By Chris Lotsbom
NEW YORK (17-Mar) -- Yellow was the color of champions here at the eighth edition of the NYC Half, as Kenyans Wilson Kipsang and Caroline Rotich overcame freezing conditions to separate themselves from the competition on the streets of Manhattan. Wearing bright yellow adidas and Mizuno vests, respectively, Kipsang and Rotich clocked 1:01:02 and 1:09:09, the second occasion in race history that Kenyans had swept both titles here.
Coming in as the pre-race favorite, Kipsang, 31, took a conservative approach to the race, relaxing towards the back of the lead pack as the leaders made their way through the opening kilometers in Central Park just after sunrise. With 17 men together through 5 km in a pedestrian 15:05, it was clear that the below freezing temperatures (30F/-1C at start) and early morning start had impacted the pace.
Among those in the pack were Komazawa University standout Kenta Murayama, Kipsang, American debutant Bernard Lagat, and Italian Daniele Meucci. After reaching 10-K in a quicker 29:40, leaving the park it would be Kipsang taking the lead for the first time under the bright lights of Times Square. The 58:59-half-marathoner would soon hit the gas pedal, hoping to break up the lead group.
"After 10-K I was feeling good," said Kipsang. "When I tried to [separate] from the group, I saw that I was feeling very good. I was in a position to really [pull away] from the group and win this race."
Despite the temporary surge, a majority of the pack stayed together, with Mexico's Juan Luis Barrios and American Dathan Ritzenhein in the mix. Tucked into the group, running confidently and in control was Lagat, Barrios's training partner in Arizona.
By the time the group made the U-turn on the West Side Highway before 15-K, ten men still remained in contention. Ritzenhein headed the charge, though soon that would change.
With seaming ease, Kipsang re-took the lead after passing 15-K (43:53), and began to separate from the group. Ritzenhein was the only one to immediately respond, tagging along off his shoulder as the others began to fall off the new-found hot pace.
From 15-K to 20-K, Kipsang clocked a snappy 14:01. Running in perfect rhythm, the Olympic marathon bronze medalist appeared poised and in control of his effort, slowly dropping the chasing Ritzenhein. The Kenyan would run the remainder of the race by himself.
"It was sort of my plan to take the lead," said Kipsang after the race. "Many guys tried to push [early] but it wasn't possible cause it was very, very cool. After 10-K I saw that the time was a little bit slower than I thought. I decided to try and push for the second half to see if I can run a faster time."
Ritzenhein soon found himself in a battle for second with Italy's Daniele Meucci, last year's silver medalist at the European Championships at 10,000m. Back and forth the pair would go as they entered then exited the Battery Park Tunnel.
Despite the duel, all eyes were out in front as Kipsang cruised into the finishing straight on Water Street knowing he had the title and $20,000 first-place prize in the bag. Breaking the tape, Kipsang was pleased with his effort.
"I am very happy and I feel grateful to win this race in my second time coming back to New York. Winning this race was very good despite the fact that it was very cold from the start," he said, referring to his first trip here, back in November when the ING New York City Marathon was cancelled. "The time I managed to finish was very good and I am happy for this."
Meucci would finish ahead of the charging American by four seconds, 1:01:06 to 1:01:10. His time is a new personal best.
"In the race I stood behind the group of Kenyans and other athletes, and in the last 5-K I push and feel good and I go in front to the finish," said Meucci in English.
Ritzenhein was satisfied with his race, saying that it was much better than his 15th place finish here in 2012. Noting that he didn't get any sleep last night, the 30-year-old father of two was "just happy to be done."
Behind Ritzenhein, a string of personal bests were set by Leonard Korir (fourth in his debut, 1:01:19), Juan Luis Barrios (fifth, 1:01:21), Stephen Sambu (seventh, 1:01:34), and Jason Hartmann (ninth, 1:01:52 -- more than a minute off his previous best of 1:03:07).
Lagat wound up twelfth, timing 1:02:33. The four-time Olympian viewed his debut as a success, though believed he could have run a bit faster had the weather been warmer.
"I had so much fun today," he said with his typical smile. "I was really enjoying it until when the pace kind of picked up after the ninth mile (15-K). That's when I started feeling a little tired. I kept trying to see if I could push a little more but the guys were hammering it up and I couldn't get myself moving around that time."
Rotich Holds On To Capture Second Title In Three Years
The women's race played out in dramatic fashion from the beginning, with the 28-year-old Rotich ultimately edging Burundi's Diane Nukuri-Johnson over the final kilometer.
Similar to last year, New Zealand's Kim Smith made her presence known at the front of the pack early on, opening up with a 5:11 first mile. Rotich quickly joined her, forming a two-person tandem before Colombia's Yolanda Caballero came alongside. Caballero's fast start was somewhat surprising, as she came into the race with a personal best more than three minutes slower than Smith and Rotich.
Things would get very interesting in the seventh kilometer, as Smith began to fade (ultimately she would not finish, dropping out at about 11 kilometers and citing a quadriceps injury). With Smith out of the picture, Rotich continued to press on, and her lead would grow comfortably. After she made her way through Times Square, she took the U-turn from West 42nd Street to the West Side Highway by herself, and was surprised to not see anyone close behind.
"I knew it's not over until it's over," she would assert later.
A lead that had seemed insurmountable would soon dwindle as Rotich made her way down the West Side Highway along the Hudson River. Behind, Nukuri-Johnson and Croatia's Lisa Stublic were working together to chip away at the gap.
"We started out a little slower compared to her," said Nukuri-Johnson, who resides in Iowa and is a two-time Olympian. "We just kind of got closer and closer and we started running together for a couple miles."
In the tenth mile (16th kilometer), Nukuri-Johnson and Stublic --who grew up in Waterbury, Conn. and attended Columbia University before moving to Croatia-- would pull up on Rotich's left shoulder. The six-foot Nukuri-Johnson towered over both competitors as the three approached the Battery Park Tunnel. Shortly before entering, Rotich gained a second wind; her gap ahead of Nukuri-Johnson would grow to five meters as they exited, while Stublic had fallen back even further.
Turning right onto Water Street, a big smile of relief came across Rotich's face. Finishing in 1:09:09, the Kenyan had picked up her second title in three years, becoming only the second two-time winner in race history.
"It is good to be back and be a champion again," said the quiet Rotich. "I knew they were just here, so I was just like 'OK, I just have to hold back a little bit and then see if I can pull something close to the finish.' To win it was really good."
Nukuri-Johnson and Stublic would cross the line in new national records, timing 1:09:12 and 1:09:18, respectively. Stublic was temporarily stunned with her finish.
"The first thing I thought was that I couldn't believe I had such a good position. My goal was to finish top ten," said Stublic, who will run the Zurich Marathon in three weeks time. "My coach told me he thought I could run 1:09:30, but in my head I was like 'I don't know.'"
Caballero, the early contender, finished seventh in a South American record of 1:10:30, while Stephanie Rothstein Bruce placed ninth as the top American. Her 1:10:54 performance registers as a new personal best as well.
Other notable finishers included recent European Indoor champion Sara Moreira (tenth in 1:11:03), and American Olympian Janet Bawcom twelfth in 1:11:13. Five national records were set in the women's race.
PHOTO: Caroline Rotich of Kenya celebrates after winning the NYC Half for the second time (Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
RESOURCE: Top-50 Male/Female Finishers, 2013 NYC Half.