By Rich Sands, @sands
© Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

NEW YORK (18-Mar) — Slow early paces led to fast finishes at the United Airlines NYC Half here, with Ben True of the Hanover, N.H., and Buze Diriba of Ethiopia using blazing kicks to take the victories on a cold, windy morning. More than 22,000 runners started the race, an event record.

For True, best known as a top 5000-meter runner, it was his first time finishing a half marathon. The Maine native clocked 1:02:39, three seconds ahead of fellow American Dathan Ritzenhein.

Diriba outkicked Emily Sisson of the U.S. in the final 100 meters for a one-second margin of victory, hitting the tape in 1:12:23. Sisson, who ratcheted up the pace over the final seven kilometers through Central Park, was the runner up in this event for the second year in a row.

This was the 13th edition of the NYC Half, but the first with a new two-borough course that began adjacent to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and then worked its way up Manhattan to the finish. The professional women began 11 minutes ahead of the men (and the first wave of the mass start) on a cold (31F/-1C), clear morning, but the conditions—and the specter of finishing over Central Park’s notoriously challenging rolling hills—clearly dictated a conservative tempo. The lead pack hit 5-K in 18:10, on pace for just 1:16:00-plus at the finish.

Desiree Linden moved to the front in the ninth kilometer and lead the field through 10-K in 35:30, a significant increase in pace. The Michigan native, twice and Olympic marathoner, continued to lead through Times Square as the course worked up towards the park on Seventh Avenue. Sisson and Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal of Norway took up the lead and dropped the pace to 5:21 and 5:10 for the eighth and ninth miles, stringing out the pack. Sisson hit the 15-K mark in 52:39, and by 10 miles (about 16 km) there were just four contenders remaining: Sisson, Diriba, Grøvdal and Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska.

Sisson looked smooth as they looped through the park, passing 20-K 1:09:03, with only Diriba remaining in contact. “I felt great actually, better than this time last year,” Sisson said. “We went out pretty conservatively. And then in Central Park I tried to push it a bit. I knew Buze had a good kick, I’ve seen her race before, so I knew she would finish strong.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when Diriba finally moved alongside her with 400 meters to go. The Providence grad gamely held her position, but Diriba ultimately broke away in the final seconds. “When there were two of us left there were some thoughts in my mind that I could win, but at the same time that she’s strong, so I wasn’t really sure,” said the 24-year-old Ethiopian, who trains in trains in Albuquerque, N. M., and set her personal best for distance of 1:06:50 to finish fourth at the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in January.

Diriba’s winning time of 1:12:23 was the slowest in event history, a testament to the demanding new course and the cold and windy conditions. Behind Sisson (1:12:24), Grøvdal (1:12:43) edged Daska (1:12:50) with American Serena Burla (1:13:15) taking fifth.

Olympic 5000-meter champion Vivian Cheruiyot had drifted off the lead before 10-K and dropped out in Central Park in the 10th mile shortly after the men’s leaders caught her. “Vivian had problems breathing in the cold weather,” said her manager, Mike Skinner. The Kenyan star was coming off warm weather training for the London Marathon in Iten, Kenya.

The men’s field followed a similar cautious strategy, passing 5-K in 15:31 and 10-K in 30:19, with 17 athletes still in contention. Ritzenhein was never far from the lead, setting the pace through 15-K (45:12). “When you get to the front you’ve gotta make something happen. There’s no point in being there otherwise,” said the three-time Olympian, who is the midst of training for April’s Boston Marathon. “I just wanted to keep my foot on the gas and I felt pretty good at that point.”

An 11th mile in 4:36 finally thinned the herd, with Teshome Mekonen of Ethiopia at the front with Ritzenhein, True, and British veteran Chris Thompson the lone remaining challengers. The two Americans were in control at 20-K (59:40) and dueled to the finish, with True easily sprinting home first for a 1:02:39-1:02:42 margin, becoming the first American man to win the event. (Like the women, it was the slowest winning time for this race.) Thompson (1:02:43) edged Mekonen (1:02:44) for the final podium spot, with American Scott Fauble (1:02:58) rounding out the top five.

“Knowing that most of the field are marathoners or at least had done the half many times before, I knew that I probably had a little bit more closing speed than them,” said True, who has had considerable success in New York City in recent years, winning the Diamond League 5000 meters at Icahn Stadium and UAE Healthy Kidney 10-K in Central Park in 2015 and the NYRR Millrose Games 2-mile at the Armory in 2017. “My goal was just to hide for the majority of the race and then just get dragged for 2-0K, and then hopefully that last [kilometer] I was able to use my speed to get around people.”

His previous attempt at the distance resulted in a DNF (Houston, 2013), and he recently started working with a new coach, Ray Treacy, so True wasn’t sure what to expect. “When Dathan pulled away probably around mile 10 I wasn’t quite sure I was going to be able to handle that. And even when I started reeling them back in I didn’t know if I would be able to get around them,” the 32-year-old Dartmouth grad said. “It really wasn’t towards the very end that I was like, I can get this.”

Diriba and True both earned $20,000 for their victories as part of a $115,000 prize purse.

Ernst van Dyk of South Africa won the men’s professional wheelchair division for the fourth year in a row, crossing the line in 53:12, ahead of American Josh George (53:33). Switzerland’s Manuel Schär claimed the women’s division in 59:57, just two seconds ahead of Susannah Scaroni of the U.S., the defending champion. It was Schär’s second NYC Half victory after taking the 2015 title.

PHOTO: Ben True sprints to victory at the 2018 United Airlines NYC Half in a personal best 1:02:39 (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

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