Monday, March 28, 2022

Uphill/Downhill-Headwind/Tailwind-Masters Runners Thrive at USATF Masters Half Marathon Championships at Syracuse-Recap 1

March 27, 2022 Sunday, March 20th set up as a good day for a Half Marathon Championship race in Syracuse NY. The day before was rainy and cool. Runners did their pre-race warm-ups under cloudy skies or, at worst, occasional light rain. The race itself had temperatures in the low 40's under cloudy skies. It would have been almost perfect except for the wind which was 16-17 mph. Runners noticed it when in  open areas, especially if it would gust. None of that really mattered very much. The host of the race, the Leone Timing Company, does a great job of organizing the race to be super runner-friendly. The staging area is the On Convention Center. Inside and downstairs was a large room devoted to the Masters Championship athletes. They could leave gear then when warming up, and there were water bottles for pre-race hydration. They could return there after the race. Most importantly you walked up the stairs, out the door in front of you and the starting line (which was also the finish line) was 100 yards to your left--very nice, especially if the conditions had been a bit harsher.

This was the 4th Championship on the USATF Masters National Grand Prix circuit. Club Cross Championship at Tallahassee FL and the USATF Cross Country Championships in San Diego were both on the turf at distances ranging from 6 km to 10 km. The first road championships of the season were held in Atlanta GA over 5 km. This would be the first truly long distance race of the season. The course is even hillier than the 5 km in Atlanta. Strava reported it as 487 feet of elevation gain. It is a great challenge that Masters athletes looked forward to. It was not a course conducive to record setting. But a record was set before the race began. The largest gathering of athletes for a USATF Masters Half Marathon Championship had been 120, set in 2018 at the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run, organized by Masters LDR Hall of Famer Doug Goodhue, almost as good at organizing races as winning National Championships. This race enjoyed an entry list of 210 athletes! Talk about smashing a record!

OVERALL MASTERS CHAMPIONSHIPS (Awards based on gun time)

WOMEN In my preview I wrote: "The primary contenders appear to be Silvia Bagge Rockville MD, Fiona Bayly New York NY, Abby Dean Wilmington DE, Kasie Enman Huntington VT, McCoubrie, and Lisa Veneziano Fenton MI. Jennifer Bigham Pittsburgh PA, Jessica Hruska Dubuque, IA and Carly Shea Lewisburg PA cannot be overlooked." Enman did not make it to the race after all, but the others had excellent races. It is often hard to know who is going to be up and who is going to be down at a given race. But Baage, Bayly, Bigham, and Hruska had especially good days! What I did not know pre-race was that Bigham was on the comeback trail after giving birth to her 4th kiddo in February 2021. She took time off from racing during the pregnancy but did not stop running. By summer her racing legs were coming back and she jumped into her hometown  of Pittsburgh's Liberty Mile, clocking 5:13 and winning the Masters Division. A hip/glute flare-up later in the fall encouraged her to back off on her training. When she felt herself getting strong again, she decided to make Syracuse her goal Half for the spring. As March approached, she felt she was in better shape than before her 1:22:08 Half Marathon the previous fall. She decided to go for the overall win and let the Masters podium take care of itself. She spotted the 2020 Open winner, Laura Leone, and was determined to stick with her. After a flat first half mile, the course turns onto James Street where it starts a gradual climb and then a bit steeper up to a bit past the mile mark. 

Jennifer Bigham taking it out hard a mile into the race

It flattens off but continues on James Street until turning right into a neighborhood which the course circles, crossing the 5 km timing mat shortly after the first left turn. Leone crossed that mat in 18:12, with Bigham at 18:14. Baage crossed it 45 seconds later in 18:59, surrounded by Open runners but no other Masters. Hruska, winner of the 5 Km Overall Masters Championship in Atlanta, came next in 19:26, showing that her 3:01:13 at Boston the previous fall was not a good indicator of the superlative effort she would give to this race! She was trailed thirty meters back by Shea at 19:34, who was being tracked by Bayly and Dean together at 19:40 and 19:42 another thirty meters back. 

