Meseret Defar breaking the tape in a U.S. all-comer's record of 1:07:44. Photo: Ollie Neglerio
Meseret Defar breaking the tape in a U.S. all-comer's record of 1:07:44. Photo: Ollie Neglerio

Ethiopian tops star-studded field in a U.S. all-comer’s record.

Written by: Duncan Larkin

It was practically a given that Ethiopian Meseret Defar would be in the lead pack at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Sunday morning. What wasn’t known, however, was how the two-time Olympic medalist and world-record holder would fare in her 13.1-mile debut. Upon crossing the finish line first in a U.S. all-comer’s record of 1 hour, 7 minutes and 44 seconds however, there was no doubt amongst the all-star lineup assembled in the City of Brotherly Love who was the fastest female in the field.

“My feeling is good with my first half marathon,” Defar said after the race. “I won it. This is very big for me. I had the speed and knew that with the last 2K, I could push and win it.”

Kenyan Lineth Chepkurui finished a close second in 1:07:46. She was followed by Ethiopian Werknesh Kidane, who finished a distant third in 1:08:30. Shalane Flanagan was the top American in the field, finishing fourth in 1:08:36.

“I’m really tired. It was really hot,” said Flanagan afterward. “I didn’t know it was going to be so warm. I tried to reel the leaders in, but they went out a little bit above my head through 8 miles and so I paid for it. I tried to run within myself and give myself a chance, because I know if I’m hurting, they’re going to hurt. It’s just who hurts worse. And I was the one who hurt worse today.”

Defar, whose condition was doubtful on Saturday night, has been struggling with tendonitis in her shins and had hinted at possibly not being able to start the race.

But once the gun went off Sunday morning in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, any doubts as to Defar’s physical condition or the quality of her half marathon debut were quickly squashed. By the first mile, she had established herself in the lead pack, which was comprised of Flanagan, Chepkurui and Kidane. As the women looped around City Hall and headed back toward Kelly Drive, the pack had spread out into a line with Defar in third behind Kidane and Chepkurui. The leaders crossed the 5-mile mark in 25:33, 14 seconds shy of world-record pace and not a surprise given the warmer-than-expected temperature of 62 degrees at the start of the race. The first move in the race came from Flanagan, the lone American up front who took advantage of a downhill curve past the Art Museum and cut the tangent, shooting into the lead. When asked afterward about the move, Flanagan admitted it was unplanned.

“I didn’t know the course beforehand, but my coaches are smart men and they’ve always trained me to look for those tangents,” she said. “After that, I just reminded myself to look ahead for more of them. The other women started catching on at that point.”

Flanagan’s lead was short-lived, however. The pack quickly overtook her, and Kidane moved back into first position. Flanagan dropped back at that point, gradually losing contact with the pack until she was five seconds behind the trio of Defar, Kidane and Chepkurui. Miles 6 through 8 were relatively uneventful with the leaders consistently grinding out 5:06 splits.

Still alone and her form beginning to unravel, Flanagan lagged six seconds behind heading into Mile 9, where shortly afterward the lead pack caught up with a lone male runner whom they immediately drafted behind for the next two miles. At the 11th mile (56:55) tactics began to take over. Taking advantage of her track speed, Defar edged around Kidane and moved into the lead. Chepkurui, the recent winner of the Beach to Beacon 10K countered, but couldn’t catch the Ethiopian. Kidane fell back, no longer a contender for the win. The last mile was the most exciting of the race with Defar continuing to look over her shoulder while a stone-faced Chepkurui looked straight ahead.

In the race’s final mile, which featured a sharp turn and the only substantial hill on the course, Chepkurui made a final stab at overtaking Defar, but the Ethiopian would have none of it. She put her track speed to good use and crossed the finishing tape with her finger pointed up at the sky and a large smile on her face.


Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.