NEW YORK (15-Mar) — Plain and simple, Molly Huddle ruled the streets of Manhattan here this morning at the tenth edition of the United Airlines NYC Half. Controlling the race and making her presence known mile after mile, the 30-year-old Notre Dame grad from Providence, R.I., became the first American champion in race history, breaking the tape in a personal best of 1:08:31, equaling the course and event record.
“It means a lot to me,” said Huddle, who also won the Oakley New York Mini 10-K here last June in an American record time. “It wasn’t really on my mind to win. I just wanted to run as fast as I could today and see how winter training was going to pay off.”
From the start in Central Park under gray skies, Huddle took her place at the front of a large 12-woman pack, going through 5-K in 16:35 (this year’s race featured an all-women’s early start for the elites). Alongside Kenya’s Joyce Chepkirui and Sally Kipyego –the latter the defending champion and course record holder– Huddle was focused on running within herself. Routinely checking her wristwatch, it appeared as if the reigning USA 5000m champion was on a tempo run.
“It was a lot harder than a workout for sure, but I just wanted to make sure I kept track of my splits,” Huddle said with a chuckle. “I figured it would help me PR if I could at least keep my splits and know where I was. I was prepared for everything.”
After leaving Central Park and racing through Times Square, the women’s lead group had dwindled down to seven. Pretty soon it would be five at the head of the field: Huddle, Kipyego, Chepkirui, two-time champion Caroline Rotich (Kenya), and Rkia El Moukim (Morocco).
Turning onto the West Side Highway just before eight miles, the race would shake up dramatically. Looking at her watch once again, Huddle injected a surge that dropped El Moukim. Two miles later, Kipyego and Rotich were victims of Huddle’s consistent pick-ups, dictating the pace as she ran towards the Lower Manhattan finish.
At least three times Chepkirui came up on the American Olympian’s shoulder looking to pass, only to be denied time and time again. Huddle wasn’t about to let Chepkirui take over, especially after having done all of the leg work keeping pace.
The race would come down to the final mile, when Huddle used experience as the ultimate trump card. In the Battery Park Underpass, Huddle decided to crank the pace up one more time, a move that would be the nail in Chepkirui’s coffin. A year prior, the very same underpass and subsequent hill had given Huddle so much trouble, causing her to fade to third place. This year, she knew the tunnel would come to an end after roughly a kilometer. Chepkirui had never run the course before, and Huddle’s move appeared to take her by surprise.
“Just knowing that the tunnel was roughly a [kilometer] long, ’cause last year I remember thinking ‘When will this tunnel end?” recalled Huddle. “It was just good to know how much I had left, and when I was getting tired that it wasn’t really that bad. Everything really felt a bit better in the last mile than it did last year.”
Emerging from the tunnel well out in front and extending her lead through the line, Huddle crossed the finish in 1:08:31, equaling Kipyego’s record time from last year.
“I felt good today, and I had some experience from last year,” said Huddle, referencing her keys to victory. “There was a great field… To come out on top is a great day for me. I wasn’t really expecting it.”
The quiet Chepkirui took second in 1:08:42, followed by Kipyego in third (1:09:39). Although she came into the race feeling better fitness-wise than a year ago, Kipyego said she simply didn’t have what it took to win today’s race.
“This year I felt like everything was going fantastic coming into the race,” said the Nike Oregon Track Club athlete. “It just didn’t fall together today. I just didn’t have it today.”
Rotich took fourth in 1:09:54, with El Moukim rounding out the top five in 1:10:14. Annie Bersagel was tenth in 1:12:19, while Desi Linden finished 12th in 1:12:36. Chepkirui, Rotich and Linden are all running the Boston Marathon on April 20.
KORIR WINS MEN’S RACE BY A HAIR
Like the women’s race, the men’s contest came down to two athletes in the final mile: Kenyans Leonard Korir and Stephen Sambu. The training partners –based in Tucson and coached by the University of Arizona’s James Li– would fight tooth and nail all the way to the finish line, where Korir was crowned the champion thanks to a last-second surge.
Similar to the women beforehand, the men’s race began as a large pack race through Central Park and Times Square, with Sambu doing a majority of the front-running duties. Occasionally reigning Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi would take over, but it was Sambu asserting his spot at the head of the field.
“I like running in front all the time. I like pushing the pace. For me, I don’t like going slow,” Sambu told reporters. “From the beginning we start pushing and pushing, and the group started reducing, reducing.”
Running south down Seventh Avenue, Sambu surged hard, breaking all but Korir, South Africa’s Lusapho April, and Mexico’s Juan Luis Barrios. Together the quartet would make their way onto the West Side Highway, battling bitter winds that howled at 18 miles per hour from the west.
Entering the Battery Park Underpass as four, only two athletes would emerge from the dark tunnel out in front: Sambu and Korir.
Knowing how strong his compatriot was, Korir thought his chances of winning had dwindled when Sambu accelerated and created a five meter gap. Yet the Iona College graduate and two-time NCAA champion got a second wind.
“I think with a half a mile to go, I knew Stephen was very strong. So I was telling myself, I’ll be number two, number two. But with 1-K, I saw Stephen was not going, and something was in my head,” Korir said with a smile. “You know what, win this thing. Win this thing. I just gave it all I got and I found myself on the finish line.”
A meter from the line, Korir matched Sambu and ultimately gained a foot’s advantage on his rival, stealing the victory from his friend’s grip. Sambu didn’t expect Korir to come up on his left shoulder, let alone lift his arms in celebration a mere step from the line.
“I thought it is my day. That’s why I was pushing a lot. But it didn’t happen. Next time,” said Sambu.
Korir’s winning time was 1:01:06, with Sambu finishing a second later in 1:01:07 (the finish time is deceiving, as the winning margin seemed less than a second). It is tied for the closest finish in race history.
“It was really a very good race. I like New York. I went to school here. I wanted to give all I could to win this race because I love this place,” said Korir, who took home $20,000 for placing first. “I think New York is a very good atmosphere for me to run in.”
Sambu was gracious in taking second place, smiling and shaking his head when asked how tough the runner-up placing must feel.
“I know I was almost at the finish line, I was so close,” he said with a nod to his training partner. “It was painful.”
Barrios was third in 1:01:14, with April fourth in 1:01:21.
Throughout the race’s latter stages, Americans Andrew Bumbalough, Meb Keflezighi, and Dathan Ritzenhein worked together in the chase pack. Racing his debut half-marathon, Bumbalough was content sitting back and observing his more experienced counterparts.
Taking a track approach to the final miles, Bumbalough waited to make his move, ultimately finishing fifth in 1:02:04. Ritzenhein crossed the line three seconds later in 1:02:07.
“It was a really cool experience,” said Bumbalough, flanked by Ritzenhein and Keflezighi. “As the rookie out there I was looking at these two guys to see what was going to happen… I just tried to get in track mode, tuck in, and race like that.”
Keflezighi was eighth in 1:02:17, an encouraging performance as he gears up for the Boston Marathon next month. Other notable finishers included Wesley Korir (10th in 1:03:11) and Matt Tegenkamp (44th in 1:11:13, citing calf pain).