The Road To Paris Starts In Texas: Our Editors Preview And Predictions For The Houston Marathon

Houston has set the stage for a fast start to 2024

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Welcome to The Running Conversation, a weekly chat between MH writers and editors about what’s happening in the running world. This week, senior news editor Jessy Carveth and editor Michael Doyle discuss key players at the Houston Marathon and the nuances of Olympic and Olympic Trials qualification at the event.

Michael: Houston is upon us. Throughout the week, we’ve covered this race extensively. There’s a reason for that: this race is the first of the year that has serious Olympic implications. 

Houston has always felt like it’s punched above its weight class. It’s not a major, although it attracts about 13,500 runners, which is pretty strong for a marathon. And the course and time of year can produce really quick times, from both recreational runners to elites. American records seem to be run here routinely. 

This year is special because there’s going to be multiple storylines, which we’ll dig into, and there will be drama. Desperate, chaotic Olympic qualification drama. The best kind of marathon running. People literally diving across the finish line after running 26 miles. I’m pumped. How about you?  

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Jessy: Absolutely. It’s the first big American race in an Olympic year. As you said, it’s early in the season, and the qualification window is still open, so we’re going to have a lot of runners who haven’t hit standard yet desperately trying to make that cut-off

People are going to start building into some of the best form they’ve ever been in as well, with the Olympics looming, so we’re certainly going to see some fast times throughout this whole year.

I think Houston is going to be a great event to kick off all this drama and excitement. 

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International Athletes Desperate For Olympic Standard

Jessy: So, looking at the elite women’s marathon start list, there are a lot of international runners. There are some Germans, some Canadians, some Brits, a Peruvian, and an Israeli, to list a few, alongside the Americans, of course.

Michael: The magic of an Olympic year, Jessy. I’m fired up for 2024. These spring races are going to be jam-packed with storylines. By my count, there are 19 international runners trying to qualify for the Olympics in Houston. 

Jessy: I can see the marathon almost being two races. I can see a race for the win going down between the Ethiopians and the Kenyans and then the race for the Olympic standard between the other runners.

One race is going to be a competition, and in the other, I think they’re all going to use each other to push each other to try and get that Olympic standard. Especially considering most countries don’t have Olympic trials

Michael: Yes, countries that don’t have this critical mass of marathoning talent can’t really host a formal event and expect a few runners to show up.

So you’ve got athletes this spring hunting down Olympic qualifiers and, in some cases, basically pleading to get into a hot race, like Rotterdam or London. Houston is the first shot out of the canon.

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Jessy: The Ethiopians and Kenyans, they’re going to be doing their own thing up at the front—going for the win. And the other athletes from Canada, Germany, and Great Britain, are going to be all working together to try and hit the standard.

Michael: The race at the very front could actually end up being fast.

The top entrants will be trying to impress upon their respective national squads in Kenya and Ethiopia that, hey, maybe if they can run significantly lower than 2:05 (men) or 2:20 (women), they are potentially Olympic material.

Making either team will be tremendously difficult if you can’t crack 2:03 for the men and 2:17-18 for the women. We’re now firmly in the golden era of the super shoe, based on those informal time standards.

For the athletes running purely to hit the “A” standard (2:08:10/2:26:50), it will be wise to stay with the group, take turns drafting to conserve energy, and just click those miles off.

I predict the final 10K of the marathon will be dramatic, both at the very front for the win and also as we count down to those Olympic standard cutoff times. It’ll be super dramatic to watch in the final seconds.

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American Showdown: Seasoned Veteran Goes Up Against Emerging Star In The Half

Jessy: All right, so when you look at the Americans in the half marathon, I think a lot of people’s eyes instantly go to Sara Hall.

I think Sara has a lot of experience racing. I mean, she’s been to the Olympics, she’s been to Worlds, and she just has a long history in the sport.

But honestly, I think if we’re looking at fast Americans running the half, I don’t think we should count out Weini Kelati. 

Michael: You’ve been buzzing about Kelati all week!

Jessy: She’s making her debut in the Half Marathon this weekend, and I think she could easily be the top-placing American.

She’s originally from Eritrea but is now a US citizen and was a standout cross-country and track runner at the University of New Mexico. She turned pro not that long ago, at the end of 2020.

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Michael: She seems poised to get better over the longer distances. She’s always been a strong cross-country runner and nailed the 10,000m in college, so it seems pre-ordained that she emerges as a new talent at longer road races.

But we shall see. The half-marathon isn’t as devilish as the full haul, but the vice grip gets tight after 10 miles.

