Deriba Merga took it out from the gun in today's seventh-annual NYC Half. So did Kim Smith. From Central Park, down Seventh Avenue, through Times Square, and along the West Side Highway they set a pace both fast and relentless, fighting the hills and the wind, the course records in their sights.
The largest field in race history – 15,330 starters – trailed them. But it was only the lone man and lone woman right behind them who really mattered.
Both races came down to the last 600 meters, settled identically on the rise coming out of the Battery Park Underpass. On the men's side, Merga tried to put the race away, only to be passed by Kenya's Peter Kirui, whose long strides grew even longer as he surged to victory in 59:39. The time was just 15 seconds shy of the event record and the second-fastest men's race in NYC Half history.
The script repeated itself moments later, as Ethiopia's Firehiwot Dado—the 2011 ING New York City Marathon champion—slipped past Smith to take the win in 1:08:35, smashing the course record of 1:08:52 set last year by Caroline Rotich.
"I can say that New York has been a place of success for me," said Dado, the 28-year-old whose next race is the Boston Marathon on April 16.
Smith, a New Zealander who lives in Providence, RI, and last year ran the two-fastest half-marathons ever in North America, was runner-up in 1:08:43. American Kara Goucher, who led the second pack from the 5-mile mark, finished third in 1:09:12. Coming in second among Americans was Janet Cherobon-Bawcom, fifth in 1:09:55, followed by Desiree Davila, ninth in 1:10:44.
For the men, Merga—the Ethiopian who won the 2009 Boston Marathon—was second in 59:48, followed by countryman Feyisa Lelisa in 1:00:45. The top Americans were Meb Keflezighi, 12th in 1:01:41, and Dathan Ritzenhein, 14th in 1:01:52.
Merga took off at a blistering pace, running the first mile in 4:26, with only Kirui and Lelisa giving chase. Kirui later said he knew he had no choicel given Merga's speed and experience.
"I mean, everyone was talking about under an hour for the half here, and it was possible, obviously. I know I was not going to go at that pace," said Keflezighi, who was coming off making the U.S. Olympic marathon team at the trials in January.
By 5K, it was already down to Merga and Kirui, 10 seconds ahead of Lelisa and 33 seconds ahead of a six-man second pack. By the time they hit Times Square, it was unquestionably a two-man show. At 15K Kirui suddenly broke into a sprint, but Merga wasn't going anywhere despite struggling with the wind. The two traded nominal leads, with Kirui at one point futilely waving his hand toward Merga to help out with the lead. Shoulder to shoulder coming out of the tunnel, Kirui's 24-year-old legs took command over those of Merga, 31.
"I'm very happy now to be the winner and maybe come to the event next year, also," said Kirui.
"Honestly, with Kim in the race I thought it would go out quickly, but I didn't expect it to go that quick," said Goucher. She and Davila also just made the Olympic marathon team.
With Dado tucked behind the taller Smith, the duo ran 1-2 all the way to the underpass, hitting 10K en route in 32:00.13.
"I was a little bit disappointed in the end result," said Smith, "but just running into the wind the second half I found a little tough. I tried to get away from her a few times, tried to throw in a few surges, but she was very tough. I just tried to tell myself that she must be hurting as much as me, but obviously she wasn't."