Kenyan pros win both half-marathons at Race for Literacy

Published 8:11 pm Saturday, November 29, 2008

Professional long-distance racers from Chapel Hill, N.C.’s Global MBIO Club and Racing Team won the top three places in the men’s half-marathon and two of the top three spots in the women’s half-marathon at Saturday’s Race for Literacy in the Harborview area of Suffolk.

Kenyan natives make up the professional team, which is coached by Ben Kurgat. Nicholas Kurgat, no relation to the coach, won the 13.1-mile men’s race in 1:01:21. Divinia Jepkogei won the women’s half-marathon in 1:16:07.

Julius Kiptoo, Firmin Kipchoge, Norfolk’s Wil Christian and Chesapeake’s Long Tran made up the top five of the men’s race.

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In the women’s half-marathon, Virginia Beach’s Renee High, Kenyan Winny Tonui, Elizabeth City’s Kristin Turner Herring and Norfolk’s Susan Hagel took places two through five.

All five of coach Kurgat’s team members came to Suffolk from races only on Thursday, with three of the runners coming from a 5K in Fredericksburg on Thanksgiving Day, but Nicholas Kurgat and second-place finisher Julius Kiptoo coming from a race in San Jose, Cal. on Thursday.

Kiptoo flew into Norfolk late Friday night. N. Kurgat arrived in Raleigh, N.C. late Friday night, got a few hours of sleep, then drove up with his coach heading out of Chapel Hill at 4 a.m.

Global MBIO Club and Racing Team is made up of full-time professional long-distance runners.

“Basically, each runner’s goal is to be faster with every race,” said Ben Kurgat. The ultimate goal for Kurgat’s runners is to qualify for more prestigious events around the world, including the possibility of making Olympic teams.

Nicholas Kurgat came to the U.S. and started with Kurgat’s team in July. Until Nov. 2 at a race in Raleigh, N. Kurgat had never competed in a half-marathon or marathon. What unfolded that day at the half-marathon and marathon event on the campus of N.C. State made strange, but remarkable, news for anyone who follows long-distance running.

Both the half-marathon and marathon fields ran together, and N. Kurgat led everyone as the race neared the 13-mile mark. N. Kurgat, 29, missed the signs leading to the finish line of the half-marathon, instead he followed police cars as the police followed the marathon route.

Some other half-marathon runners made the same mistake, but dropped out when they realized it. Nicholas Kurgat kept going. Coach Kurgat saw with Nicholas around the 20-mile mark.

“I thought he had already dropped out,” he said.

In his first time running a half-marathon, Nicholas Kurgat won the marathon in 2:19:34, by a margin of a minute, 54 seconds.

“Jaw-dropping” and “unbelievable” is how his coach described the feat, and the display of Nicholas Kurgat’s natural talent, even on Saturday after the race in Harborview.

Unfortunately, Nicholas Kurgat was disqualified from both events. His time at the 13.1-mile mark would’ve won the half-marathon as well.

The 26.2-mile run also inadvertently put a kink into N. Kurgat’s training and competition schedule which he and his coach had been strictly following since he had joined the team.

Nicholas Kurgat skipped an event the next weekend, but returned to his schedule this past Saturday at an event in Richmond before heading to California, then Suffolk.

Jepkogei started training with Kurgat’s team in May and her fastest times have come in the last month. She’s cut her personal best half-marathon from 1:17 to 1:14 said Kurgat.

Tonui, who finished third, won the Dismal Swamp half-marathon in April, but then suffered an injury which kept her out of action until Thursday in Fredericksburg. The Race for Literacy was her first half-marathon since the injury.

“It was a great indication of how she’s coming back,” said Ben Kurgat. “Her training is really just picking back up. It was a good test and she handled the 21K (13.1 miles) very well.”

“It was a very good course,” said the coach, “the temperature was the only major challenge.”

Morning temperatures on the banks of the Nansemond River at the campus of Tidewater Community College were in the low 40s.

The top Suffolk finishers in the half-marathon were, in the female division, Andrea Leber, 44 (1:45:41, 6th), Nicole Harrell, 34 (1:51:35, 10th), Dorothy Wise, 33 (1:51:40, 11th) and Stephanie Douglas, 43 (1:56:52, 14th). In the men’s half-marathon, top Suffolk runners were, Billy Chorey, 27 (1:21:44, 6th), Ed Hayden, 28 (1:30:58, 8th) and Scott Buttz, 34 (1:36:50, 13th).