Year by Year Marathon History

December 30
113 Runners
5-mile loop at Memorial Park
Men’s Winner: Danny Green  2:32:33
Women’s Winner: Tanya Trantham 5:11:55

Run over a five-mile loop at Memorial Park at the end of December, the inaugural Houston Marathon drew 113 runners and about twice that many spectators. Race director Pete League, who would serve in that capacity until 1976, ensured that the course was measured properly so it could be certified by the AAU, with assistance from distance running legend Ted Corbitt.

Danny Green, who went on to become one of the nation’s top high school track and cross country coaches at The Woodlands, overtook Clyde Villamez after the 24-mile mark and went on to win in 2:32:33. Green told the Houston Chronicle in 2002, “We were doing those loops in Memorial Park, and my family would be telling me where I was and where he (Villamez) was… I never ran any faster. I was never able to break that (2:32:33).”

14-year-old Tanya Trantham was the first female finisher, crossing the line in 5:11:55. In 35th place overall was Frank Stranahan, better known as a top amateur golfer who was the 1952 British Open runner-up.

December 29
120 Runners started, 58 finished
5-mile loop at Memorial Park
Men’s Winner: Juan Garza 2:37:47
Women’s Winner: Nancy Laird 4:29:07 (course record)

Juan Garza, who went on to be an NCAA Division I national cross country qualifier in 1974 for Pan American University, won the second edition of the Houston Marathon by three minutes over Dennis Manske, one of the largest winning margins in race history. Manske ran three more times at Houston, including a 2:39:59 in 1991 after a 16-year hiatus.

Nancy Laird was the women’s champion, and was also the Gulf AAU LDR chair who asked race director Pete League to help develop more distance events in the Houston area. Laird returned to the race in 1975 and finished more than 30 minutes faster than her debut time.

Race not held, date moved to January

January 18
112 Runners
5-mile loop at Memorial Park
Men’s Winner: tie, Clent Mericle & Juan Garza 2:35:00
Women’s Winner: Dorothy Doolittle 3:31:24 (course record)

Two Rio Grande Valley foes used to duking it out on the track and in cross country ended up in a virtual dead heat in the third Houston Marathon. After a year off in 1974, the race returned for the final time to Memorial Park, where former Texas A&I Javelina Clent Mericle and 1973 winner Juan Garza (Pan American U.) both crossed the line in 2:35:00.

Top honors in the five-runner women’s race went to Dorothy Doolittle, who ended up 48th overall in 3:31:24. Doolittle would go on to win one more time (1977) and earn renown as a collegiate and high school track and field coach, including a stint at the University of Houston.

January 17
210 Runners
3-loop course incorporating Memorial Park and adjoining areas
Men’s Winner: Jeff Wells 2:17:46 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Marsha Johnson 3:37:04

Rice cross country and track star Jeff Wells ran in the inaugural Houston Marathon in 1972, finishing in 2:38:44, but in 1976 he ran his first serious race and destroyed the course record with a 2:17:46. At the time it was the tenth-fastest clocking ever by a collegiate runner in the marathon. John Lodwick, a Rice teammate, was second at 2:26:15, also under the old course record, and 1975 champ Clent Mericle was third at 2:29:37.

Wells was part of one of the closest finishes in Boston Marathon history in 1978, coming across the line only two seconds adrift of Bill Rodgers, who won at 2:10:13. He was a two-time Olympic Trials finalist in the 10,000 meters and was on Team USA at the 1977 and 1978 IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Wells ran three more times at Houston, including a 2:29:16 in 1996 at age 41.

An 18-year-old, Marsha Johnson, was the women’s winner at 3:37:04. She would run the race six more times, with a best time of 3:16:09 in 1981.

January 22
410 Runners started, 290 finished
3-loop course incorporating Memorial Park and adjoining areas
Men’s Winner: Clent Mericle 2:27:46
Women’s Winner: Dorothy Doolittle 3:00:34 (course record)

George Kleeman took over as race director in 1977 as the race was held at Memorial Park for the final time. Clent Mericle, the 1975 co-winner, picked up the win by himself this go-around, covering the distance in 2:27:46. University of Houston legend and Olympian Leonard Hilton was the pre-race favorite, but fell victim to cramps as he was leading at 23 miles, finishing 11th at 2:39:33. Rice sophomore Chuck Jewell was the runner-up at 2:28:39 and edged out Mark Walter for the Junior title.

