HOUSTON -- Diego Estrada gapped the field early, while Kim Conley surged away from the competition late, but the final result was the same, as both athletes finished in the top spot Sunday morning at the USATF Half Marathon Championships in downtown Houston, hosted by the Aramco Houston Half Marathon.
The USATF Half Marathon Championships are the first stop on the 2015 USATF Running Circuit. The top 15 finishers at each race on the circuit qualify to compete in the 2015 .US National 12K, which takes place November 15 in Alexandria, Virginia.
While the men’s pack held together early, it didn’t take long for Flagstaff-based standout Estrada to establish himself. For the first three miles of Sunday morning’s contest, Estrada and Josphat Boit led a pack of nearly twenty athletes, moving through the 5k split in 14:41.
Despite setting a comfortable tone from the gun, Estrada decided to push the pace. For the next five miles, Estrada averaged 4:34 per mile, and as each mile passed, his lead over the field grew. At the 10k mark, Estrada owned a 20 second lead over the chase group and by the 15k split his lead had grown to 44 seconds.
Behind Estrada, a pack of four athletes established themselves just past the 10k mark. Jared Ward had challenged Estrada’s lead around the five-mile mark, but drew back to the chase pack. Ward continued to lead the pack, along with two-time champion Meb Keflezighi, 2014 fifth place finisher Matthew Llano and Aron Rono.
As the field passed the 15k split, Ward started to gap his fellow chasers just a bit, eventually moving into the second position, a spot he would never give up. Keflezighi also pulled away from Llano and Rono, but the race to the finish for those three wouldn’t be decided until the final half mile.
With the finish line nearing, Estrada grew more confident with every step, raising his arms up and engaged with the crowd, knowing a second national title was his. Estrada kicked home in a valiant effort, crossing the finish in 1:00:51.
Behind Estrada, Ward capped his seasonal debut with a fine finish of 1:01:42, over 30 seconds up on the rest of the field. Estrada and Ward finished second and fourth at the .US National 12K back in November and each made claim afterward their desire to finish higher in Houston.
As Estrada and Ward celebrated at the finish, reigning USATF 20 km champion Girma Mecheso finished a tremendous comeback to outkick Keflezighi for third in 1:02:16. Keflezighi used his own kick to outdistance himself from the rest of the chase pack, finishing fourth in 1:02:18. Llano and Rono each held on to finish fifth and sixth respectively with marks of 1:02:22 and 1:02:25.
The men’s top ten finished up with marathon star Jeffrey Eggleston placing seventh in 1:02:41, veteran Brett Gotcher taking eighth in 1:02:49, while Sean Keveren and Gabe Proctor finished in ninth and tenth with marks of 1:02:52 and 1:03:13.
While Estrada ran a solo effort the back half of Sunday’s race, Conley led a tight race on the women’s side that wouldn’t be decided until the final miles. From the start, a pack of a dozen women quickly established themselves, running a comfortable pace, with Janet Bawcom and Lindsey Scherf doing much of the work early on.
Around the 5k mark, half marathon debutant Juliet Bottorff took over the pacing duties, along with marathon veterans Lauren Kleppin and Annie Bersagel. For the next few miles the pack remained, but just after the group hit 10k, the race suddenly strung out and the pack of a dozen became a pack of five.
Bersagel took over, with Bawcom, Conley, Sara Hall and Brianne Nelson on her shoulder. The group remained intact for the next three miles, but just after the 15k mark, Conley took over the lead and picked up the pace, dropping Hall and Bersagel. The Olympian continued her push, dropping Bawcom and eventually losing Nelson, edging her lead to over 80m with less than two miles to go.
Conley continued to look strong all the way to the finish, sprinting home to victory in 1:09:44. For Conley, the sub-70 minute clocking was an early-season indicator of great off-season base work and a shift in focus to the roads from the track.
Behind Conley, Nelson pulled away from the rest of the chase group, finishing second in 1:10:16, giving her another strong performance to go with her fourth place finish at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country meet a week prior, where she was the top runner for Team USA.
Bawcom finished third in 1:10:46, showing much of the same talent that’s driven her to become one of the best road runners in the United States, while Hall and Bersagel dipped below the 71-minute barrier clocking 1:10:50 and 1:10:58 marks for fourth and fifth. Bottorff finished an impressive sixth overall in 1:11:30.
Rounding out the top ten, Mattie Suver outdistanced herself from the second chase pack to place seventh in 1:11:51, while Bottorff’s B.A.A. teammate Katie Matthews placed eighth overall in 1:11:57. Lauren Jimison just missed out on cracking the 72-minute barrier finishing ninth in 1:12:01, while tenth place finisher Alisha Williams scored a 27 second PR with her mark of 1:12:12.
The second race of the 2015 USATF Running Circuit takes place on February 7, as Boulder, Colorado hosts the USATF Cross Country Championships. Many of the nation’s best distance runners square off with the hope of qualifying for a spot on Team USA for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships set to take place in Guiyang, China on March 28.
About the USATF Running Circuit
The USATF Running Circuit is a USA Track & Field road series featuring USATF championships from one mile through the marathon and consistently attracts the best American distance runners with nearly $700,000 to be awarded in total prize money.
The first ten U.S. runners earn points at each USATF Running Circuit race (15 for first, 12 for second, 10 for third, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1), with those earning the most points receiving prize money at the end of the series. For Super Circuit events, scoring is set as 22.5 for first, 18 for second, 15 for third, 10.5, 9, 7.5, 6, 4.5, 3 and 1.5. Runners who finish in the top 15 at USATF Running Circuit races qualify for the .US National 12K, the culminating event of the USATF Running Circuit featuring $100,000 in prize money.
The mission of the USATF Running Circuit is to showcase, support and promote U.S. runners. Since its inception in 1995, the USATF Running Circuit and its races have provided over $9 million to U.S. distance runners.
Contributed by Scott Bush