By Dale Robertson |
Yebrgual Arage’s personal-best time a year ago in the Chevron Houston Marathon gained her a second-place finish. This time, another personal best won her the race and later – pay attention, breaking news! – Arage credited her affinity for fast times on the city’s streets to the delightfully temperate climate.
The air in Ethiopia, she said through a translator, “is very heavy. It’s much nicer here.”
The nearly 25,000 local runners, a vast majority of whom were still huffing and puffing on the course when she donned her new champion’s cowboy hat and met with the media, would have all fainted hearing that. We only thought Houston was the king of humidity. Maybe if Arage returned in July…
It was indeed a perfect Sunday morning, at least for the world-class athletes in the field. None were still running when the temperature finally nudged above 50 degrees and the finishing times showed it. Although no records fell, Arage missed by a mere nine seconds and Birhanu Gedefa, claiming victory in the men’s race, shaved nearly 3½ minutes off his previous fastest time.
Gedefa, 30, crossed in 2:08:03 and Arage, 24, in 2:08:03 to extend Ethiopia’s reign for another year. From 1972 through 2007, no Houston runner had cracked 2:10, but four did it this day alone. The runner-up, Gebo Burka (2:08:12), and third-place finisher Debebe Tolossa (2:09:07) also established personal bests.
Also, going back to 2007, only one athlete of another nationality – David Cheruiyot of neighboring Kenya in 2008 – has triumphed in either the men’s or women’s race. With Arage and Gedefa now in the winner’s circle as well a seventh woman and a sixth man will be declaring Stetsons when they go through customs back in the Horn of Africa.
The top three finishers in both races were Ethiopian – including Mrs. Gedefa (first name Biruktait) who placed third after leading her pack for awhile as well. How is such dominance possible? Gedefa, echoing Arage’s sentiments, replied through his interpreter, “because we work hard over there and run well here. The altitude is the same and the weather is very comfortable.”
The twice-defending men’s champion, Bazu Worku, was supposed to return to attempt a three-peat – it’s only happened once in race history – and would have considered the strong favorite, but he pulled out last week in order to run the Dubai Marathon Friday. Dubai has a significantly larger purse, paying $200,000 to the winner, but also a much faster field.
“I tried to convince him it was the wrong decision,” said Hussein Makke, Worku’s agent. “It’s about winning races today and there he won’t win. He might not finish.”
As for Gedefa, he has been plagued by a nagging hamstring problem and confidence issues over the past year after having once been projected as a potential sub-2:04 marathoner. He said through his interpreter that he was “in pain” early in the race but felt much better once he had secured the lead from Burka about a quarter of a mile from the finish at Lamar and Crawford Streets. Burka, originally signed to be a pacer only, was spent and couldn’t answer.
Makke, who also represents Gedefa, admitted the victory was surprising given his spotty form of late.
“This guy is so, so ambitious the last three, four years,” Makke said. “He’s training very well, but then he goes to races and falls apart. He runs 61 (minutes in the first half), then goes 2:20. We know he’s in shape. This will help him.”
The top American finisher was Aaron Braun in 2:12:54, good for seventh place in just his second marathon. Kellen Taylor came in sixth among the women with a 2:28:40, posting the fastest time by an American in her marathon debut.
Braun was the runner-up to Meb Keflezighi in the U.S. Half Marathon Championship on these same streets last year, then later attempted his first 26.2 miles, which, the 27-year-old Colorado-based runner said, turned into “a disaster. At least now I know I can run the final 10K. I was mostly limping in Santa Monica. I got a little too ambitious out there.”
The 28-year-old Taylor, who trains out of Flagstaff, Ariz., said she had heard plenty from everyone about the marathon’s “wall” and, yes, she slammed into it head first.
“I wanted to maintain an even pace (of) 5:36-5:38 and I was pretty dead on that through first 21 miles,” she said. “Then I got to feel what a marathon really feels like. There’s definitely a wall. But I’ll learn from this.”