Many of the athletes who traveled to Columbus for the 2016 USATF Half Marathon Championships came to run their first big race after the Olympic Marathon Trials in L.A. Many of those runners, disappointed by the race conditions, the extended recovery time they needed because of those conditions, and what they felt was sub-par treatment by the Trials host race, were unsure what to expect from the Ohio Health Capital City Half. Would their legs have pop? Could they compete for the prize? Could some half-marathon in the middle of Ohio that they’d never heard of pull off a national championship?
The Ohio Health Capital City Half is not the kind of race that college running all-stars, national champions, and Olympians tend to flock to. It’s a large race in a major metropolitan area, to be sure, but it’s generally been the kind of half-marathon that caters to the more recreational runners among us. But Race Director David Babner and the Columbus Sports Commission had a vision of making the Cap City Half more than just another half marathon. They wanted to make it a National Championship race. With support from Columbus native and USATF President, Stephanie Hightower and many corporate sponsors, Ohio’s unassuming just-another-half-marathon, Cap City beat out the likes of Houston and Grandma’s and nailed the bid. But could this local just-another-half-marathon pull off a national championship?
I found my way up the course and to the women’s lead vehicle, a gator which was full, but for shotgun. I took my post, knees on the seat and ready to hang on for dear life … while tweeting, naturally. A few minutes after getting situated, we saw the police cars signaling the leading men were approaching. We would have a very short window to cut onto the course behind the men, but in front of the lead women. The leading men were in a large group with barely any gap between them and the leading women, but we made it in, right in front of the lead pack of five: Brianne Nelson, Janet Bawcom, Tara Welling, Desi Linden, and Lindsay Flanagan.
The lead-five were running in a tight group. Early on Tara and Brianne seemed to be sharing pacer duties, with Des tucked right behind them and Janet and Lindsay in tight behind her. Through about mile four, a few seconds behind the lead-five, was Lauren Jimison working hard to stay in contact, Katie DiCamillo in seventh, and Kelsey Bruce in eighth a few seconds back. This pattern continued until around the 10k mark, Lindsay fell off a little first and Janet was soon to follow. At first they were back slightly, but then Tara started to push the pace. Des responded and then Brianne fell back a little. At mile 6.5 it was a two woman race.
When Des comes to town it’s big news. Before the race she participated in two press conferences and a “panel of champions” at the expo. Everyone wanted to know what she planned to do in this, her only race between February’s Marathon Trials and the Olympic Marathon in August. Before the race she said about it:
I want to compete well. Honestly I’ve just done a handful of workouts but they’ve all been pretty solid. It’ll be my last real all-out effort race until the games. So kind of just to see where I’m at and basically just to get me back into marathon training.
She had all eyes on her and everyone seemed to expect her to win, especially being a “professional runner-up” as she calls herself. While she seemed determined to fight for first, she didn’t feel entitled to it, acknowledging her competitors’ speed, strengths, and determination. And she doesn’t feel the pressure you’d think she would. When we asked her whether she was feeling pre-race nerves, she said she was 98% excited and 2% nervous about the Half Champs. We asked her if that was because she already has her spot on the Olympic team, but she shrugged and said that’s how she feels about every race. For her, a bad day doesn’t mean she didn’t put in the work or that she’s lost fitness, just that her work will pay off later. In fact, to Des, races are hard certainly, but nothing to be afraid of.
Back to the half-way mark and Tara and Des were running side-by-side looking equally fluid and relaxed. Within three-quarters of a mile, on a slight incline, Tara surged, but immediately after Des responded on the corresponding downhill. Things were getting interesting, as the rest of the lead-pack of five, Brianne, Lindsay, and Janet strung out behind them, but they were about to get really interesting. Just as I thought I’d be watching the two of them running together for a while, at 7.5 Tara surged again. This time it worked.
By the time we made it from the point of this surge to the end of the block a quarter mile later, Tara was ahead of Des by seven seconds and the gap only grew from there. By mile 9.5 Des was close to 30 seconds back, but she looked different. She was in the distance now from my vantage point on the gator, but her stride was opened and her arms were swinging more intensely as she rounded a corner. She was not done and she most certainly was not content to be a runner-up again at that point. Not too far after Des rounded the corner, Brianne had also upped her effort and was gaining back a bit of ground. Anything was still possible at that point.