Fiona Bayly catches an Open Runner on her way to 4th place overall in the Masters Championships


At the 10 Km mark, Bigham was still right on the Open leader, 2 seconds behind her 36:20. Baage was now a full minute back but Hruska was also now a full minute behind Baage. Among those three the gaps were growing. Bigham's strategy was paying off,a t least through the first 10K. Shea was now 40 meters back from Hruska and Bayly another thirty, but Dean was now trailing Bayly by almost 30 meters. 

Abby Dean striding along the streets of Syracuse on her way to a top 5 finish overall at the 2022 USATF Masters Half Marathon Championships


The runners coursed along Grant Blvd., up Danforth and then a long, steep downhill created some different gaps. Bigham made her move! She hit the 15K mat at 55:32, putting 15 seconds on the top open runner., and stretching her lead over Baage to over a minute and a half. 

Silvia Baage making the turn from Plum onto Franklin, with les than 5K to go!

Hruska had kept the same gap up to Baage and had the same 40 meters on Shea. Bayly had crept a little closer, now just 20 meters back and gaining slowly. Dean was over 50 meters back; this would not be her day for a top 5 finish. Bigham had no trouble over the last 4 miles around the downtown area, cruising to the Overall Open and  Masters wins in 1:18:06. 

Jennifer Bigham wins the 2022 USATF Masters Overall Championships at the Syracuse Half Marathon


Baage, true to her Marathon credentials, kept hitting her pace goals and took 2nd in 1:21:07. Hruska closed strong, taking six seconds out of Baage's lead but was too far back to make a difference. 

Jessica Hruska cruising along Franklin Street inside the final 5 kilometers of the course.


She kept everyone else well behind, though, capturing third in 1:22:09. Bayly eventually passed Shea on the flat and pulled away, finishing 4th in 1:24:08, with Shea 5th 38 seconds back and Dean 6th overall in 1:24:57.

Jennifer Bigham 1:18:06     Silvia Baage 1:21:07       Jessica Hruska 1:22:09

MEN My preview included the following: "The main contenders are: Eric Blake West Hartford CT, Thomas Burns Westfield IN, Jesse Davis Indianapolis IN, Chip O'Hara Auburn NY, James Osborn Ridgefield CT, John Poray Fishers IN." I could have mentioned Jerry Faulkner New York NY but did not. Faulkner finished 7th overall at the 5 km Championships in Atlanta, but also cracked a scintillating 50:41 in the Ted Corbitt 15K. Blake chased Davis all over the Cross Country course at Tallahassee. He was determined to stick with him as long as possible. Running as a graduate student at Adams State, he not only qualified for the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, he also got introduced to Mountain Running. He won Mt. Washington and the Pikes Peak Ascent as an Open runner, and competed at six World Mountain Running Championships for Team USA. Davis, a two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, 5th place finisher for Team USA at the 2015 World 50 Mile Championships, and winner of the Masters title at the Club Cross Country Championships, would aim to set a pace that no other Masters runners could match. 

The Race is Under Way-Top 3 Open Runners to the right, Masters to the left.


The lead pack went out hard up the James Street hill, hitting their 5:10 mile splits. 

Runners Start up the James Street hill-Eric Blake tracking behind Jesse Davis, obscured by the Open Runners


At the 5 km mat it was Davis and two Open runners, at 16:05. Blake, tucked in behind, crossed in 16:07 along with an Open runner. Faulkner, over 200 meters back, crossed in 16:54, with Poray 4th 40 meters further back in 17:03. O'Hara, who had the strong 2:25:36 run at Boston last fall, came next in 17:18, about 70 meters behind Poray, with Burns 11 seconds back. 

Tom Burns #118 pushes up James Street behind an Open Runner #52 and ahead of Bob Ring; Burns would ultimately finish 5th and Ring 10th

Burns was followed by Jeff Zeha Fishers IN 17:42, Josh Merlis Albany NY 17:55, and James Osborn Ridgefield CT 18:12. The next 5K would prove crucial. When the two open runners made a move, Davis went with them for a way. During that time a gap of 30 meters opened up between Davis and Blake. Davis maintained that gap through the 10 k mark; he crossed the mat in 32:13, with Blake six seconds behind. Blake was in no danger from behind. Faulkner was still in 3rd but 400 meters back, with a 50-meter gap back to Poray. O'Hara had closed to within25 meters of Poray, crossing the mat in 33:57 to Poray's 33:52. 

