On a warmer morning, Wilson Kipsang might have pushed the pace from the start.
It was not a warmer morning. The temperature at the start of the NYC Half was 30 degrees. Arm warmers, hats, and gloves were the dominant accessories among the field of 14,512 starters, with the pro athletes setting the trend. Snow had dusted the grass of Central Park overnight.
“It was very difficult to take off, because it was very cold,” said Kipsang, whose personal best of 58:59 was the fastest in the field and whose personal style is to make good use of that speed early. “At the start, it was not possible [to go faster].” So he hung on to the back of the pack, sitting in 17th place at 5K.
By the end, Kipsang would prevail, winning the eighth-annual NYC Half in 1:01:02, followed by runner-up Daniele Meucci of Italy in 1:01:06 and American Dathan Ritzenhein in 1:01:10. Bernard Lagat, making his half-marathon debut, was 12th in 1:02:33.
Kim Smith, on the other hand, stuck to the script as the front-running race favorite and took off from the horn. The New Zealander was followed closely by NYC Half 2011 champion Caroline Rotich, 28, of Kenya. By three miles, they were well ahead of the chase pack.
At about three miles, Smith, who lives and trains in Providence, RI, could no longer stay with Rotich. She fell back steadily and eventually dropped out before the 10K mark.
“My right quad seized up at about 10K,” she told race organizers. “I think it was the cold, but I’m not sure.”
For a while, Rotich had the race all to herself. She was 16 seconds in front at 10K. By 15K, the chase pack had cut her lead to eight seconds, and about a mile later Rotich was caught by Burundian Diane Nukuri-Johnson and Croatian Lisa Stublic, who was an All-American while competing for Columbia University and in 2012 became the first athlete from her country to compete in an Olympic marathon. Her time today was a national record.
“I knew they were there,” said Rotich. “So I'm just like, 'Okay, I just have to hold it a little bit and then see if I can pull [away] or something at the finish.'”
She did just that, putting in a small surge as the women entered the Battery Park tunnel with about a half-mile left in the race.
“I thought I was going to outkick her in the end, but then she pulled away,” said Nukuri-Johnson, the runner-up in 1:09:12. Stublic finished third in 1:09:18. Both women set personal bests by more than a minute.
Just as Smith’s race was ending, Kipsang’s was beginning.
“After 10K, I was ready to push,” said the man whose marathon time of 2:03:42 is the second-fastest in history on an unaided course. As the lead pack headed into Times Square, Kipsang looked ready to take command, with Lagat close behind, but at 15K it was Ritzenhein who briefly took the lead.
“I think Alberto [Salazar, his coach] wanted me to wait a little bit longer, but the pace was really slow,” said Ritzenhein. “I was like, ‘I'm going to try to get it going,’ and Wilson took off and got the pace going fast. So that kind of got rid of [Lagat].”
Lagat said he tried to push a little more, but couldn’t move any faster. “The guys were hammering it up,” he said, still so cold that he wore his gloves in the post-race press conference. "I kept digging deeper because I wanted to run a good time.”
Kipsang, now in control, looked cool instead of cold. With 800 meters to go, his lead was safe--but Ritzenhein and Meucci battled in the tunnel for second place. The Italian, winner of the 2012 UAE Healthy Kidney 10K in Central Park, would emerge in second place, four seconds ahead of the American.
And Lagat would emerge a wiser man.
“First experience, it was tough,” he said. “But now I know how to run a half-marathon in the future.”