San Diego, CA. — A minor controversy attended Meb Keflezighi’s introduction to the master’s category today at the 18th Suja Rock `n Roll Marathon & Half-Marathon. Though Meb won the USATF Master’s Half-Marathon championship, and established two U.S. road records along the way, he was out-kicked in the final 100 meters by 27 year-old Zambian native Jordan Chipangama who trains out of Flagstaff, Arizona, 62:27 to 62:29.
The controversy centered on Chipangama, who was brought in to pace the efforts of Matt Llano (4th), Shadrack Biwott (3rd) and Josphat Boit (6th), all clients of manager Josh Cox. Meb, however, was not privvy to Chipangama’s role as pacer, and raced as if the Northern Arizona University grad was a regular competitor.
After breaking away from the small pack at two miles and building as much as a 12-second advantage through eight, Meb got caught between miles 9 and 10, and then lost to Chipangama in the final sprint.
“I’ve had a tight hamstring since Tuesday, “ Meb explained while stretching after the race. “So I wanted to be in control. They let me go, so I went. But my other hamstring began to tighten around seven. Then we hit the hills. I didn’t know who Jordan was. Later I learned he was a pacer.”
Chipangama trains with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, under coach Ben Rosario. Though not officially on the squad, Jordan came to San Diego to pace the first 10K in 29:20, or 4:43 pace.
“I wished he would have paced me earlier,” Meb said half in jest. “I thought he was hurting early on, so I thought the gap should be getting bigger. So when he began closing it didn’t make sense. But if he was holding back to help (his guys) then it does.”
Chipangama was only planning to run eight miles, as he is gearing up for the June 20th Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota. He finished fourth there in 2014 in a PR 2:12:22. But as the race extended, he found himself gaining on Meb and feeling good, too.
“Around eight miles I knew he was reachable,” said Jordan, a nurse who hopes to become a U.S. citizen before the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials next February in Los Angeles. “I took a gradual approach, and since I am strong on the uphills I was thinking, “wow, this could be a good day.”
Once caught, Meb exchanged the lead several times with his younger opponent. Then, as the final stretch loomed Meb opened negotiations for a tie.
“He said, ‘how do you want to finish?’,” recalled Chipangama, who was caught off guard by the offer. “Holding hands or go for it?’ I said, ‘let’s go for it’. We gave each other a high five and see you at the end.”
Meb has become famous not only for his string of historic wins, but for displays of sportsmanship even when he isn’t having a good day. After dropping off the pace in New York City 2013 Meb ran the final few miles of the marathon with local runner Mike Cassidy, finishing hand-in-hand. Then at Boston this spring Meb, finishing in eighth place, caught up with BAA women’s runner Hilary Dionne just one stride from the marathon finish, taking her hand to cross together. This day, Chipangama wanted to keep things square. The two raced together from 9.5 till the final downhill 100 meters when Jordan opened up.
“I didn’t want to push at the end with my hamstrings being tight,” Meb said. “That was the point in breaking away early.”
Not to say Chipangama wouldn’t have won anyway, but as coach Bob Larsen said afterwards, “Meb would have raced differently at the beginning if he knew the other guy was a pacer.”
Race officials at Competitor Group were less than overjoyed at the outcome, too. Meb was their marquee athlete making his master’s debut. A win under his name would have generated more PR than anyone outside 92 year-old Harriette Thompson of Charlotte, North Carolina, who, by completing her 16th RnR in 7:24:36, is now the oldest woman to ever finish a marathon. Certainly an unknown like Chipangama — lovely fellow though he may be — isn’t going to grab any headlines outside his Facebook and Twitter accounts. Plus, when an athlete is brought in as a pacer, though he is registered as a legit competitor, in some circles it is considered bad form to keeping pushing when the pacing distance is completed. But that is a column for another day.
Racing in his hometown Meb split15K in 44:23 then 10 miles at 47:39 to establish new U.S. master’s marks for both distances. The records had previously been held by Louisiana’s Kevin Castille. And though Meb’s finishing time was only one second off Kiwi John Campbell’s 62:28 world master’s record (Philadelphia `90), and much faster than Mbarak Hussein’s American half-marathon record of 63:23 (Philadelphia `05), his finish time didn’t qualify as a record, because the final 5K of the Rock `n` Roll course drops too much in elevation for such ratification.
(UPDATE: Reader Paul Carlin informs us that ARRS recognizes Haile Gebrselassie’s 61:09 from Great North Run 2013 as 40 year-old world record. Thank you, Paul.)
Jenn Rhines of the Boston Athletic Association won the USATF Master’s Half Marathon title for women, finishing eighth in 76:36. Japan’s Eri Hayakawa, the 2003 Honolulu Marathon champion, was the overall winner at 70:50. Australia’s Jessica Trengove finished second in 71:10, while Sara Hall finished third in 71:31. We even had a Ryan Hall sighting out on the course riding his bicycle through Normal Heights and cheering on the runners.
We hung with the race till after 12 waiting to see if there would be a break. But because we waited, our press truck got caught in traffic making our way to the finish line and we missed the final showdown. No pics of that. Sorry.
Over 25,000 runners took to the streets of San Diego this morning under classic May gray conditions, overcast skies and temperatures in the mid-60s.
After the race we attended a Meb Foundation gathering at the Ultimate Skybox overlooking Petco Park hosted by Meb sponsors Elliptigo and Skechers. There Meb signed copies of his new book, Meb For Mortals, and chatted with a host of fans and friends as the skies remained gray and cosy for the thousands of marathoners still out on the course.