The Chevron Houston Marathon and the Aramco Houston Half Marathon, IAAF Silver and Bronze Label Road Races respectively, boast stacked fields for the races on Sunday (15).
Ethiopia's Abayneh Ayele should start as the favourite for the men's marathon. The 29-year-old finished fourth – just a stride behind double world and Olympic champ Mo Farah – at last year’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, clocking a PB of 59:59 in difficult conditions. Earlier in 2016 he had recorded a marathon PB of 2:06:45 in Dubai and he ended the year with a sixth-place finish at the Chicago Marathon.
A PB of 2:07:46 makes Abrha Milaw, also from Ethiopia, one of the fastest in the field. But his fastest time last year was a 2:14:12 performance in Panjin.
Compatriot Yitayal Atnafu finished second in Houston last year on his marathon debut and went on to reduce his PB to 2:08:53 when finishing second in Paris. His most recent outing was at the Boulogne-Billancourt Half Marathon, where he finished second in 1:02:06.
A Kenyan hasn’t won the Houston Marathon since 2008, but Dominic Ondoro will be aiming to end the drought. The US-based runner was victorious in his last marathon outing, winning the St Paul Marathon last October in 2:08:51, just 51 seconds shy of his PB.
Elkanah Kibet leads the domestic entries. The 30-year-old’s PB of 2:11:31 was set on his debut marathon in Chicago in 2015.
Birhanu Gedefa, the winner in 2015 and 2016, had been hoping to become the first man to win a third consecutive title since Stephen Ndungu in 2000, but the Ethiopian ran into last-minute visa problems and will not take part in the race.
Eshetu seeking repeat marathon win
It’s easy to see why Biruktayit Degefa Eshetu has decided to line up in Houston for a fourth successive year.
The Ethiopian clocked a PB of 2:26:22 to finish fourth in Houston in 2014 and reduced it to 2:23:51 at the 2015 edition when finishing third. Although she missed out on another PB in 2016, her 2:26:07 performance landed her with a comfortable victory.
But fellow Ethiopians Meskerem Assefa and Sechale Delasa will be looking to follow in Eshetu’s footsteps to become a Houston Marathon winner on their third attempt.
Assefa, who represented Ethiopia over 1500m at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, finished third in Houston in 2013 and second in 2014. Delasa, meanwhile, was third in Houston last year and fourth in 2015.
Rome Marathon winner Rahma Tusa, Rome runner-up Mulu Melka and marathon debutante Yenenesh Tilahun add to the strong Ethiopian presence in the race. New Zealand’s Mary Davies and US steeplechase Becky Wade are also entered for the marathon.
Lilesa and Wacera return
Olympic marathon silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa leads the men’s field for the half marathon. Twice a winner in Houston, the Ethiopian set a course record of 59:22 when winning in 2012. Known primarily for his marathon exploits – which include the 2011 world bronze medal, a victory at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon, and podium finishes in Berlin and Chicago – the 26-year-old has also had considerable success over 13.1 miles.
But this weekend he will come up against strong opposition in his bid to become the first three-time winner of the Houston Half Marathon.
Like Lilesa, Bazu Worku knows how it feels to triumph in Houston. The 26-year-old won the marathon in Houston in 2014, but this time he is competing over the shorter distance. His marathon PB of 2:05:25 suggests that his 1:01:56 half-marathon lifetime best is living on borrowed time.
Last summer Yigrem Demelash won the Ethiopian Olympic trial race over 10,000m in a PB of 26:51.11 and went on to finish fourth in that event at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Winner of the world U20 10,000m title in 2012, Demelash ventured on to the roads last year with a 59:49 half-marathon debut in Venlo. Eight months later he shaved one second off his PB to finish second in a high-quality race in New Delhi.
With his victory over a strong field at last weekend’s Great Edinburgh X-Country, US Olympian Leonard Korir showed that he is in the form of his life. His last half marathon, in which he set his PB of 1:01:06, was back in March 2015.
Eritrea’s Samsom Gebreyohannes and USA’s Luke Puskedra, who finished third and fourth in Houston last year, will be back in the Texan city.
Mary Wacera is aiming to become the first back-to-back winner of the women’s half marathon in Houston.
The Kenyan smashed the US all-comers’ record last year with her time of 1:06:29, a mark that puts her 14th on the world all-time list. Twice an individual medallist at the World Half Marathon Championships, Wacera successfully defended her Boston Half Marathon title last year.
Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska won the Houston Half Marathon in 2013 and will be seeking a repeat win. The 33-year-old has a PB of 1:06:27 and won the African Games title at the distance. Her most recent race was a 2:25:27 victory at the Frankfurt Marathon 11 weeks ago.
If her legs have recovered from her recent marathon, Hiwot Gebrekidan could be a serious contender. The young Ethiopian smashed the Tiberias Marathon course record on 6 January with a huge PB of 2:25:45. She has only contested two half marathons to date, but clocked 1:08:00 on her debut to win a quality race in Copenhagen last September.
Kenya’s Veronica Nyaruai, the 2005 world U18 and 2006 world U20 champion over 3000m, is also one to watch. Now 27, Nyaruai set PBs at 10km, 15km, 10 miles and the half marathon last year, ending 2016 with a best of 1:08:06 for the 13.1-mile distance.
Sara Hall is the top US entrant in the field, while compatriot Jordan Hasay will be making her half marathon debut.
“Superlatives are often risky, but we believe this is the most talented field our elite athlete committee has ever assembled,” said race director Brant Kotch. “Three of our four defending champions are returning, but a superior performance will be necessary for any of them to repeat. We can’t wait to see how the races play out.”
But organisers have also warned athletes – and spectators – not to expect fast times this weekend, given the conditions. Race day temperatures are expected to reach 23C with the humidity set to exceed 90%.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF