Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jen Rhines Wins USA Half-Marathon Championship

The great career of Jen Rhines added another milestone yesterday in Houston as Rhines won the USA half-marathon title in a new PR of 1:11:14, three minutes faster than her half-marathon victory in Las Vegas last month. Here's how described the race.

Jen Rhines capped her return to the half marathon distance by putting away strong challenges from Serena Burla and Nan Kennard to win the 2011 USATF Half Marathon Title in Houston and $12,000 in 1:11:14.

The thirty-six-year-old Rhines was the credentialed veteran in Saturday's race (she had made 3 Olympic teams, including one in the marathon, while the rest of the field combined had made one). However, despite making the Olympics in 2004 in the marathon, after subpar performances in the longer distances in 2006, Rhines abandoned the longer distances of the half marathon and marathon to return to the track. Until last month, when she won the Rock N Roll Las Vegas Marathon in a 1:14 tune-up, she had stayed away from the long distances on the roads.

How would she fare versus a more competitive field?

She returned in fine form, as her run on Saturday was a personal best. The course in Houston was billed as a preview of the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials course. Rhines, however, made it clear afterwards not to think her recent action in the half marathon means she is returning to the marathon. She mentioned the possibility of running a marathon, but said her plan is to make one more Olympic team on the track.

Runner-up to Rhines was the incredible Serena Burla. Burla was second last year as well, but in the year since has been diagnosed with and beaten synovial sarcoma (cancer in her thigh). Burla was rightfully emotional afterwards in talking about her amazing journey the last year.

Third place was Nan Kennard of Boulder. Kennard, a two time all-American at BYU, has been working with Darren and Colleen De Reuck (US Olympian in the marathon, former World XC medallist) since coming back to running after the birth of her 3 children. If there can be a 29-year-old novice in the field, she was it and perhaps it showed, as she was the one pushing the pace in the middle miles.

Place Athlete Age Time Prize Money
1 Rhines, Jennifer 36 01:11:14 $12,000
2 Burla, Serena 28 01:11:38 $6,500
3 Kennard, Nan 29 01:12:03 $4,000
4 McGregor, Katie 33 01:12:13 $2,000
5 Moody, Tera 30 01:12:30 $1,500
6 Grandt, Clara 23 01:13:13 $1,250
7 Scherf, Lindsey 24 01:13:40 $1,000
8 Hastings, Amy 27 01:14:07 $750
9 Boulet, Magdalena 37 01:14:28 $500
10 White, Melissa 21 01:14:50 $200
11 Kilmer, Loretta 27 01:14:59
12 Houck, Jennifer 26 01:15:02
13 Westover, Heidi 30 01:15:16
14 Meyerhoff, Sally 27 01:15:24
15 Bracy, Addie 24 01:15:41
16 Gomez, Zoila 31 01:16:24
17 Storage, Kara 29 01:16:57
18 Moeller, Erin 33 01:16:59
19 Williamson, Kelly 21 01:17:00
20 Erb, Esther 24 01:17:08

Fromer Boston marathon winner Amby Burfoot had this to say about the race:

Jen Rhines Wins U.S. Half-Marathon Title With a Veteran's Strength
by Amby Burfoot

Jen Rhines has made Olympic teams at an amazing range of distances (5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, and the marathon), and has won national titles on the road (15K) and as a collegiate runner (cross country, indoor and outdoor 5,000m). Saturday morning in Houston, the 36-year old from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., added a new distance to her collection–the half-marathon. In the much heralded "preview" of next January's Olympic Trials Marathon, Rhines broke the tape in the Aramco Houston Half Marathon (and 2011 national championships) in 1:11:14.

Serena Burla finished second in 1:11:37 and Nan Kennard third in 1:12:03. The three athletes won $12,000, $6,500, and $4,000, respectively, for their efforts. All three immediately put themselves on the "serious contenders" list for next year's trials on Jan. 14. Rhines, however, says she won't be running that race. "I may try a marathon later this year," she said, "but I don't think I'll run the marathon next year. I'll probably focus on the 10,000." (She made the Olympic marathon team in 2004, then moved all the way down to 5,000m for the 2008 Games.)

While Rhines is as seasoned and well-known as any American distance star, Burla and Kennard are relatively unknown. Both have amazing recent running stories.

Burla, 28, from Ellisville, Mo., learned in February that she had a malignant tumor in her right hamstring. After surgery, she didn't know if she would ever run again. Yet by November, she was strong enough to finish the New York City Marathon in 2:37:06, her only marathon. Observed Rhines to Burla: "I remember standing at the finish line in New York last November, and seeing you come in. It was just so impressive, how you did that."

Kennard, 29, had three children in quick order after graduating from Brigham Young University, where she was an All-American in cross country and track. A year ago, after her youngest's first birthday, she felt the urge to begin running seriously again. She had moved to Boulder, and sought out Colleen and Darren DeReuck for training advice. A strict Mormon who won't run or race on Sunday, Kennard placed third last September in the national 20K championships, and ran a 2:35:49 for third in the Baltimore Marathon in October.

The women's field was deep and fast, with a group of seven or eight runners in a tight pack through the first half of the race. A relatively slow pace, including several miles in 5:32, made it easy for them to stick together. Then Kennard upped the ante. "My coach told me not to lead," she said, "but I wanted to keep all my miles under 5:30. So when no one else picked it up, I decided to take over. It might have been a tactical mistake. I did a lot of the wind breaking out there."

The next five miles were covered at a 5:23 to 5:29 pace. At nine miles, after Katie McGregor fell back, it came down to a simple contest of the veteran vs. the two newbies.

Score this one for the veteran. At 11 miles, Rhines made her first bold move of the race, and opened a gap that would never be closed. "I had been feeling antsy to pick it up, but I wanted to make sure to have a strong finish, so I waited until the right moment," she said.

The victory also meant a PR for Rhines, whose previous best half-marathon effort (1:11:45) dated to 2003. Not that she has spent much time running road races since then. "I probably feel most psychologically comfortable in the 5,000," she admitted, "but I think this year I'll be moving up to the 10,000. Last year was difficult, but now I'm healthy and able to do more mileage again."

Unable to match Rhines's finishing strength, Burla and Kennard fell back and then drifted apart. Burla was also second in last year's Half Marathon (won by Shalane Flanagan), even though she felt so much hamstring pain while warming up that she considered not starting the race. "At the time, I just thought it was one of those typical runner pains," she said. A month later, she thought it was probably the last race of her life.

She didn't have a hamstring pull. It was a malignant tumor. After surgery on Feb. 26, Burla had no idea what lay ahead. "The unknown can be very scary," she said. "The most I dared hope was that I could run and play again with my 2-year-old son." She added: "He's a pretty active kid."

How did she come back so far and so fast? "That's an unknown," she said. "My doctors, my PTs, they say they don't know. They say that some things just can't be explained. But I want everyone in the running community to know that all the support I received, all the prayers, they were so important in helping me stay positive and build back."

Many of the post-race press conference questions, both to the women and the men, focused on the new course with all its turns, and how the course might affect the trials marathons next year. Burla was having none of it: "For me, it's just such a blessing to be able to run. I try to appreciate every single run. It's an incredible feeling not to have a tumor in my leg any longer. A marathon is a marathon, and they're hard to compare. This course is what it is. We'll all have plenty of time to prepare for it. My attitude is: It's time to get on with it." Burla will probably run a late spring marathon this year, possibly Prague.

For Kennard, the race was a big confidence builder–a day when she proved she could run with some of America's best. "I was really happy to be able to run with the front pack the way I did," she said. "I laid it on the line today, and it was a big breakthrough for me. I owe a lot to Darren and Colleen DeReuck."

"She's been working with us for about a year," said Darren DeReuck. "She's very coachable. She's disciplined and she listens very well, and does what I ask for. A year ago, she was trailing Colleen in workouts. Now she's leading the way. She's going to focus on the roads–that's where I think she'll perform the best."

A 2:10 800-meter runner in high school, Kennard ran her first marathon between a couple of those pregnancies. She was just running a recreational 40 miles a week at the time, but she broke 3:00, and "I had a blast–I just loved it. I love running marathons."

Still training just 50 to 70 miles a week, due to her Sundays off, Kennard says the children remain the focus of her life. "I think they actually help my running," she said. "They force me to prioritize everything and to be super-organized about my schedule. They're also my biggest fans. I tell them that when I win some money at a race, that it's going into our Disney World fund. That gets them pretty excited."

Kennard hopes to run the Boston Marathon in April

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