John Poray in full stride toward the Finish.

Burns was now 90 meters behind O'Hara but had crept slightly closer to Poray, now 23 seconds behind. Zeha, Merlis and Osborn followed in the same order, 7th through 9th. Over the third 5 km segment, Blake could see Davis running alone 35 meters ahead, but try as he might, he could not reduce that gap. Davis crossed the 15 km Mat in 49:28, seven seconds ahead of Blake. Poray made a strong move in this portion of the course, which included a long downhill stretch, passing Faulkner. Poray clocked 51:19 at the mat, with Faulkner struggling to stay with him, just two seconds back. Burns was well over a hundred meters behind those two, focused on keeping his place. Burns, like Poray, had moved well on this segment, turning a 90 meter deficit to O'Hara into a 130 meter advantage. Blake had hoped that Davis might come back to him in the final 3.8 miles of the course. To the contrary, Davis, despite the wind and running alone, carved out an additional 90 meters of gap, crossing the finish line with the Overall Masters win in 1:09:46. 

Jesse Davis takes the Overall Win at the 2022 USATF Masters Half Marathon National Championships


Blake was second, 25 seconds back. Poray had a strong last segment as well, finishing over a hundred meters ahead of Faulkner in 1:12:05. Faulkner held onto 5th with a strong 1:12:30, seven seconds ahead of a fast-closing Burns. O'Hara was sixth in 1:13:33, followed by Zeha, Merlis, and Osborn.

Jesse Davis 1:09:46     Eric Blake 1:10:11     John Poray 1:12:05


WOMEN  The preview read: "WOMEN Jeannie Rice Concord Township OH 73, the 2019 USATF Masters Athlete of the Year, finished third in this category in Atlanta. But the Half Marathon is closer to her preferred Marathon distance. Other contenders are likely to be Fiona Bayly 54, who ran 2:56:51 at the California International Marathon last December: Doreen McCoubrie West Chester PA 60, who still holds the 50-54 American Mile Record at 5:18; and Lisa Veneziano Fenton MI 55, the 55-59 American 12 km Record holder." My podium pick of, in alphabetical order, Bayly, Rice and Veneziano, proved accurate. Bayly's 1:24:05, at age 54,  graded at 92.72%. 

Fiona Bayly visor trailing Lisa Veneziano #281 heading up the James Street hill a mile into the race

Veneziano's  1:27:00, at age 55, graded 93.06%. The winner by a long shot was Rice. Her 1:42:16 at age 63, graded at a whopping 99.61%. A grade of 100% means the athlete is running at a world's best pace for her age. Rice was within 0.4%! 

Jeannie Rice turns from Plum onto Franklin, inside of 5 km to the finish and her Overall Age Grading Win!


Suzanne La Burt Greenwood Lakes NY 58 had a strong outing, clocking 1:29:15 for a 91.89% and 4th place. McCoubrie finished off the top 5 with a 1:33:22 for 90.18% and 5th place.

Jeannie Rice 73  1:42:16  99.61%      Lisa Veneziano 55  1:27:00   93.06%     Fiona Bayly 54  1:24:05  92.72%

MEN  The Men's preview read: "Favorites include Davis; Nat Larson Amherst MA, three-time USATF Masters Harrier of the Year; Rick Lee Bayville NJ 61, who broke the American 60-64 50 km record last year; and Roger Sayre Golden CO 64, the 60-64 Gold Medalist in the Half Marathon at the 2019 World Masters Athletic Championships in Torun Poland. Gene Dykes Bala Cynwyd PA 73, although not 100%, is still a threat to medal in age grading. When the dust settled, those picks were good. Lee's 1:19:39 at 61 graded 90.29%. 

Nat Larson #305 and Rick Lee #194 on their way to a 1-3 finish in the Overall Age Grading competition at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championship


Sayre's 1:21:42 at 64 hit 90.62%. Larson, who clocked 1:16:30 at 59, won by well over a full percentage point, earning 92.24%. 