And don’t count out Sara Hall just yet. She’s the sort of runner who surprises you just when you think she is done.

Jessy: I did a little digging on World Athletics and looked at the personal bests comparing Kelati and Sara in the 5K road, and 10K Road, and even on the track as well; Weini’s got her beat every time in those longer distance events. 

I think she’s going to be overlooked and considered an underdog, but I think she’s capable of having a really impressive performance this weekend.

That’s probably the American who I’m most excited to watch and to see how she does. Yeah, she may be making her debut this weekend, but she’s got a stellar background in the 5k and 10k and will be one to watch. 

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Hellen Obiri Runs First Race Of Her Packed Calendar

Jessy: Okay, to begin with, I think Hellen Obiri is easily going to run a very fast half, but I don’t think it’s going to be a personal best. I don’t think this is going to be a race that she’s tapering for or really targeting as a main race. 

Michael: I think your spidey sense is correct in this one, Jessy.

She’s got Houston, then Boston, where she will defend her title. Then, presumably, she’ll get picked for the Kenyan team and run the marathon in Paris.

That’s a lot of racing, particularly with Boston jammed in the middle. The downhills do a lot of damage. I’m actually surprised she’s returning to Boston. But that’s another conversation for another day. 

I think she could be inclined to go for it here, though. The payday for that time bonus could prove too tempting.

But if she were smart, she’d take the win, the fitness test, and not reach too far so early in what will be a long year. And I think she’s also one of the smartest racers in the game.

Jessy: She has bigger fish to fry this year.

It’s not that I don’t think she’s capable of running a really fast time here; I just don’t think she’s coming into this race with that mindset.

I think this is going to be a race to test the fitness, test the legs, bust some rust, and get some early-season racing in before it really matters.

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Galen Rupp Still Fighting For Olympic Standard

Michael: Let’s pivot to Galen Rupp.

He’s 37, he’s one of the most enduring athletes in American distance running history, but he’s battled so many injuries in recent years.

It’s a minor miracle that, here we are again, with Galen Rupp looming as a dark horse Olympic squad member. But how he makes it to Paris is super convoluted, and I’m still not entirely sure I understand how qualification works. I spent an hour this morning trying to figure it out. 

Here’s what we know: he ran 2:08:48 last October in Chicago. That’s a great time, but it was just off the 2:08:10 he needed to lock in the “A” standard needed to qualify automatically. 

Now, all Americans must run the U.S. Trials gauntlet, which is both ridiculous (if you’re an athlete who has run that “A” standard) and wonderful (if you like watching a dramatic, high-stakes marathon).

So, Rupp has the “B” standard, which may come into play in Orlando at the Trials. But Houston could streamline some of this for Rupp, I believe.

Jessy: Right now, he needs to run 60:47 or faster in Houston to gain a World Athletics ranking within the top 65.

If so, and he then places in the top two at the Trials, he’s not only in for the Games, he also “unlocks” that third spot for another American, so long as they have run at least the 2:11:30 “B” standard.

That’s why we saw guys like CJ Alberston wrecking themselves just to dip under that magic number. 

Michael:

via GIPHY

If he doesn’t hit 60:47 but places top 3 in Orlando… who knows at this point? Madness.

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Most Anticipated Half Debut On Hold

Michael: Let’s briefly chat about Canadian Moh Ahmed.

I’m super bummed he’s not able to race his first-ever half marathon. Houston seemed like the ideal opportunity for him to rip a jaw-dropping half, with enough time to slide right back into a build for the track season. 

Also, spending time in a marathon environment tends to have an impact on a trackie. Either they become intrigued by the distance and taken by the positive vibes, or they retreat back to the track, wondering why anyone would want to run that far and suffer that much.

And you and I are both Canadians. It would have been so rad watching one of our guys tearing it up and dropping the first sub-60-minute half marathon in years.

The last sub-60 was… Galen Rupp in 2018. That feels like a lifetime ago. 

Oh, Moh… what could have been in Houston.

Jessy: Yeah, it’s definitely a huge bummer, but considering it’s an Olympic year and he medaled at the last Olympics, he’s one of Canada’s shining stars, so it makes sense to be conservative.

I have a feeling his half-debut would have been something special, but it looks like we’re going to have to wait just a bit longer. 

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With the gun going off tomorrow morning, there’s no doubt this is going to be an exciting start to the Olympic year. We’re going to be doing live coverage here on Marathon Handbook, so be sure to check the website to keep up to date on how the races go down.

We’ve also put together some race guides and done a deep dive into some of the athletes you should be sure to keep an eye on tomorrow. You can check them out below.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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