Fast Fields Ready To Rock The Big Easy

Kim Smith headlines the women's field at the Rock 'n' Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon on Sunday. Photo:

Kim Smith, Hansons-Brooks runners headline elite races in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS – The 2011 Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon & ½ Marathon benefiting the American Cancer Society will return to the Big Easy this Sunday. The streets will be rockin’ with the sounds of local bands and cheerleaders lining nearly every mile of the 26.2 and 13.1 mile race courses, along with thousands of spectators.

“This time of the year athletes are looking to run well in their build up for a spring marathon,” said Matt Turnbull, elite athlete coordinator for the Competitor Group. “New Orleans offers a great venue with a fast and flat course, and we are expecting to see some great races this weekend.”

Headlining the elite field in the half marathon is New Zealand Olympian Kim Smith, a four-time NCAA champion at Providence College. Smith returns to the event where she was narrowly defeated by former world half-marathon champion Berhane Adere of Ethiopia last year. With a time of 1:07:52, Adere’s victory was a pending U.S. all-comers record, which was later broken by Meserat Defar at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in September. But it was Smith who led the entire race until the final straightaway, pushing a blazing sub-1:08 pace from the start.

“I tried to break away early, and I got rid of everyone except Berhane,” Smith said after the 2010 race. “I knew she probably had more closing speed, so I did everything I could to shake her.”

Smith holds the New Zealand half-marathon record of 1:07:55 from the Mardi Gras event, which is the fourth-fastest time ever run on U.S. soil. She’ll face a tough challenge from 25-year-old Ethiopian Woynishet Tafa, who owns a marathon best of 2:27:51 and consecutive top-5 finishes at the past two Amsterdam Marathons.

Leading the U.S. runners in the women’s half marathon will be Molly Pritz and Melissa White, teammates with Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Michigan. The 22-year-old Pritz won the 2010 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon, qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathonwith a time of 1:12:14. White, 29, owns a top-10 finish from the 2009 Chicago Marathon, where she ran a PR of 2:32:25.

In the men’s half marathon, Kenya’s Elkanah Kibet will make his 13.1-mile debut on the roads. Kibet, an NCAA All-American in cross-country at the University of Auburn, owns a 10,000m PR on the track of 28:26.  Leading the American contingent will be the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project team of Luke Humphrey, Tim Young and Sage Canaday. Rounding out the favorites is Josphat Boit, a four-time All-American at the University of Arkansas.

The marathon will feature 2009 champion Meyer Freidman, who resides in San Diego, CA. He’ll face Lafayette, Louisiana resident Kevin Castille, the runner-up at October’s Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon. The field also features Kenyans Stephen Tanui and Samson Kipchirchir. Tanui has a half-marathon best of 1:01:29, which he ran in Italy 2009, and Kipchirchir owns a top-5 finish from last year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon.

In year two, Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras will debut a new course, starting on Tchoupitoulas Street and Euterpe Street, then winding through Uptown, the Garden District and the famous French Quarter before a scenic finish in City Park. The race begins at 7:00am, with more 17,000 runners expected to toe the start line.

“Two thousand eleven will feature an improved course,” said Doug Thurston, Operations Director for the event. “We’ve eliminated several turns making the record-breaking half-marathon course even faster, and added a stretch along the waterfront of Lake Pontratrain to make the marathon course more scenic, while providing better access to residents along the race route.”

In addition to the full and half marathons, participants have a new option this year. They can split the miles with a friend or family member in the 2-person half marathon relay, taking on either the 8.3 or 4.8 mile leg while enjoying the same perks and race day celebrations as the main event.

“The relay is a great way to introduce yourself to distance running and offers a fun team element to an otherwise individual sport,” said Malain McCormick, Event Director. “We’re always working to make this the best experience for both the participants and the city of New Orleans and are excited to bring this race back bigger and better in its second year.”

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