Roger Sayre M60 #254 battles Randall Howard M45 #301 on his way to the Overall Age Grading Podium at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships   


Dykes showed that he has regained much of his fitness; his 1:32:37 at 73 merited an 88.20 and 4th place. He edged Mark Callon Monte Sereno CA, whose 1:15:43 at age 53, graded at 88.18%.

Nat Larson 59 1:16:30 92.24%     Roger Sayre 64 1:21:42 90.62%     Rick Lee 61 1:19:39 90.29%



40-44 The top three in this division, Jen Bigham, Silvia Baage, and Jessica Hruska, went 1-2-3 overall. Carly Shea, who finished 5th overall was just off the division podium in 4th

Carly Shea Left-red singlet and Fiona Bayly Right-visor competing with might and main along Franklin Street with less than 5 km to go


Kara Rubinich Downingtown PA 1:25:42 claimed 5th.

Jennifer Bigham 1:18:06     Silvia Baage 1:21:07       Jessica Hruska 1:22:09

45-49 The preview predicted  "a battle between Sara Girotto Wynnewood PA, Rebeccah Wassner New York, NY, and Heather Webster Honeoye Falls, NY.  It also mentioned that: "Debra Vertoske, who ran a 1:34:28 at the Wineglass HM might find herself in contention.  It did not mention Heather Patterson Rochester NY who finished 11th in the division at the 12 km Championships last September in NJ, clocking 54:06, and ran 3:33:21 at Boston in October. Webster did not make it to the Championship. The Division winner at the 5 km in Atlanta three weeks earlier in 19:05 and the 2nd place finisher at the 12 km in NJ last septemebr, went off from the gun with confidence. By the time they hit the 5 km mark, Girotto had a 50 meter lead on Wassner, who had run 42 minute 10K's as part of triathlons in Los Angeles and New York. The battle for third between Patterson and Vertoske would play out further back. Patterson hit the 5K mat in 22:19 with Vertoske already well back at 23:33. Girotto enlarged the gap between her and Wassner over the 2nd 5 kilometer stretch to over a hundred meters; she hit the 10K mat in 39:34 to Wassner's 40:05. Patterson stretched her lead over Vertoske to two minutes, finishing 10K in 44:02. Wassner's triathlon strength came through in the next section, including a long downhill and then a stretch of flat. In that next section, Wassner cut Girotto's lead to 50 meters. But that was Wassners last big push as Girotto held strong and grew the gap back up to well over a hundred meters by the time they turned onto State Street for the final 150 meters or so. Girotto took the win with over a half minute to spare. 

Sara Girotto turns from Plum onto Franklin as she closes in on her 45-49 victory at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships


It was over 7 minutes back to Patterson who claimed third by almost four minutes to spare. Vertoske took 4th.

Sara Girotto 1:25:21     Rebeccah Wassner 1:25:52     Heather Patterson 1:33:34

50-54 Bayly and Dean who finished 4th and 6th overall led the way in this division, taking 1-2. The preview posited: "Contenders for the final podium spot in the division include Brenda Hodge Lancaster PA, Jennifer Malavolta Reeders PA, Alexandra Marzulla Red Bank, NJ, and Kristin White Manlius, NY." Hodge did not make it. Malavolta, a podium finisher overall at the 2018 15K Masters Championships in Tulsa, took 5th in the division at Atlanta in 20:22. The 15K results from 2018 suggests the longer distance may suit her better. The preview could have mentioned Heather May Geneva NY who ran 1:33:15 at the Geneva HM. Malavolta is not fit enough, at present, to hit a sub-20 first 5 Km in an HM, as Bayly and Dean are. But she was only 14 seconds over 21 minutes; that was fast enough to put over 500 meters between her and the other contenders for the final podium spot. 

Jennifer Malavolta on her way to the Bronze Medal in the 50-54 Division at the
2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships

Marzulla and May were fighting it out for 4th and 5th. Marzulla had 5 seconds on May at the 5K, and 15 seconds at the 10K mat. But then May bounced back to take a six second lead at the 15 K mat, and cruised to 4th from there in 1:35:02. Marzulla was 39 seconds back in 5th. Malavolta claimed the the final podium position!

