San Diego, Ca. — Road racing is a people-moving retail business. To keep your current customers happy while attracting new ones event organizers around the world search for that ephemeral quality referred to as “the runner’s experience”. Yet the need for enough space to corral all the starters then re-gather all the finishers ultimately determines the parameters of the miles between. Understandably, when race fields begin to exceed 20,000, the choices become quite small, and compromise between the runners’ experience and city inconvenience often redounds on the side of the non-running population. Accordingly, locking in an ideal layout that meets the needs of both constituencies is a tricky business which may take years to engineer, if ever.
Today, in its 16th running, the founding Rock `n` Roll Marathon (& Half Marathon) in Competitor Group, Inc.’s hometown of San Diego, California may well have settled onto the courses which will define their future success.
Highlighted by Kenyan Bernard Koech’s 58:41 win in the half-marathon, the fastest ever on U.S. soil, (4:29/mile), the 21,000 half-marathoners were treated to a net-downhill romp that began at the traditional starting location on Sixth Avenue adjacent to Balboa Park, then wound around the park before twisting through the Hillcrest, North Park, and Normal Heights neighborhoods to finish downtown on 13th Avenue outside Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres baseball team.
Petco Park is the fifth finish line in the event’s history, returning the event to its downtown roots where the original Rock `n` Roll Marathon finished in its inaugural year 1998.
“I did not know the course,” said Koech after his record run. “But after 10K I saw 27:48, and that’s where I began to push, because my training had gone well back home in Kenya.”
Well, he began to push a little before that, because he broke away from his final challenger, two-time Olympic medalist Eliud Kipchoge after five miles at the very north end of the course in Normal Heights. As I tweeted during the race, “He’s moving at a very abnormal pace through Normal Heights.”
HOW THE HALF WAS WON
It began with a bang, 4:25 for mile one under overcast 63-degree skies. Two-time defending champion Meb Keflezighi, who recently moved his family back to San Diego from Mammoth Lakes, Ca., stayed with the Kenyan pack through two miles (8:58), but by 5K (13:57) he was into no-man’s land as the pace in front never slowed.
By 5K only the top three Kenyans, Koech, Eliud Kipchoge, and Stephen Kibet remained on pace. And what a pace it was, 22:27 at five, 26:50 at six, 27:48 at 10K. That would have been the eighth fastest road 10K of the year on its own!
Under such a withering assault first Kibet, then Kipchoge fell away. After dispatching the opposition between five and six miles Koech kept turning the screw, hitting ten miles in a remarkable 44:47. His slowest mile was 4:36 for mile 11. But with the final miles descending some 310 feet in elevation, the 25 year-old from Keben, Kenya in the Nandi District Rift Valley Province cruised home 1:36 ahead of Kipchoge in second (1:00:18). Stephen Kibet finished third in 1:01:42 while Meb Keflezighi claimed fourth in 1:02:11.
“I felt very strong,” Meb confided afterward. “But I had no turnover. This is only my second race, plus we went out very fast. I was just trying to get towed out as far as I could.”
When asked what he thought of Koech’s performance, Meb reverted to running fan.
“Any time you run under one hour it’s phenomenal, anywhere on any course. But I knew on this course sub-sixty minutes was very possible. I give Bernard credit; I don’t care the descent. Plus, given the field he beat that validates his time to a degree.”
Top local runners were also impressed with the new half-marathon layout.
“I liked the course very much,” enthused half-marathon master’s champion Hector Hernandez, 41, of Chula Vista, California (1:09:19). “Being from San Diego we train all the time along Bay Park and Ski Beach. But this course went through new neighborhoods where we never get to train because they are too busy on regular days. So it made it special to be able to race there.
“The course was challenging,” Hector continued. “But there were downhills as well as rolling uphills. It had variety, and wasn’t boring at all. And people in the neighborhoods were cheering for us. On the old course we didn’t get that. The neighborhoods knew something big was going on.”
FOCUS OFF THE MARATHON
21,000 ran today’s half-marathon, while 9000 covered the full 26.2 mile distance. With the exception of the first four and last four miles around Balboa Park, the marathon course was totally separate from the half course this year. Also, the elite racing focus transferred in 2013 from the marathon to the half-marathon as Competitor Group has initiated a rolling two-year Half Marathon Grand Prix that will award points in all 30 series events with a championship purse of $240,000.
As a result today’s marathon times were well off the traditional winning times in San Diego. Kenya’s Simon Njoroge, the 2012 Los Angeles Marathon champion, took home top honors in 2:15:00, well off the 2:10:03 winning time run by fellow Kenyan Nixon Machichim last year, and event record 2:08:33 set in year two by Philip Tarus. But last year the first-place prize was $25,000. Today Njoroge won only $5000.
“We didn’t want to go from $25,000 to nothing,” explained elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull. “So we kept a little money in the pot. It didn’t work out, though, so maybe we might reconsider prize money in the marathon for next year.”
What Matt meant by “not working out” was evident when the second place finisher in the marathon, Jamey Gifford of Hillsborough, Ca., came home in 2:34:40, nearly 20-minutes after Njoroge, while the third-place finisher overall was women’s champion Natalia Sergeeva of Russia who clocked in at 2:35:05.
“I was alone all the way,” Njoroge told me. “But from 17 miles it was very hard. I was on 2:09 pace at half-way (64:46), but then there was a hill at 17, and a very sharp hill at 20 miles. From the first kilometer I tried to go to see what my shape was. Training was okay back in Kenya, and I focused on this race for one month.”
MEB RETURNS HOME
With his move back home to San Diego 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi knew his chances for a three-peat were slim with the likes of Kenyans Bernard Koech, Eliud Kipchoge, and Stephen Kibet in the field. All three had broken 60 minutes for the half marathon, with Bernard winning this year’s EDP Lisbon Half Marathon March 24th in 59:54, and Stephen Kibet taking 5th place at the super-fast RAK Half in the United Arab Emirates February 15th in 59:59.
Of course, 29 year-old Eliud Kipchoge is best known for winning the IAAF World Championships over 5000 meters in Paris 2003 as a 19 year-old. He is also a former Carlsbad 5000 champion with a half-marathon PR of 59:25.
2011 Women’s Marathon World Champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya bested fellow Kenyan Georgina Rono in the women’s half, 68:57 to 69:03 in a far more tactical race than the burner the men ran. 2012 New York City Marathon champion Fireiwot Dado of Ethiopia took third in 69:46. Deena Kastor was the top American — and top Master — finishing in ninth-place, crossing the finish line in 75:51. Deena only decided to run the race last week after finishing 3rd at the Bolder Boulder 10K in Colorado.
ONLY 10-MILE RECORD WILL STAND
Though Bernard Koech ran faster than the U.S. All-Comer’s record of 58:46 (Matthew Kisorio, Philadelphia 2011), he won’t get credit for the mark, because the San Diego course dropped too much in elevation from start to finish for IAAF recognition. However, his 10-mile time of 44:47 was record worthy as that point on the course was actually 10 feet higher (335’) than the start (325’). It was the last three miles which made the full 13.1 mile course ineligible for record purposes. However, at 10 miles Koech bettered Haile Gebrselassie’s 2006 10-mile split of 44:53 which he ran in his then-world record half-marathon 58:55 at Rock `n’ Roll Arizona.
With its new layout and Half Marathon Grand Prix, Competitor Group has gone all-in with the half-marathon distance. Today’s record run will spread the news far and wide that the runners’ experience in San Diego is one not to miss.