But anything did not come into fruition. Despite Brianne’s and Des’s obvious charges, Tara maintained her solid lead, but with a look of fear in her eyes and it seemed she was not confident of the substantial distance between her and her chasers. As we rounded a corner around a park, Tara looked over her shoulder nervously and still didn’t seem convinced she was safe even when no one was behind her. She did not let up and despite that fear, her stride remained relaxed and she ran fluidly.
At mile 11.5, on a long gradual incline I could see the runners spread out into the distance. Tara was right behind me running with one of the many men she’d chick along the way and Des was still 30 seconds back, with Brianne behind her, and then Lindsay Flanagan, a green speck in the distance, appeared to be ahead of Olympian Janet Bawcom. By now it seemed like a disaster would have to befall Tara to rob her of the victory. At mile 12, Tara’s husband cheered for her which gave her a noticeable boost, but that quickly lifted and finally the miles and the blistering pace seemed to be taking their toll. She winced slightly on the remaining bridges, but she was going to do it. She looked incredibly strong, gifted, like a warrior with a job to do, the tiny weaknesses only noticeable because of that.
Finally, at mile 13, Tara’s husband was waiting for her, “Just enjoy it now! Enjoy the finish!” He screamed to her as she rounded the corner hurtling to the finish line and her second National Championship in a month.
Tara Welling deserves to enjoy this finish. It was less than a year ago that she believed she’d never compete again. She was sick of training hard for months only to suffer one debilitating injury after the next. The last one was a torn hamstring which came not long after recovering from a pelvic stress fracture. She quit running, got married, began a new career, but running called her back. Just a few months later here she is, the reigning USATF 15k and Half Marathon National Champion.
Tara threw her arms up as she broke the tape, finishing in 1:10:25. Volunteers draped her in an American Flag and men’s winner Christo Landry congratulated her. At 1:11:06, Des fighting until the end, professionally crossed the line as the runner-up with smiles and fist pumps. Brianne fought back to within 18 seconds of Des, also smiling, finishing in third in 1:11:24, just five weeks after competing in the World Half Marathon Championship in Cardiff, Wales.
Lindsay Flanagan also fought back after falling off the lead pack at the halfway mark, sprinting to the finish for fourth in 1:12:16. Janet Bawcom had an off-day and struggled disappointedly into fifth in 1:13:49 followed closely by a hard-charging Lauren Jimison who was gunning for fifth, but ran out of real estate and maintained her sixth place position in 1:13:53.
Semehar Tesfaye crossed the finish in her black t-shirt flashing double peace signs, moving up to seventh place in 1:14:12. Giving it everything she had, Kelsey Bruce ran a gutsy race for eighth place in 1:14:15. Hot on Kelsey’s heels was Esther Atkins with a 1:14:19 flashing her signature overhead heart and a smile. Katie DiCamillo also ran a gutsy race and hung on for a spot in the top ten in 1:14:27.
Last but not least, who should come in 11th? Spearmint! She ran superbly, finishing in 1:15:56, just a few seconds off her PR and her second fastest half ever.
So did the Cap City Half pull it off? Did they put on a race rivaling the Half Champs hosted by the big-named races like Houston and Grandma’s? Were the Championship athletes treated better here than at the Trials? Here’s what the third-place finishers have to say.
Brianne Nelson said about the race:
Hands down phenomenal job. A guy even took my bag when I showed up. I was like ‘don’t I have to wait an hour for someone else to come first?’ The hotel, there’s signs everywhere. That’s really important. There were good snacks, there was water, everything from start to finish, well done!
Scott Bauhs concurred, “Best experience I’ve had at a road race. It’s been incredible.”
Despite some glitches in the television and online coverage, Race Director David Babner, the Columbus Sports Commission, and all the volunteers did a spectacular job organizing the race from elite athlete transportation, to signs all over the hotel, to the Championship rings, to the huge prize purse, to the post-race food, to the jackets and t-shirts supplied to all competitors. The just-another half marathon in Ohio pulled it off and then some.