Improving her own course record from the 1975 race, Dororthy Doolittle won the women’s crown at 3:00:34 and was 54th overall. Jack Lippincott, who ran his 40th-consecutive Houston Marathon in 2014, had his highest placing in ’77, taking 12th overall.

January 21
788 started, 567 finished
Course started downtown, went out to 610 via Memorial Drive, then back downtown
Men’s Winner: Ron Tabb 2:17:11 (race record)
Women’s Winner: Peggy Kokernot 3:01:54

Frigid weather and a new course welcomed 23-year-old Missourian Ron Tabb, who ran away from the field to win by almost six minutes in 2:17:11 over David Odom. Tabb’s time lowered the previous race record of 2:17:46, set by Jeff Wells in 1976. The temperature at the start was 27 degrees, and it didn’t warm up much over the duration of the race, but it didn’t stop a Houston-record 127 runners from breaking 3:00:00.

Women’s winner Peggy Kokernot had gained national notoriety in December 1977, appearing on the cover of Time magazine as part of a story on the International Year of the Woman, a nationwide event that culminated in Houston and included a torch relay. Kokernot, a college athlete at Trinity University, stepped in for a 16-mile stretch in Alabama that was under boycott by local runners, keeping the relay going. She was one of three women selected to carry the torch the last mile and entered the Sam Houston Coliseum to raucous applause. Kokernot, who won by more than seven minutes in 3:01:54, helped the push to add the marathon for women to the Olympic program, and she went on to host the popular P.M. Magazine show in San Antonio.

January 20
1,700+ started, 1,000+ finished
Men’s Winner: Tom Antczak 2:15:28 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Sue Petersen 2:46:17 (course record)

What started out as a two-man race turned into a coronation and course record for Tom Antczak of Wisconsin, who chopped almost two minutes off Ron Tabb’s 1978 record with his 2:15:28. Antczak, a Wisconsin-La Crosse graduate who qualified for three U.S. Olympic Trials marathons and went on to a storied coaching career at Wisconsin-Platteville, ran the first 22 miles with Duke’s Scott Eden before pulling away as Eden struggled over the final four miles. Eden also finished under the previous race record with his 2:16:21.

Windy conditions held back women’s winner Sue Petersen, but the 34-year-old Californian still smashed the existing race record and won by eight minutes as she ran side-by-side with her husband, Pete. In winning the national AAU title, Petersen reinforced her world top-10 ranking and brought Houston into the realm of an elite women’s race.

January 19
1,914 started, 1,540 finished
Men’s Winner: Ron Tabb 2:13:36 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Vanessa Vajdos 2:44:45 (course record)

Two years after his initial win and course record, Ron Tabb returned with a vengeance to crush the since-lowered record in 2:13:36, overcoming windy and humid conditions and a strong challenge from Britain’s Chris Stewart. Tabb was running at 2:11 pace through 22 miles before the wind put paid to any hopes of a faster time. Stewart finished just over a minute back at 2:14:44. Tabb later placed fourth in the 1980 Olympic Trials marathon and was second at Boston in 1983 with a PR 2:09:31. He also represented the U.S. at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, finishing 18th at 2:13:38.

A close-as-can-be finish in the women’s race saw Vanessa Vajdos edge Memorial High School coach Donna Burge by a second in 2:44:45, setting a course record. Vajdos, now a New Braunfels chiropractor, ran together with her close friend Burge all the way before outleaning her at the line. She finished 10th in 1981 at the Ottawa Avon International Women’s Marathon, the putative world championships at the time.

January 10
Men’s Winner: Bill Rodgers 2:12:19 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Patti Catalano 2:35:28 (course record)

The reigning king of American marathoners made his first appearance at Houston a memorable one, as Bill Rodgers rolled to a course-record 2:12:19 to win by 30 seconds over Dick Beardsley. Rodgers, known as “Boston Billy” after winning that race four times and setting an American Record of 2:09:27 in 1979, also had four New York titles on his resume. Reaching the halfway point in 1:04:46, near world record pace, Rodgers and Beardsley were still in contact, but at 16 miles Rodgers made his move. Two miles later a stomach upset and quick trip into the woods threatened to derail his title run, but Beardsley also suffered stomach cramps and Rodgers held on to win. Defending champion Ron Tabb withdrew at 14 miles with a bone spur in his left heel.

