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After 13 miles of racing, a pair of sprint finishes decided both the men’s and women’s champions at the 12th annual United Airlines NYC Half, as Molly Huddle and Feyisa Lilesa prevailed victorious on March 19.
Racing side-by-side with training partner Emily Sisson the entire race, Huddle took the final turn for the finish and simply out-sprinted her close friend, winning by two steps at 1:08:19. Minutes later, Lilesa edged Scotsman Callum Hawkins in the same manner, crossing the line in 1:00:04 with his wrists crossed to protest the treatment of the Oromo people in Ethiopia.
Though the temperature read 34 degrees Fahrenheit here in Manhattan, both Huddle and Sisson felt like they were running back in sunny Arizona as they covered Central Park’s roadway in the early miles. Step for step, stride for stride, the pair distanced themselves from the field as the miles clicked by and Lower Manhattan came into view.
Huddle entered today’s race knowing it would be a war of friends. As if connected by a tether, Huddle and Sisson led the opening 5K (16:59), as a strong pack formed behind them, including two-time world marathon champion Edna Kiplagat, 2016 USA Olympic Trials Marathon champion Amy Cragg, Burundi Olympian Diane Nukuri, and Swedish Olympian Sarah Lahti, who was making her half-marathon debut.
In the days leading up to the race, both Huddle and Sisson told Race Results Weekly that the podium, in essence, would be decided by the 10K mark: If you leave Central Park feeling comfortable, the second half will be a breeze. If you’re struggling, good luck getting to the Water Street finish line. Though Cragg and Kiplagat looked poised, Huddle and Sisson appeared driven and bound for a battle down the stretch. After all, they had done this dozens of times in practice.
“I knew that Emily and I would be step-for-step for a long time because we had practices that were similar and our coach told us to do that. It felt kind of like a practice tempo run, a very hard one. But I was just thinking back to Arizona when we were out on the canal for miles and miles,” Huddle said. “Until we turned [for the finish] it didn’t feel like a race, until then. But we were working hard!”
To get to the finish together, Huddle and Sisson kept the pace honest; they subtly created distance between themselves and Nukuri, Kiplagat and Cragg, running through the heart of Times Square where hundreds of children were participating in youth races. Though the 15K checkpoint data said Kiplagat and Nukuri were only two seconds adrift (and Cragg an additional eight seconds back), the gap soon seemed like an eternity.
Unbeknownst to Sisson, Huddle was beginning to hurt along the West Side Highway. Running a half step ahead of her mentor, Sisson cruised with the same form she’s always shown on the track. In her half-marathon debut, she appeared completely comfortable.
“I was starting to get tired so I was hoping that if she couldn’t see me she’d slow down a bit,” Huddle said, laughing. “I felt controlled, just my legs were feeling a little tired. I was just trying to take a break.”
Huddle knew it’d come down to a kick, just like last year when she edged Joyce Chepkirui by a fraction of a second. Leaving the Battery Park Underpass with 400 meters to go, Huddle surged ahead, giving her an edge in the race. Slingshotting around the final corners and hitting the homestretch, she was in sprint mode. Sisson, finally feeling fatigue in her quads, had no response.
Breaking the tape in 1:08:19, Huddle didn’t have time to celebrate before Sisson crossed two seconds later, giving her a congratulatory hug at the finish. Sisson’s time was the fastest women’s half-marathon debut ever by an American.
“It’s really cool. I never would have thought I could come back here and win three times. I remember the first one was such a surprise for me, and last year we ran so fast. I just feel really lucky to win for a third time,” said Huddle, reflecting on becoming the first runner to complete a three-peat in United NYC Half history (Ernst van Dyk completed the same feat earlier this morning in the wheelchair competition). “It just contributes to my enthusiasm for New York.”
Sisson was surprised to find out that she’d broken the American debut record, and moved to No. 5 on the all-time USA list. “It’s pretty special. I didn’t even know what [the record] was coming into today, but I’m pretty happy. Especially to do it here, a tough course.” The Providence College grad credited confidence gained from training with Huddle for the strong showing.
Behind Huddle and Sisson, Nukuri finished third for the second straight year in a near personal best of 1:09:13. It was her third time making the podium here. She’s gearing up for April’s Boston Marathon, and was thrilled with the performance.
“I was really jealous of them, thinking they probably train like that and have so much speed,” she said with a laugh, speaking of Huddle and Sisson. “It was fun to mix it up with them.”
Kiplagat was fourth in 1:09:37, a second up on Cragg. Lahti, in her debut, ran 1:09:59 for sixth, breaking Isabella Andersson’s Swedish record. American Des Linden, who is also running the Boston Marathon this year, was seventh in 1:11:05, the approximate pace she hopes to run in the marathon.