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Lel, Adere Win Inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon

Ethiopian veteran runs fastest women’s time ever on US soil.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Ethiopia’s Berhane Adere, age 36, won the inaugural Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Half Marathon in New Orleans Sunday in 1:07:52, the fastest women’s half-marathon time ever run in America. She won a thrilling duel with New Zealand’s Kim Smith, who finished a close second in 1:07:55. On the men’s side, two-time London Marathon champion Martin Lel of Kenya outpaced his countryman and half-marathon world record holder Sammy Wanjiru, winning in 1:01:07.

The new Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon and Half Marathon courses were designed not only to provide a comprehensive tour of post-Katrina New Orleans but also to be fast, and we now know they are. Adere’s winning time was the fourth-fastest in Ethiopian history and a personal best. Smith’s second-place time was a New Zealand national record. Both of their efforts were helped by nearly perfect weather conditions. The day was sunny, dry, and windless, with a starting-line temperature in the low 50s.

The top men ran a little slower than they are capable of going (Wanjiru’s world record is 58:33), largely because Lel and Wanjiru both have been logging heavy miles in preparation for April’s London Marathon. Nevertheless, after finishing Lel said, “I felt very comfortable the whole way. I had good legs today.”

Smith, who will also race in London, said that her performance gave her a good confidence boost despite the narrow loss. “I tried to break away early, and I got rid of everyone except Berhane,” she said. “I knew she probably had more closing speed, so I did everything I could to shake her.” Smith did indeed set a very aggressive pace from the start, blasting through 10K in 31:49. But Adere shadowed her all the way until the two women turned onto the homestretch at City Park, with about a quarter mile to go. The race became an all-out sprint to the tape that was not decided until the closing meters, when Adere pushed ahead.

An exhausted Adere was barely able to raise her arms in celebration as she broke the tape. “I knew I would have my speed,” she said succinctly after emerging from a medical tent.

The men’s race had more contenders but was not quite as close in the end. A select group of five runners – Lel, Wanjiru, Ireland’s Martin Fagan, recent University of Oregon graduate Shadrack Biwott and Kenyan McDonard Ondara – ran in tight formation through the first nine miles. The runners were packed so closely together that eventual winner Lel thrice tangled his feet with those of other runners. At 15K, which was reached in 43:42, Lel decided to take control of the race and surged away from his rivals.

Lel cruised to the finish line a comfortable 26 seconds ahead of Wanjiru, who is the reigning Olympic Marathon gold medalist. Biwott finished third in 1:01:40, seven seconds adrift of Wanjiru. Fagan took fourth place and Ondara faded to fifth. The first American finisher was Hansons-Brooks Project member Mike Morgan, who set a big PR in finishing sixth in 1:02:51.

The concurrent marathon, which shared a starting line with the half, lacked the international star power that the half-marathon had but was stacked with non-professional foreign and domestic talents and thousands of everyday runners just looking to have a wholesome good time in the Big Easy. Leading the way to the finish was Paul Wachira in 2:22:31. The women’s winner was Karen Barlow, who ran 2:46:06.

Not a new event, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardi Gras Marathon and Half Marathon is an evolution of the Mardi Gras Marathon, a New Orleans tradition dating back 46 years. The event was purchased by the Competitor Group last year and given the company’s signature rock ‘n’ roll twist – with a Mardi Gras twist on that. Thematic elements included multiple local jazz and blues bands performing on the course, a Mardi Gras float at the start, and millions of Mardi Gras beads still hanging from trees lining the course after this year’s festivities, which ended 12 days earlier.

A total of 13,000 runners participated in the two races.