Gusty winds and high humidity may have slowed the finish times at the Honolulu Marathon on Sunday (11), but those conditions helped spawn exciting head-to-head races for both men and women, culminating in victories for Kenyan Nicholas Chelimo and Ethiopian Woynishet Girma. Over 20,000 runners entered what was the 39th edition of America's fifth-largest marathon.
Chelimo, 28, from Ngong Hills, had the advantage of being the event's defending champion, but he faced a quality field with a total of six men who had run sub-2:08 during their careers. His top rival was two-time Honolulu champion Patrick Ivuti, and it was not surprising that the race would come down to those two men charging to the finish line in Kapiolani Park, adjacent to famous Waikiki Beach.
"It was difficult," Chelimo said after the race. "I didn't know (I could beat him)."
Led by pacemakers Kiplimo Kimutai and Mbarak Hussein, Chelimo and Ivuti were part of a lead pack of eight at the half-way mark. Organizers had asked the pacers to run 1:05:30 through half-way, but that was impossible as the pack ran into headwinds so stiff that the palm trees along the course were leaning toward them. Besides Ivuti, Chelimo had his eye on Benjamin Kiptoo Koulum, the 2011 Paris Marathon winner and a 2:06 marathoner, and seven-time Honolulu champion Jimmy Muindi. Nicholas Manza Kamakya, who owns a 2:06:34 personal best, had already dropped out complaining of Achilles tendon pain.
After the athletes completed the turnaround past 25-K and were heading back to Waikiki for the finish, both Koulum and Muindi were unable to hold the pace. That left Chelimo, Ivuti, debutant Josphat Boit and pacemaker Kimutai --who ultimately decided to finish the race-- still in contention. The wind was now at their backs, and this foursome hit 30-K in 1:36:32.
But as usually happens at this event, the real race lay ahead when the athletes must ascend Diamond Head Avenue for the second time. The hill starts at 38-K, then climbs 32 metres over the next 2 kilometres. With the hot sun rising over the Pacific Ocean to their left, the climb was too much for Boit and Kimutai, leaving Chelimo and Ivuti together at 40-K (2:08:24) to fight for the win. Chelimo was worried about the older and more experienced Ivuti.
"In the last two kilometres --even in the last 200 metres-- I thought he was coming," Chelimo said shaking his head. "I was thinking, he is coming now."
But Ivuti, who later said he had a problem with his leg, could not respond to Chelimo's accelerations in the finish straight. Chelimo broke the tape in 2:14:55, three seconds up on Ivuti.
"This one is fantastic, and really tough: competitive," Chelimo said of his victory and the USD 40,000 first prize.
Completing their first marathons, Boit finished third in 2:15:40, and Kimutai got fourth in 2:18:12. Koulum rounded out the top-5 in 2:19:21.
Biggest win ever for Girma
The women's race played out similarly to the men's, but with a critical difference: the defending champion and pre-race favorite Belainesh Gebre never made it to the finish line.
Gebre, 24, had already run three marathons this year. Although she looked solid in the first half (1:16:16), she was dropped after 30-K, leaving a less-known Ethiopian, Woynishet Girma, a chance for victory. Girma, 25, who grew up in the village of Chancho about 40 kilometres from Addis Ababa, ran patiently behind the field and was actually 24 seconds behind the lead group of Russia's Valentina Galimova and Svetlana Zakharova, Ethiopia's Misiker Mekonnin Demissie, and Japan's Eri Okubo at 30-K (1:48:14).
Over the next five kilometres, Okubo and Zakharova fell back, leaving Girma, Galimova and Demissie to battle it out up Diamond Head. Girma picked up the pace, using one of the slower men to help her, and charged up the hill.
"I was not scared," Girma said through an interpreter of her push up Diamond Head. "I was doing my training on the hills, so I was really OK with that."
Girma crested the hill with only her accidental male pacer at her side, and was able to enjoy the final two kilometres to the finish line. As two Japan Airlines flight attendants held the finish tape, Girma crossed herself before raising her arms in victory, breaking that tape in in 2:31:41. It was her second career marathon victory and her first in the United States.
"I am happy that I won my first marathon in Honolulu," she gushed. "I'm really happy, and I'll come in (next year) and make it better than this."
Behind Girma, Galimova and Demissie were running shoulder to shoulder, battling for second. Demissie, who had stomach problems during the race and had even made a quick toilet stop just after the turnaround, suddenly felt a burst of energy.
"(At) 20 miles I felt a little tired," said the petite Ethiopian who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. "But after that, 200 meters (to go), I had confidence. I had a good sprint."
Galimova let Demissie go, allowing the Ethiopian to get second in 2:31:53. The 25 year-old Russian finished two seconds behind her. Kenyan Emmah Muthoni came from behind to get fourth (2:32:38), and Zakharova --who had never finished lower than second here-- got fifth (2:33:17).
After running, all 20,000 athletes were treated to freshly made malasadas, a sugar-dusted Portuguese pastry which are very popular here. The 1983 Boston Marathon champion Greg Meyer, who was here doing radio commentary on the race, said they were delicious and ate two.
David Monti - Race Results Weekly – for the IAAF
1. Nicholas Chelimo, 28, KEN, 2:14:55
2. Patrick Ivuti, 22, KEN, 2:14;58
3. Josphat Boit, 28, KEN, 2:15:40 (debut)
4. Kiplimo Kimutai, 30, KEN, 2:18:12 (debut)
5. Benjamin Kiptoo Koulum, 32, KEN, 2:19:21
6. Jimmy Muindi, 38, KEN, 2:24:40
1. Woynishet Girma, 25, ETH, 2:31:41
2. Misiker Mekonnin Demissie, 25, ETH, 2:31:53
3. Valentina Galimova, 25, RUS, 2:31:55
4. Emmah Muthoni, 30, KEN, 2:32:38
5. Svetlana Zakharova, 41, RUS, 2:33:17
6. Eri Okubo, 28, JPN, 2:34:09