Biruk makes successful USA debut with win

PARKERSBURG-Ethiopian Konjit Biruk made her American road race debut a successful one on Saturday by capturing the 27th News and Sentinel Half Marathon in a time of 1 hour, 14 minutes and 26.5 seconds.

“I am very happy,” Biruk, who was speaking through an interpreter said. “This is a very challenging course and I am very, very happy with the win.”

The 25-year-old Biruk became the first Ethiopian to capture the race since 2010 when Mare Dibaba covered the 13.1-mile course in a record time of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 19 seconds.

“We have heard about this race in our country,” the winner explained. “So, I was not completely unsure about the course. The heat bothered me a little bit early, but I just took on water and that helped.”

Finishing second with a time of 1 hour, 15 minutes and 51.1 seconds was 26-year-old Ethiopian Almaz Negede Fekade while 26-year-old Waynishet Abebe made it a 1-2-3 sweep when she crossed the Market Street finish line in 1 hour, 17 minutes and 37.2 seconds.

“It was very difficult for me today,” Fekade said. “I tried to stay with her (Biruk) for as long as I could, but she is a very strong runner.”

Biruk became the second Ethiopian to claim the 13.1-mile championship and the ninth different woman to seize the first place money. Only Russian Alevtina Ivanova (2004, 2006) and American Libbie Hickman (1998, 2000) have won more than one race. Rounding out the top five placers was a pair of Americans-23-year-old Aubrey Moskal from Morgantown and 31-year-old Stephanie Pezzullo from Charlotte, N.C.

It was Pezzullo who set the early pace for the race as she led a pack of five through the first mile mark at 5 minutes and 35 seconds. That pack included Biruk, Fekade, Abebe and Divina Jepkogei.

That pack quickly dropped to four as the 29-year-old Jepkogei dropped off of the pace before the pack reached the two-mile mark. Pezullo was still setting the pace as the quartet passed the two-mile mark in 11 minutes and 37 seconds.

That would be the way it would be until Abebe found the pace to be faster than the 30-year-old could handle. By the three-mile mark the race had come down to Pezullo, Biruk and Fekade.

That trio would stay within a step of one another until the halfway point located on Gihon Road when Biruk and Fekade elected to push the pace over the rolling hills that make up that part of the course.

Pezzullo, who was looking to become the first American champion since Milena Glusac from Fallbrook (Calif.) finished ahead of the pack in 2001 with a winning time of 1 hour, 12 minutes and 13 seconds, fell off the pace by the seven-mile mark and had to settle for a fifth-place overall place with a time of 1 hour, 18 minutes and 32.7 seconds.

With their American challenger out of the picture, Biruk and Fekade ran stride for stride down old Camden Avenue before Biruk finally elected to make her move just before the duo entered West Virginia 95.

From there the question wasn’t who was going to win as Biruk opened up a sizeable advantage heading across the 5th Street Bridge and back into downtown. The only question that remained over the final two miles revolved around the final margin of victory.

“I felt good so I decided to break away from her (Fekade),” the winner said. “I wasn’t sure about where I was, but I am a strong runner on flat courses and we were in a spot where it was very flat.”

With the victory Biruk claimed the $3,000 first place prize with Fekade receiving $2,000, Abebe $1,500 and Moskal $1,000.

“For my first half, I’m really pleased,” Moskal, who just finished her collegiate career at WVU last spring, said. “I’ve just started running road races so this is a great way to begin.”