Kicking off the Olympic year in the third year of her comeback from retirement, 2007 Tokyo Marathon winner Hitomi Niiya (Sekisui Kagaku) ran a Japanese national record 1:06:38 to win the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in her American debut and first half marathon in 11 years.
Running with support from JRN, Niiya brought her high school-era friend Tsuyoshi Ugachi (Konica Minolta), a 1:00:58 half marathoner, to pace her at an even 3:10/km, pace for 1:06:49 with room to spare under Kayoko Fukushi's 2006 national record of 1:07:26. In cold and windy conditions the pair went out faster than planned, splitting 15:37 at 5 km and 31:10 at 10 km, 1:05:45 pace, leaving a field including 2019 Tokyo Marathon winner Ruti Aga (Ethiopia) and world all-time 6th-fastest half marathoner Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui (Kenya) behind.
Rounding a turnaround into a long section headed straight into the wind the pace settled down to the planned level with a 15:52 from 10 to 15 km, leaving her 55 seconds up on the national record with 6 km to go. Running with Ugachi and an American man who latched on to help, Niiya faded slightly in the last 3 km but still lopped 48 seconds off Fukushi's 14-year-old record. It was the fastest half marathon ever by a woman born outside of Africa.
It's fair to point out that she was wearing the Next%, but it's equally fair to point out that up against a field of 1:05 and 1:06 half marathoners she won by a massive 1:30, beating a 1:05:07 half marathoner by 1:35 and a 2:18:34 marathoner by 1:47. With confidence being what she needs most at the start of a home soil Olympic year you couldn't have asked for much more.
"Everything was perfect," she said post-race. "Last week at the National Women's Ekiden I slowed down in the last km and missed Fukushi's course record, so I lost some confidence about being able to do it today. I thought it would probably end up being 68 or 69, and if that happened I might as well not go back to Japan. But it was easy. I've never felt so comfortable. I had expected the long part into the wind between the fountain before 9 miles and the turn by the river at 11 miles to be the hardest part, but it ended up being the easiest. I owe a lot to Ugachi and the American guy in the yellow socks who helped out."
Next Sunday Niiya will pace the first 12 km at the Osaka International Women's Marathon, where she hopes to help Fukushi make her fifth Olympic team in the same way Ugachi and Sock Man, as she called him, helped her. Following that she heads to Australia to train for a planned shot at Yoko Shibui's 10000 m national record in April.
Aramco Houston Half MarathonHouston, U.S.A., 1/19/20
1. Hitomi Niiya (Japan/Sekisui Kagaku) - 1:06:38 - NR, WL
2. Brillian Jepkorir Kipkoech (Kenya) - 1:08:08
3. Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui (Kenya) - 1:08:13
4. Gotytom Gebreslase (Ethiopia) - 1:08:19
5. Dorcas Jepchirchir Tuitoek (Kenya) - 1:08:24
6. Ruti Aga (Ethiopia) - 1:08:25
7. Caroline Rotich (Kenya) - 1:08:53
8. Stephanie Twell (Great Britian) - 1:08:55
9. Sara Hall (U.S.A.) - 1:08:58
10. Gelete Burka (Ethiopia) - 1:09:05
17. Natasha Wodak (Canada) - 1:09:41 - NR
1. Jemal Yimer Mekonnen (Ethiopia) - 59:25
2. Bernard Kipkorir Ngeno (Kenya) - 59:26
3. Shadrack Kimining Korir (Kenya) - 59:27
4. Philemon Kiplimo (Kenya) - 59:28
5. Abel Kipchumba (Kenya) - 59:35
6. Geoffrey Koech (Kenya) - 59:36
7. Gabriel Gerald Geay (Tanzania) - 59:42
8. Shura Kitata (Ethiopia) - 59:47
9. Andamlak Belihu Berta (Ethiopia) - 59:52
10. Jake Robertson (New Zealand) - 1:00:12
25. Daisuke Momozawa (Japan/San Kogyo) - 1:01:50 - PB
39. Kai Takeshita (Japan/SGH Group) - 1:03:27
victory photo © 2020 Victah Sailer / Houston Marathon Committee, all rights reserved
text and trio photo © 2020 Brett Larner, all rights reserved