PARKERSBURG - During its 26 years of existence the News and Sentinel Half Marathon has had winners from eight different states and nine different countries. Make that 10 now as 21-year-old Asami Kato became the first winner for the island nation of Japan when she defeated last year's winner, Malika Mejdoub, by 17 seconds.
"It (winning the race) feels very good," said Kato. "I am very happy with my race today. The weather was very good and the course was very good."
Kato, who earlier this year captured the Sendai International Half Marathon with a personal best of 1:11:21, led from start to finish, crossing the Market Street finish line in 1 hour, 12 minutes, 57.3 seconds. Mejdoub posted a better time (1:13:14.2) than her winning time of a year ago (1:14:44), but had to settle for second, 12 seconds ahead of third-place finisher Yesimebet Tades Bifa, who covered the 13.1-mile course in 1:13:26.8.
Kenyan Hellen Jemutai, the 2009 champion, finished fourth with a time of 1:13:45.9.
"I returned here to try and keep my title, but I wasn't able to do it today," said Mejdoub. "The last two days have been very difficult for me. The trip here took longer than expected and my training has not been where I wanted it to be."
The race began as expected with a pack of nine runners hitting the one-mile mark within three seconds of one another. Kato was in the lead with countrywoman Sakiko Matsumi, Ethiopians Hirut Gangul, Bekelech Bedada and Bifa, and Kenyans Lilian Mariita and Gangul as well as Mejdoub.
By the time the group reached the two-mile mark (11:09) the pack had thinned to eight as Aziza found the pace to be more than she could handle. A little more than six minutes later, Matsumi fell off the pace leaving a pack of six to battle it out.
And it was quite a battle over the next several miles as Kato continued to set the pace while the others felt content to allow the first-time entrant to do that.
"It (the pace) was OK at the start so I was OK with staying in that pack," said Mejdoub. "There was a lot more competition this year so my thinking was to stay with the pack until someone made a break."
That did not occur, however, until the runners neared the end of Rayon Drive as Jemutai and Bedada dropped off the pace leaving a pack of four, headed by Kato, fighting for the championship.
As the runners battled back and forth on Old Camden Avenue, Bifa and Gangul shot to the front, but that was a shortlived experience as Kato retook the advantage moments later. Then it was Mejdoub's turn to set the pace as the runners turned onto 5th Street.
But, just like Bifa and Gangul, Mejdoub's time in the lead was a short one as Kato regained the advantage by the time the foursome had reached the bridge crossing the Little Kanawha River. As the group came off the bridge it was Kato and Mejdoub followed closely by Gangul and Bifa.
It remained that way until the pack turned onto Avery Street when Gangul found the pace to be too much and backed off leaving Kato, Mejdoub and Bifa to duel for the $3,000 first prize purse. Those three continued to go back and forth until they reached the 13th Street hill where Kato was able to separate herself from the other two contenders.
"I thought I could stay with her on that last hill, but she was too strong," said Mejdoub. "I tried to get back on the down side, but it was too late."
Too late is right as Kato continued to separate herself from the other two as they came down Market Street and the finish line.
"I am very happy that I came to Parkersburg," said Kato. "I hope to come back next year."
A feeling echoed by Mejdoub, who took home the runner-up prize of $2,000.
"I won last year and was second this so I am definitely looking forward to coming back next year," said the runner-up.
Not only was Kato the first winner from Japan, but her victory kept alive a streak that never has seen a female win back-to-back titles at the News and Sentinel Half Marathon.
"Maybe I can change that next year," said Kato.