For the Americans in the field, this is it. For the Canadians in the field, opportunity beckons. For the international athletes who will take to the start line, a good season opener and a chance to impress national selectors is on the line.
The Houston Marathon is the unofficial start to the 2020 marathon season and all eyes, at least from fans of the marathon and road racing, will be on the race. As always, the organizers at Houston have brought in a line up ready to impress. From Olympians to National Champions to former winners, the start list at Houston is stacked.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable Canadians before discussing the international and American challenge.
Houston is always a popular spot for Canadian distance runners. Not only is the prize money pretty deep for a January race, but it also allows Canadian athletes to find clean roads and get away from the snow that engulfs the majority of the country. The 2020 Canadian line up will not disappoint, with athletes running both the full and half marathon.
Perhaps the most intriguing name on the start list this year is Malindi Elmore (marathon). Elmore who had an impressive 2:32 debut last year in Houston is back for more after being unable to start in Toronto. Elmore is hoping to continue her momentum from last year where she not only debuted in the marathon, but finished 2nd in the Canadian 10K Championships, won the Canadian Half Marathon Championships and won the Vancouver Eastside 10K – all in impressive fashion. Elmore is certainly focused on the Olympic standard in Houston, an achievement which would make her the 4th Canadian women to hit the mark heading towards Tokyo.
Sporting a personal best of 2:35 from Toronto in 2014, Natasha LeBeaud is the also running the marathon. LeBeaud had a busy 2019 season where she ranged in racing distances from the 1,500M to the Marathon. Her marathon was run in Chicago where she ran to a 22nd place finish in 2:45. Most recently, LeBeaud won the Lululemon 10K in San Diego.
In 2019, Anne Johnston made news for becoming the 2nd fastest Canadian at the Boston Marathon. Now, Johnston is starting the marathon on the elite list in Houston. The St. John’s native’s personal best is 2:43 and has the distinction of the Tely 10 miler course record.
Rory Linkletter is racing his second major road race in Houston after debuting in the marathon at Toronto last year. Although his debut was not what he planned, Linkletter has been logging some mega miles with the Northern Arizona Elite crew and is looking FIT. Linkletter has never run a half marathon, but has a 10,000M personal best of 28:12 and a marathon best of 2:16. Linkletter is likely setting up for a second marathon in the spring, but at the date of writing, has not announced where that will be.
Canadian marathon record holder, Cam Levins will lace them up for the half marathon this weekend in Houston. Levins, who has become well known to Canadians after his 2:09 performance in Toronto in 2018, had a tough 2019 to say the least. The Canadian Marathon Trials punctuated this tough season where he simply didn’t have the gas to hang with Trevor Hofbauer. Still, I am fully confident that Levins will be on that Olympic start line come August. In terms of his previous half marathon performances, Levin’s best is from Valencia at the World Half Marathon Championships where he ran 1:02. I suspect Levins has a shot at the Canadian half marathon record of 1:01:28 this weekend.
From one Canadian marathon record holder to another, Rachel Cliff is also running the half marathon. Cliff owns both the Canadian marathon record, set last year in 2:26, and the Canadian half marathon record, set in December clocking 1:10:06. Cliff has had an amazing couple of seasons with multiple Canadian titles, a Pan-American Games bronze medal and two national records. Like Levins, Cliff could also lower the Canadian national record this weekend, and in fact, this outcome is likely.
Natasha Wodak, who beat Cliff at the Pan American games in the 10,000M, winning gold is also taking to the line. Wodak, who seems to run in Houston almost every year is also a contender to lower the Canadian half marathon record. With her strength in the 10,000 Wodak had an up-and-down 2019, but was able to win the Canadian 10K Championships in addition to her Pan American gold medal. Although the race at World’s did not go to plan, Wodak is still high in the world ranking for the distance and looks set to appear in another Games. Heading into Houston, her personal best for the half is 1:10.
The only Canadian marathoner who has officially punched her ticket to the Games, at least on the women’s side is Dayna Pidhoresky. Like the majority of her compatriots, Pidhoresky will be lining up for the half marathon this weekend. Before her victory at the Canadian Marathon Trials, Pidhoresky was known as a prolific racer and her calendar was unmatched by the majority of Canadian athletes. Although this may change now that she has the a spot in Tokyo sown up, Pidhoresky’s appearance at Houston suggests she is ready to attack the 2020 season. Pidhoresky has a half marathon personal best of 1:11 and a shinny new marathon personal best of 2:29.
Recently announced on the start list for the London Marathon, Kinsey Middleton is another big Canadian name on the start list. The two time marathoner and former Canadian champion, had an up-and-down 2019 which included a tough race at the Canadian Marathon Trials. Middleton has a personal bests of 1:12 for the half marathon and 2:32 for the marathons. With around 100 days to go until the London start, Middleton will use Houston as an opportunity to test the fitness before the marathon build truly begins.
Although she isn’t Canadian, Sarah Inglis is on the Canadian list due to the fact that she trains with the Canadian contingent out of British Columbia. Inglis recently competed in the Canadian Cross Country Championships where she finished second to the every strong, Gen Lalonde. Inglis, who is also the holder of the Canadian 5K all-comers record, has a personal best for the half marathon of 1:12.
Emily Setlack is on the Houston half marathon start list as an American, but I am pretty sure it is an error, so I will review the Canadian Emily Setlack. Setlack has an amazing 2019. Setlack set personal bests over the 10K, half marathon and marathon, including just missing the Olympic standard for the marathon (by 18 seconds) when she was the 2nd Canadian in Toronto. Her personal best for the half marathon is 1:12.
