24 and 2:11:53, respectively). But neither have had smooth sailing to the starting line, Carlson with an Achilles injury reported last Saturday which he said might prevent him from racing, and Cabada with a fever which caused him to take Monday and Tuesday completely off. Either could challenge for a top-five finish provided these last-minute setbacks do not factor in on race day.
In the women's race, Bizunesh Deba, the runner-up in the 2011 New York City Marathon (and entrant to the 2012 NYC race before its cancellation), should provide a close battle with 20-year-old Merima Mohammed.
Asked if the rain would affect her race, Deba said, "No," and that was all.
But while Deba may have the age advantage, Mohammed has the legs, having clocked a 1:08:36 half marathon best in New Delhi in 2010, and a 10K road best of 32:05. The only question mark is how she'll rebound after a 2:25:21 performance at the Shanghai Marathon on December 2. Deba is theoretically fresher, but delaying a marathon performance by two months is another variable.
The American women's situation is even more unclear than the men's, with Tera Moody, of Boulder, Colo., leading the field with her PR of 2:30:53. But the last marathon Moody raced was the 2011 World Championships, where she was 17th. Since then, a foot injury and then a torn hamstring have sidelined her. Behind her is Kelly Calway, of Manitou Springs, Colo., with a 2:37:10 best set at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials a year ago in Houston. She enters Houston coming off a DNF at the 2012 California International Marathon. Wendy Thomas, a 2:34-marathon, withdrew late on Tuesday.
The men's half marathon is where the real intrigue comes in, for both the international field and domestic.
Leading the men's race is Atsedu Tsegay Tesfaye, of Ethiopia, who became the fourth-fastest man ever at the distance at the 2012 Prague Half Marathon with his 58:47 win. Close on his heels are compatriots Feyisa Lilesa, who won the half in Houston in 2012, and Deriba Merga. With PRs in the 59s, they have even more incentive, as a time faster than 58:23, the current world record set by Zersenay Tadese in 2010, would net the winner a $50,000 bonus.
Lilesa, who has a best of 59:22 set on the Houston course last year, ran 2:04:52 at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, so he's had plenty of time to rest and regroup.
"For [Sunday], I have worked good, hard training," Lilessa said. "I think I'll run good, my personal best."
Meb Keflizighi, fourth in the 2012 Olympic Marathon, intended to lead the domestic field, but announced his withdrawal at the race press conference due to an illness that interrupted training.
With Keflizighi out, that leaves Luke Puskedra, 22, at the American field's forefront. It was in Houston last year when he made a conspicuous entrance onto the road scene, still as an Oregon Duck, with a 61:36. He proved it was no fluke when he finished runner-up at the USA 20K Championships, earning him a spot on the national team for the World Half Marathon Championships in October. He was 17th.
"I'm glad [the race] is in the rain--anything to make it tougher," Puskedra joked. "If the course could grow grass, that would be even better.
He said that this race is no mere tune-up; he and coach Andy Powell, of the University of Oregon, have made sure he's peaked for this race--but Puskedra's not worried about a win on Sunday.
"I see the level that they're at," he said, "and I acknowledge that I have some time [to get there]."
Other wildcards for the U.S. include past USA Running Circuit champions Ben True and Aaron Braun, who will both debut at the distance.
In the women's field, 31-year-old Caroline Kilel, the winner of the 2011 Boston Marathon with a 68:16 best, leads the field. But she'll have Mamitu Daska, of Ethiopia, shadowing her closely. Daska is coming of a third-place finish at the 2012 Frankfurt Marathon.
For the Americans, Renee Baillie, who has seen a career reborn after her 2:27:17 marathon debut last year in Chicago, leads with her 1:11:51 best set in Houston in 2010 USA Championships.
The question mark for the Americans is 25-year-old Lisa Uhl, who as late as this summer was the training partner of Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher. Leaving the Jerry Schumacher-coached Oregon Track Club Portland group in September, she moved back to her college hometown of Ames, Iowa, to train with her former coach, Corey Ihmels, of Iowa State University. It will be her second attempt at the distance, and after her runner-up finish at the Manchester Road Race on Thanksgiving, it will be her second race under her new coaching situation. Though she debuted at 1:15:24 in 2011, her 31:12.80 10,000m PR, set at the 2012 Olympics, suggests she can go much, much faster.