As race day approached, Kenyan runner Sammy Rotich was registered and all set to run Sunday’s Austin Half Marathon. But on Saturday, he made a last-minute decision and switched to the full 26.2-mile marathon.
Rotich, a half-marathon specialist who has won the Lincoln Half Marathon seven times, held off former Longhorns ace Will Nation for the win Sunday morning, topping a field of some 4,300 runners in the first Austin Marathon run since 2020. It was only Rotich’s fourth marathon that he’d run.
Fellow Kenyan runner Elijah Saolo set the pace in the early miles, cruising through five kilometers in just more than 16 minutes, and hung on to his lead at the 10K mark, passed in 32:01. But by 15K, the real race began as Saolo fell back and a duel between Nation, 29, and Rotich, 35, took shape, with Kenyan Jackson Limo trailing in third.
More: Jackson Limo heads contingent of Kenyan running Austin Marathon
Coming up a long hill on Guadalupe on the outskirts of the Texas campus, Nation and Rotich were shoulder-to-shoulder and passed the halfway mark in 1:08:18.
“I’d seen Will’s profile and I knew it was going to be a tough race between us,” Rotich said. “So I was hoping to run together through 15-20 miles. I told Will, If you want to keep up with me, let’s help each other.’”
But Rotich, who spends much of the year training in the mountains above his hometown of Eldoret in Kenya, took advantage of his strength on the steep sections of the course. As the pair continued on Guadalupe toward 14 miles, he began to ease ahead and continued to widen the gap as the miles rolled by.
More: Nation, Jackson makes quick work in 3M Half Marathon finishes
“Right after that big hill on Guadalupe, Sammy started to pull away,” said Nation, who won the 3M Half Marathon last month. “I was hoping he’d burn himself out a little bit, but he’s a tremendous talent.”
Instead of burning out, Rotich turned on the afterburners.
“At 18 miles knew, I looked back, and I just had to keep pushing to win,” he said. By the time he turned the corner on Goodwin Avenue at 21 miles, Rotich had taken control, lowering the pace to 4:57 a mile with Nation more than a minute back.
Turning on to East Sixth Street with a mile to go, Rotich had a good half mile on Nation and broke the tape on Congress Avenue in 2 hours, 14 minutes, 23 seconds, the fastest time since Joseph Mutinda’s 2:14:17 back in 2014
“I knew the course was hilly, so I thought I’d run around 2:20. But the cool weather really helped, said Rotich, who plans to run Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn., in June. “It’s my fastest marathon and my first marathon win. I’m so happy.”
Nation finished second, nailing a 2024 Olympic marathon trials qualifier in 2:17:14.
“I ran the race that I needed to get on the podium and to get the trials standard,” Nation said. “I really couldn’t ask for a better result.”
Rotich picked up $3,000 for his win, while Nation collected $2,250. Limo came in third, clocking a 2:21:25 for a $1,200 payday. On the women’s side, Kelsey Bruce — the women’s cross-country coach at Midwestern State — took first in 2:35:17, also qualifying her for the Olympic trials. Kenyan Daniel Kemoi won the accompanying half-marathon race in 1:03:48; Amanda Phillips of Hood River, Ore., won the women’s helped in 1:13:44.