Equalizer challenge to create exciting finish

Monterey Bay Half 2016 Elites. Photo: Tyson Rininger

Monterey, CA — More than three dozen top runners will gather for the 15th Monterey Bay Half Marathon to be held Sunday, November 12. An exceptionally-strong female field will be challenged by a group of equally-talented men as the two sexes battle to the finish in an attempt to win cash bonuses making up the $30,000 purse, one of the largest offered for half marathons in the US.

For the second year, the scenic and race-friendly Monterey Bay Half Marathon will feature the innovative “Equalizer Challenge” with the elite women’s field receiving a nine minute and five second head start in front of the elite men. The first three finishers across the line receive cash bonuses of $3,000, $1,500 or $500 in addition to prize money awarded to the top eight male and female finishers.

To catch the women, the lead men need to average 41 seconds per mile faster for the 13.1-mile half marathon distance than the lead women. Last year, the women’s pace was 44 seconds per mile above the men’s and they were caught with less than a mile to go. The additional five seconds may bring the race for the first three spots right to the finish line.

Three of last year’s top four women are returning, including defending women’s champion Sarah Pagano from Boston, MA, who finished at 1:13:04 in Monterey; third place finisher Lauren Totten (Jimison) from El Dorado Hills, CA, (1:13:13); and Mara Olsen, from Bolder, CO, who was fourth with a 1:13:50 finish and ran 1:13:02 for a half in early October.

New female runners to the Monterey Bay Half include Canadian Natasha Wodnak, who has the fastest half marathon personal record (PR) in the field with her 1:11:20; and Hillary Montgomery from Texas, a member of Team USA at last year’s World Half Marathon Championships and who has a 1:11:49 PR.

Several women are making their half marathon debut and could be a factor at the finish. These include Monica Ngige from Kenya who has a sparkling 31:55 10K PR; and Emma Bates of Boston who recently ran a PR for 10 miles in 55:36, a 5:33-per-mile average.

The elite men’s race features last year’s second, fourth and six place finishers. Danny Tapia, a Monterey County native who now trains with the Mammoth Track Club in the Eastern Sierra, set his 1:03:36 PR last year. Parker Stinson, 1:04:06; and Gabe Gonzalez, 1:04:39, also hope to move up in the finish standings. Fresno’s Fernando Cabada, 35, has the fastest PR in the field, 1:02:00, and still races at the front of the pack.  Kenyan Benson Cheruiyot, a 2nd and 5th place finisher at Monterey in 2011 and 2013 respectively, has run 1:02:51. Coloradan Tyler Mueller has a 1:03:21 PR.

One runner to watch closely is first-time half marathoner Futsum Zienasellassie from the Hoka Northern Arizona Elite team. Zienasellassie, a native of Eritrea, had a stellar college career, made a strong international track debut last spring, and recently ran a PR for 10 miles in 48:23.

“This is a deep and talented field of both men and women,” said Blake Russell, the elite program coordinator and Olympic marathoner who lives just off the course in Pacific Grove. “It should be a very exciting race that could come down to the last few hundred meters for the win and the bonus money.”

“We’re also excited to have Deena Kastor, the American marathon and half marathon record holder and Olympic bronze medalist, as our honorary starter for the race,” said Russell.

A unique feature of the partial out-and-back Monterey Bay course is the opportunity for most of the 7,000-plus registered runners to see and cheer on the elites as they battle within their own gender, then ultimately a male-female contest in the last mile of the race.

The Monterey Bay Half Marathon, now in its 15th year, is one of the country’s most scenic half marathons. More than 80 percent of the course skirts the water’s edge along the bay and the Pacific Ocean. The abundant marine wildlife often showcases seals, sea otters, shorebirds and an occasional whale.

Last year’s women’s champion, Pagano, said, “The whole course was incredible and the people cheering along the way was a really fun part too.”

The half marathon will be preceded by Saturday’s 5K and 3K races. This year, for the first time, event organizers are orchestrating the Ocean View Challenge, a combination of Saturday’s 5K and Sunday’s Half Marathon, for an extra finisher medal and bragging rights.

Prize Money Purse (same for men and women)
First                                $4,000
Second                           $2,500
Third                               $2,000
Fourth                             $1,500
Fifth                                $1,000
Sixth                                $   750
Seventh                          $   500
Eighth                             $   250
Course record bonus $1,000 (sub 1:02:32 for men and 1:09:43 for women)
Equalizer Bonus Top 3 finishers (male or female) $3,000, $1,500, $500  

Registration for all events is still available online at montereybayhalfmarathon.org.