A young upstart and a seasoned veteran prevail in Houston.
Written by: David Monti
(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
HOUSTON — Mo Trafeh and Jen Rhines may have won the USA Half Marathon Championships here today hosted by the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon, but the focus after the race turned quickly from their accomplishments to the performance of the racecourse itself. After a 5-mile (8K), out-and-back section with a U-turn in the third mile, the athletes completed the 8-mile (13K) loop which will be at the heart of next January’s Olympic Trials Marathon. That circuit has 17 turns, including two U-turns and eight 90-degree turns.
“It’s a little bit hard, mainly those sharp turns,” said Trafeh, 25, who clocked 1:02:17 to win his third USA national road running title. ”It’s a tough course.”
When asked about having to run the 8-mile loop three times during the Trials next year, Trafeh said: “I think it’s a slow course. Anybody running 2:10 on that course would be great.”
But the recently married Trafeh, who lives and trains in Casablanca, Morocco, used the course to his advantage today. He came into the race directly from Morocco and said that he was not very fit after taking four weeks off to get rid of a persistent case of plantar fasciitis, a painful injury to the bottom of the foot. Trafeh was content to tuck into the initial lead back of nine runners who passed through the first mile in 4:38, led by Brent Vaughn and Patrick Smyth.
“It was tough,” said Trafeh in the post-race recovery area, his bare feet stained red from applying henna which he said helped toughen his skin. ”I struggled a lot.”
At the 6-mile fluid station, last year’s runner-up here, Patrick Smyth, saw Ryan Hall veer to the side to collect his bottle, and the former Notre Dame star saw an opportunity.
“I just wanted to step on the gas and squeeze the pace down,” Smyth told reporters.
Smyth’s move, which led to a 4:39 third mile, had the intended effect. Running on Allen Parkway adjacent to Buffalo Bayou Park where the USA Cross Country Championships had been held in 2003, the lead pack had quickly dwindled to just four: Smyth, Hall, Trafeh and Jason Lehmkuhle, all running single file. Trafeh told himself to be patient.
“I wasn’t going to take the lead because I wasn’t feeling great,” Trafeh recalled, adding that he hadn’t done a single track workout in his brief lead-up to this race.
That left Smyth to continue to do all the work, and predictably the pace slowed. Headed into the Montrose Boulevard hairpin in mile-8, Fasil Bizuneh as able to catch up, and the lead pack was up to five, with Ryan Vail another 9 seconds behind. The five stayed together until past the 15K mark when Lehmkuhle and Bizuneh drifted back. After Smyth crossed the ten mile mark in 47:23 (4:40 last mile), Hall began to assert himself. Past the 11-mile mark, the USA half-marathon record holder came up on Smyth’s left shoulder then pushed into the lead as they passed through the fluid station. He poured a cup of water over his long blond hair, shot a glance over his left shoulder, then pressed the pace.
“That’s exactly what I was looking for coming here, a competitive race, (and) stick my nose in it,” Hall told reporters.
Smyth had to let Trafeh and Hall go. ”I was just kind of watching a great race,” Smyth lamented.
Hall and Trafeh, who are both running spring marathons, waited for the final meters to decide the race. They ran close together for the run-in on McKinney in the 13th mile, then Trafeh spurted away through the final 90-degree turn onto the short finish straight on the Avenidas de las Americas. Trafeh got a clear three-second victory on Hall, and Smyth finished third in 1:02:32. Trafeh felt fortunate to get the win and the $12,000 first prize.
“I wasn’t fit enough for the race,” he said. ”I was just hanging in there.”
Rhines also ran a patient race. The 36 year-old three-time Olympian who divides her time between Mammoth Lakes and San Diego, Calif., ignored the 5:17 first mile by Lindsey Scherf, and stayed amongst the other contenders in the main pack.
“It was pretty steady,” she said of the pace in the early miles. ”Nan (Kennard) set the early pace. I was waiting for my comfort zone.”
For Rhines that meant waiting for the final 5 kilometers, her favorite distance on the track where she has sub-15:00 speed. At about ten and one-half miles, she took the lead for good, winning comfortably in 1:11:14, a personal best. The victory represented the third national road running title for Rhines, who has focused her attention in recent years on the track.
“I think road running is growing on me,” she joked, clearly happy about her $12,000 payday.
Serena Burla duplicated her second place finish from last year, clocking 1:11:38. The 28 year-old athlete from Ellisville, Mo., said that she was feeling strong despite having a cancerous tumor removed from her leg nearly a year ago.
“I gave it what I had,” said Burla, the mother of a young son.
Kennard, 29, and a mother of three young children, held on for third place in a personal best 1:12:03, despite not liking the course.
“To be honest, I didn’t love the hairpin turns,” she said.