NYC Half-Marathon provides 'benchmark' for Olympic hopefuls

It was a match race from the get-go Sunday morning for both the men and the women in the New York City Half-Marathon, as pairs of front-runners bolted out at the start and reserved the finish for a party of two. Kenya's Peter Kirui pulled away from Ethiopia's Deriba Merga after emerging from a tunnel with roughly 600 meters to go to win in 59:39. Firehiwot Dado of Ethiopia, winner of last November's New York City Marathon, made her move in the same spot and gapped New Zealand's Kim Smith down the stretch, clocking 1:08:35.

The three U.S. Olympic marathon team members who started in chilly, damp conditions regarded the race as more of a checkpoint than a goal, a way to gauge their recovery from the Olympic marathon trials in Houston two months ago.

Kara Goucher finished third here for the second consecutive year, but her mindset couldn't have been more different. Twelve months ago, she was still trying to climb out of feeling "like a woman who had just given birth" -- which she in fact was, having delivered son Colton in September 2010.

Goucher arrived pressure-free, relaxed and ready to run an assertive race. She didn't try to go with the blistering early pace set by Dado and Smith, but about four miles in, running with a mixed pack of men and women, she decided to push and soloed the rest of the way.

"I was hoping there would be some kind of carnage from the men's race to be able to bridge to Kim,'' she said. That never happened, but Goucher said she was excited to have been able to bring it home by herself in 1:09:12. "I had a lot more fun this year," she said.

On April 1, Goucher will head for Mammoth Lakes, Calif., for a little more than a month of pure base training at altitude -- a new approach for her leading into London, and one she said she welcomes.

Fellow Olympic team member Desiree Davila said she felt somewhere between having a lot of work to do and being pleasantly surprised with her ninth-place finish in 1:10:44, 10 seconds off her personal best.

"This is really a starting point for me,'' said Davila, who took two weeks off after Houston and is in the midst of speed work at her training base in suburban Detroit. She plans to run the 10,000-meter event at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford University on April 29 and won't begin her true marathon buildup until May.

Meb Keflezighi, who won the trials in Houston, found himself unable to keep pace with a chase pack that fragmented in the late going and crossed the finish line in 1:01:41.

"That's what the marathon does to you,'' he said, smiling. He called the result "a good benchmark."