Fiona Bayly 1:24:08     Abby Dean 1:24:57     Jennifer Malavolta 1:32:18 

55-59 Lisa Veneziano and Suzanne La Burt, who took 2nd and 4th overall in the age grading, went 1-2 in this division. In considering the group contending for the final podium spot, the preview concluded, "Morganti will have the fitness to emerge from that group." La Burt knew better than to try to stay with Veneziano, who had beaten her by three minutes at the 12 Km Championships the previous September. When Veneziano went out at a pace to cover the first 5 kilometers in about 20 flat, La Burt figured a slightly more sensible 21 minute first 5 k would serve her better. 

Suzanne La Burt claims the Silver Medal in the 55-59 Division at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships


Both were well ahead of Christina Morganti Severna Park MD, who clocked 23:39. Morganti, for her part had 200 meters on the other main contender, Jodi Jensen Webster NY. Veneziano stretched her lead the rest of the way, winning the division by over two minutes. La Burt was a solid 2nd, with Morganti in third, well ahead of Jensen who claimed 4th in 1:45:40.

Lisa Veneziano 1:27:01     Suzanne La Burt 1:29:19     Christina Morganti 1:38:16

60-64 This division went according to the preview, which noted that Lorraine Jasper Birchrunville PA has had the edge recently over her teammate, Doreen McCoubrie at shorter distances and on the turf. But as the race gets longer, that advantage switches. McCoubrie still runs Boston regularly, placing in her division; those miles tend to give her the edge at 10 km and above. Their capable partner, Mary Swan Jamesville NY, is usually not far behind those two, regardless of distance. The threesome started together but once they turned up James Street, the two let McCoubrie go and Swan soon enough Jasper started to edge away from Swan. McCoubrie crossed the 5 k mat at 22:03; Jasper was 70 meters back and it was another 40 to Swan. The rest of the division field was hundreds of meters back. Each stuck to her pacing so the gaps slowly grew. At the finish, McCoubrie took the division win in 1:33:28, 

Doreen McCoubrie hammers onto the top end of Franklin Street on her way to the win in the 60-64 Division at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships


with Jasper 3 minutes back in 2nd and Swan third at 1:37:39. They were followed by Deborah Miller Kenmore NY 2:04:57 took 4th.

Doreen McCoubrie  1:33:28     Lorraine Jasper 1:36:43     Mary Swan 1:37:39

65-69  As expected, Suzanne Ray Jacksonville OR left the starting area at a good clip and soon got into her rhythm. She crossed the timing mat in 25:39, the 10K at 50:28 and wrapped up the Half Marathon at 1:49:32.  

Susan Stirrat on her way to collecting the 65-69 Silver Medal at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships


Susan Stirrat Rockaway NJ is primarily a track runner who has gradually moved into longer distances on the roads. She has a good coach and is not afraid to tackle a Half Marathon. She hit her first two splits, the 5K just under 30:00, the 10K just under an hour, and endured after that, bringing it home in 2:08:41 to take the Silver Medal.

Suzanne Ray 1:49:32     Susan Stirrat 2:08:41

70-74 Jeannie Rice, the 2019 USATF Masters Athlete of the Year, and winner of the Age Grading Championship, crossed the 5 km mat at 23:31, the 10 km at 46:51, and took the Division win at 1:42:18. She won by almost 25 minutes. It was much closer between Mary Harris Camp Hill PA and Barbara Sauer Buffalo NY for 2nd and 3rd. 

Barbara Sauer motors toward her Bronze 70-74 Medal at the 2022 USATF Masters National Half Marathon Championships


Sauer adopted a faster early pace, hitting the 5 Km mat at 29:17, with Harris over 70 meters back at 29:45. As they wound around the neighborhoods, though, Harris started closing the gap. Sauer's 10K time was 58:35, but now Harris was less than 20 meters back in 58:42, and must have felt like she was closing in. Harris passed shortly after and wound up finishing 2nd in 2:07:13 with Sauer just a minute back in 3rd.

Jeannie Rice 1:42:18     Mary Harris 2:07:13     Barbara Sauer 2:08:16

Terrific work all around

That wraps up this first installment. With the USATF 10 Mile Championships rushing at us, it is time for me to focus on the preview for that race. Championships within two weeks of each other make for a very hectic time. Installment two, with the Men's Age Division and the Team contests will come later. 

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