Kevin Coffey is not on the elite start list for the half marathon, but he certainly deserves to be. Coffey, who made his marathon debut in Toronto in the fall running a 2:20, trains with the British Columbia Endurance Project which includes Rachel Cliff, Evan Esselink, and Olympian Luc Bruchet. Coffey also set his personal best for half marathon this year, running 1:05 in Edmonton. Coffey also coaches for Mile2Marathon.
Internationally and for many Americans, the Houston marathon and half marathon provides the same benefits as to the Canadian athletes, most specifically a good tune up for the Olympic trials, a solid early season race, and finally, deep prize money. Let’s meet some of the marathon notables.
In the marathon, Dominic Ondoro will take to the start. Ondoro will be known to Canadian fans for his multiple appearances in the Ottawa Marathon. His most recent appearance was in 2018 where Ondoro was dropped in the early going but still finished the race (a rarity for an elite athlete). In 2016, Ondoro finished 3rd in Ottawa. His personal best, set in 2013, is 2:08.
Hassan El Abbassi is the fastest runner in the field. Sporing a 2:04 personal best, the former Moroccan is now running under the Bahrain flag. In 2019 he failed to finish the Tokyo Marathon, but finished 2nd in Shanghai. His personal best is the Bahranian national record and was set in Valencia in 2018.
For the women, Bruktayit Degefa Eshetu is the fastest women in the field and the defending champion of the Houston Marathon. Eshetu, who sports a personal best of 2:22, ran three marathons last year (including Houston) which included a an 8th place at Boston and a 2nd place finish at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM). STWM is her personal best.
Another finisher from STWM 2019, is taking to the line in Houston. Bekelech Gudeta is a 2:27 runner who finished 9th in Toronto. She sports an impressive 1:07 personal best in the half marathon, which was set in 2018.
Although the marathon field in Houston is often deep, it is the half marathon that attracts most of the attention, and rightfully so. The fields in the half marathon are one of the deepest in the world, save the World Half Marathon Championships, and for many athletes will be the first event on their racing calendar.
Americans and Internationals who are taking to the start line include:
Jemal Yimer is the Ethiopian half marathon record holder for the half marathon and has run 58:33 for the distance. He finished 2nd in Houston last year.
Bernard Ngeno has run 59:07 for the distance. His recent results include three wins over the distance in 2019.
Shura Kitata who is famous for giving Eliud Kipchoge a run for it in London two years ago has a personal best of 60:10 in the half marathon and 2:04 for the full distance. Kitata is the defending champion.
Jake Robertson who won in Houston two years ago is a big name in International runner. He and his brother Jake (or Elvis) moved from New Zealand to Kenya when they were 16. Married to the winner of STWM last year, Robertson also ran Toronto in 2018 finishing 5th. Robertson has a personal 59:59 in the half and 2:08 in the full.
Sam Chelanga is the fastest American in the field. He is sports a personal best of 60:37 run at Houston in 2018. His only 2019 result included a 4th place finish at the Army 10 Miler in October.
If Chelanga is the fastest American in the field, Jared Ward is the most famous. In preparation for the U.S. Olympic Trials, Ward is running the half after completing an amazing 2019 season. His 2019 included a 6th in New York as well as finally breaking the 2:10 barrier in Boston. His personal best is for the half is 61:42.
On the women’s side, the field is just as deep.
Caroline Chepkoech leads the women’s field in terms of times after running a 1:05 half at RAK in 2018. Recently, Chepkoech won the Prague Half in the Spring and 5th in the Steeplechase at the World Championships.
Gelete Burka is well known to Canadian fans as the former all-comers record holder and winner of the 2018 Ottawa Marathon. Burka, who is likely the favourite for the half marathon, has a personal best of 1:06 for the half and 2:20 as the full. Recently, Burka won the Paris Marathon and finished 3rd in Chicago.
Dorcas Jepchrichir has a 1:06 personal best for the half marathon and is the third fastest in the field. Recently, she finished 3rd in the Copenhagen half marathon.
Ruti Aga is another big name gracing the start list. Although not the fastest in the field, Aga still has a personal best of 1:06 for the distance but a more impressive 2:18 over the marathon. Aga has had some incredible results as of late as well including winning the 2019 Tokyo Marathon and finishing 3rd in New York.
Molly Huddle will be the focus of much of the American broadcast on Sunday when she kicks off her 2020 season. Huddle, who is aiming for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team at the Trials is using Houston, like so many others, as her prep race. Huddle is an elite half marathon, and if marathon training has not taken too much of a toll, could contend this weekend. Huddle has a half personal best of 1:07 but has yet to truly conquer the marathon with a personal best of 2:26 (with a lot of room to grow). Huddle has recently competed at the Valencia Half running 1:09.
Sarah Hall, like Canadian Dayna Pidhoresky, is a prolific racer. It seems like Hall races almost every weekend and still continues to set fast and improving times 2019 was her best year yet and has thrown her into the mix (or even favourites) to make the U.S. Olympic team. Hall has a half marathon personal best of 1:09 but has a personal best of 2:22 in the marathon, where Hall finished 5th in Berlin.
Of course, I missed many athletes who are on the full start list for Houston in both the full and the half. I encourage you to take a look at the full list here.
Thanks for reading. Check back after the race for a full recap and analysis.