When Molly Huddle came out of the Battery Park Underpass last year, the slight incline felt like Mt. Everest. This year, it might as well have been the Bonneville Salt Flats, as the 30-year-old pulled away from rival Joyce Chepkirui to win the United Airlines NYC Half, becoming the first American winner in the 10-year history of the race and tying the course record with a 1:08:31 victory.
“Everything definitely felt a little better in that last mile than last year,” said Huddle, who finished third here in 2014 in her debut at the distance. “I feel like I learned a lot about where to push and where not to push.”
For the men, the only push that counted was the one just feet from the finish line, when Leonard Korir outsprinted training partner Stephen Sambu for the win, 1:01:06 to 1:01:07, earning the biggest victory of his pro career and tying for the closest men’s finish in race history.
With their ties to New York—Huddle was raised in Elmira, NY, and Korir won two NCAA titles while competing for Iona College in New Rochelle—the 2015 champions were a perfect pair to celebrate the 10th running of the event.
“I wanted to give all I could to win this race because I love this place,” said Korir, 28, a native of Kenya who spoke only a few words of English when he first arrived in New York to attend Iona, from which he graduated in 2012 with a degree in political science.
Winning the wheelchair races were Ernst van Dyk, the 41-year-old South African who next month will be seeking his 11th Boston Marathon victory, and Manuela Schär, 30, of Switzerland, who handed Tatyana McFadden, two-time winner of the Grand Slam of the Boston, London, Chicago, and New York City marathons, a rare defeat at any distance.
The winning times for van Dyk (48:54) and Schär (54:38) were both course records, Schär’s by almost five minutes. Finishing second to van Dyk by 18 seconds was American Joshua George, the defending champion, while American Susannah Scaroni finished as runner-up to Schär by 20 seconds.
Huddle’s time ties her with Shalane Flanagan as the third-fastest American woman in history for a half-marathon on a certified course.
Although Kenya’s Joyce Chepkirui led a dwindling pack through 15K, neither Huddle nor defending champion Sally Kipyego of Kenya was ever more than a step behind. At the 8-mile mark, Huddle—determined to stay on a fast pace—looked at her watch and pushed the pace, but couldn’t get away from Chepkirui, Kipyego, or two-time NYC Half Champion Caroline Rotich.
At the 10-mile mark, Huddle took off again.
“I just wanted a good time today,” said Huddle. “Whatever that led me to place‑wise, I was kind of going to re‑evaluate at 10 miles. Ten miles is where … in the few half marathon and 20K distances [I’ve done], I would start to fade.”
Not only did she not fade, but only Chepkirui, the second-fastest female marathoner in the world last year, went with her, coming up on her shoulder time and again only to be fended off. With just a kilometer to go, coming out of the underpass tunnel that last year so vexed her, Huddle glanced over her shoulder and left Chepkirui behind for good. Chepkirui was runner-up, in 1:08:42, with Kipyego a disappointed third in 1:09:39.
Being the first American winner, said Huddle, “means a lot to me. I know some great women have run here.”
In the men’s race, a huge pack departed Central Park but began to splinter after a surge by Meb Keflezighi, which was quickly trumped by Sambu. By 15K the lead pack was whittled to four, with Sambu dictating the pace for Korir, Juan Luis Barrios of Mexico, and Lusapho April of South Africa.
“I like running in front all the time,” said Sambu. “I like pushing the pace.”
A chase pack that included Americans Keflezighi, Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp, and Andrew Bumbalough, making his half-marathon debut, was 30 seconds in arrears.
April was the first to drop back, with Barrios hanging tough until the tunnel. Then it was down to Korir and Sambu, with the latter—winner of the 2014 UAE Healthy Kidney 10K, New Balance Falmouth Road Race, and B.A.A. 10K in the world’s fastest time for the year—the obvious favorite to everyone, including themselves.
“I was telling myself, ‘I'll be number two, number two,’” said Korir. “But with 1K, I saw Stephen was not going, and something was in my head: ‘You know what, win this thing, win this thing.’”
“I didn’t believe he just passed me at the line,” said Sambu.
Korir and Huddle each earned $20,000 for their victories, with van Dyk and Schär each taking home $4,000.