An Inaugural Race
With the largest marathon in the USA, a number of shorter professional events for men and women and a full complement of weekend races, the New York Road Runners had to find the next big story and they found it in the New York City Half Marathon, held for the first time on August 24, 2006. The race was popular with the masses - filling the field of 10,000 in the first day that registration was opened. And with a prize purse of $60,000 and the pull of the New York Road Runners, a number of elite athletes were eager to run.
The Men's Field
The men's field was set to include Paul Tergat as the favorite; with Alan Culpepper and Abdi Abdirahman representing the USA; Thomas Nyariki set to be a contender in his debut marathon; and a cast of supporting runners including Andrew Letherby, Peter Gilmore and Matt Downin. But at the last minute Paul Tergat canceled his appearance, opting to stay at home with his wife who had prematurely given birth to their fourth child. All of a sudden, the Half Marathon was lacking a star - but as luck would have it, Meb Keflezhighi was available, sort of... Keflezighi, the USA's pre-eminent marathoner, was planning to run Europe's 10K and perhaps go after the USA record at the distance - but an illness kept Keflezighi sidelined for a week and set his training back. When the plea from the New York Road Runners came, Keflezighi took the call - with a 10K record in doubt, the Half Marathon would support Keflezighi's other goal: training for his Fall Marathon.
The Women's Field
It's always harder to find a female running field than to find a male field, but the NYRR did find what it needed - and the numbers showed this would be an interesting race. We knew that there were three women who could legitimately battle for the win at the half-marathon: Catherine Ndereba of Kenya, always a favorite in any race; Benita Johnson who holds a number of Australian distance records and finished ahead of Ndereba at the Circle of Friends 10K earlier in 2006; and Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania who had won the IAAF World Half-Marathon championships in 2004 and had a number of top marathon finishes to her credit. The Half-Marathon PRs of these three showed they could compete at this distance: Ndereba had achieved a 1:07:54 in 2001; Johnson a 1:07:55 in 2004; and Tomescu-Dita a 1:08:10 in 2002. Also in the field were Colleen DeReuck, who at 42 continues to run among the top women and had a Half-Marahton PR of 1:08:38; and Yuri Kano of Japan who had run a 1:10:28 in 2003.
The Men's Race
Through the first six miles of the course, the men maintained a conservative pace - knowing that the one major hill in Central Park would hit them at mile 5. Without pacemakers in the race to force a quick opening, the runners later would admit that run began as a friendly match without as much pressure as they might feel in a marathon. By mile 6, the pack had broken apart and there were simply three men who would compete for the win and/or spots two and three on the podium: Meb Keflezighi, Thomas Nyariki and Abdi Abdirahman - all three in their debut marathon. These three would stay together until with 1,200 meters remaining Nyariki pushed the pace. Abdirahman was the first to fall back affected by the pace and a side-stitch which developed. Keflezighi attempted to respond, but as he would tell us later: "we were all hurting at that point and with 400 meters to go Tom had won it." Taking into account a good hill and conservative first miles, the times: 1:01:22 for Nyariki, 1:01:28 for Keflezighi and 1:01:34 for Abirahman were strong and beyond anything else bode well for these three men as they continue at the longer distances.
Beyond the race itself, this was a tuneup for the winners as they move into our favorite season - marathon season. For Nyariki, a 5K (including a bronze at the 1996 Olympics 5,000m) and 10K specialist who had only come back to competition in the previous six months after a prolonged absence caused by a carjacking incident, this was the longest race he had ever run and he commented that he enjoyed the distance. Two days later, Nyariki and the NYRR would announce that he would step up once more and turn his sites to the 2006 NYC Marathon. Keflezighi, who until two days before the race was preparing for a 10K run and recovering from an illness, could not be upset that he managed just second place - his current training was not for a half-marathon. But the time and his pace show that he is well recovered and on track for a strong Fall marathon. Similarly, Abdirahman, who finished fifth at the 2005 ING NYC Marathon (and more recently first at the USATF 10-mile and 10,000m championships) has shown that he can stay with the leaders and should be able to continue to extend to the marathon.
The Women's Race
After the race, Catherine Ndereba would say she never saw Benita Johnson coming - and she would mean that literally. With Half-Marathon PRs just one second apart and Johnson's best time achieved more recently than Ndereba's, Ndereba should have been more careful.... The women's race began with a lap and a quarter of Central Park - with four women together: Johnson and Constantina Tomescu-Dita leading and Ndereba and Kano watching a few steps behind. Kano was the first to drop back and at mile 7 it was Tomescu-Dita who made the first move, opening a gap of up to five seconds on Ndereba and ten seconds on Johnson. Ndereba, although usually one to run from behind, recognized this as a move that called for a response and increased her pace to catch and pass Tomescu-Dita in the next two kilometers as the course moved through Times Square. As Ndereba passed Tomescu-Dita, she seemed assured of victory. Along the flat Westside Highway, Johnson also managed to make her way past Tomescu-Dita and with one mile to go began to think that she could catch Ndereba. With 400 meters to go, Johnson would tell us, she knew she could catch the leader and with a stealthy step, caught Ndereba with less than 200 meters to go and with an all-out effort. Ndereba, unaware of Johnson until just 30 meters remained, and had not started a sprint because she thought she was alone, had enough left to respond in time and managed to hold on to win with just 0.3 seconds separating her from Johnson. Under the rules of road racing where all times are rounded up, both were given the same finishing time of 1:09:43. The race could not have been closer. Tomescu-Dita arrived at the finish in third place in 1:10:11. Yuri Kano finished fourth in 1:11:44 just four seconds ahead of Colleen DeReuck who briefly caught Kano before falling back.
At The Starting Line
The Male Leaders in the Park
The lead women nestled behind some Men in Central Park
Ndereba beats Johnson to the Finish Line
Benita Johnson and Catherine Ndereba after the Race
Meb Keflezighi, Thomas Nyariki and Abdi Abdirahman after the Race