As the first U.S. woman to run under 2:30, Patti Catalano was the pre-race favorite and she fulfilled those expectations with a course record 2:35:28. But it wasn’t easy. Laurie Binder ran the race of her life to that point, shadowing Catalano until less than two miles remained. The duo bumped each other and both runners were unbalanced, with Binder taking the lead. That lead lasted until the final quarter-mile, where Catalano regained the lead and sprinted to the win while Binder slashed her personal best by three minutes with a 2:35:31.

January 24
Men’s Winner: Benji Durden 2:11:11 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Laurie Binder 2:40:57

Five years, five course records. But this time the record wasn’t set by the pre-race favorite. Heading into the race, most talk was about defending champ Bill Rodgers and runner-up Dick Beardsley, with Benji Durden almost an afterthought. Durden turned all the attention to himself, though, running a relatively easy 2:11:11 to set a new standard and take the scalps of some of the sport’s biggest names. He finished more than a minute-and-a-half ahead of Beardsley, who was second for the second year in a row, while Rodgers faded to fifth at 2:14:52 after a whirlwind week of promotional appearances and sales meetings to bolster his line of running apparel. Durden and Beardsley worked together from the eight-mile mark to drop Rodgers and then took turns pushing the pace. At 18 miles Beardsley didn’t take his turn and Durden moved away and on to the win.

After a second-place finish the previous year, Laurie Binder stepped atop the podium with a 2:40:57, taking control of the race after seven miles and never being challenged. Binder told the Houston Post that she was “pretty uncomfortable” over the final 10 kilometers, running by herself and having to try and maintain her pace. Kathleen Molitor was second at 2:43:02.

January 16
Men’s Winner: Hailu Ebba (Ethiopia) 2:12:17
Women’s Winner: Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway) 2:33:27 (course record)

Eleven years into the life of the Houston Marathon, the world showed up. For the first time ever, international athletes swept the titles, with Ethiopia’s Hailu Ebba outkicking defending champ Benji Durden to take men’s top honors by three seconds in 2:12:17, and Norway’s superstar Ingrid Kristiansen clipping more than two minutes off the course record with her 2:33:27 to beat reigning champ Laurie Binder by nine seconds.

Ebba, an Oregon State graduate who was an Olympic semifinalist at 1500 meters in 1972, saw Ron Tabb sprint away to an early lead, which stretched to 300 yards at the halfway mark. Tabb fell off at 15 miles, where Ebba, Durden and local favorite Marty Froelick of Rice took over the lead. Those three kept the lead, and it wasn’t until the final few yards that Ebba’s patented kick (he had a 1:47 800 PR) pushed him past Durden.

Binder was the leader in the women’s race through 14 miles, where Kristiansen took over. They stayed close the rest of the way and the Norwegian staved off a last-gasp challenge from Binder over the final 100 yards. Former Lamar University runner Midde Hamrin of Sweden was third, also under the previous record with her 2:35:06.

January 15
Men’s Winner: Charlie Spedding (Great Britain) 2:11:54
Women’s Winner: Ingrid Kristiansen (Norway) 2:27:51 (course record)

In baseball, the tie goes to the runner. At the ’84 Houston Marathon, the tie went to Charlie Spedding. A situation that was unprecedented saw Britain’s Spedding awarded the win after a dead-heat finish with Massimo Magnani of Italy. There was no finish-line camera, so it was up to the race staff to determine whose torso crossed the line first. Race director David Hannah, after much consultation, announced that Spedding had edged Magnani, and that announcement sparked an immediate protest by the Italian.

A big pack that included ’82 winner Benji Durden went through the 10-mile mark together before Dean Matthews opened up a lead through 13 miles. Magnani and John Wellerding took over then and started to move away from the pack that included Spedding. Spedding and Mark Finucane split from the chase pack and with just over a mile to go, four men were in contention. Making up a three-yard deficit over the final 30 yards, Spedding did just enough to earn the title.

Less dramatic, but no less impressive, was Ingrid Kristiansen’s second straight win in the women’s race. A completely dominant performance broke her own course record by more than five minutes at 2:27:51. The Norwegian would go on to win the 10,000 at the 1987 World Championships in Rome after a fourth-place effort in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon at Los Angeles in ’84.

January 6
Men’s Winner: Marty Froelick 2:11:14
Women’s Winner: Sylvia Ruegger (Canada) 2:28:36

Running earlier in the month than usual, athletes in the 13th edition saw UTEP steeplechaser Sam Ngatia of Kenya take off and establish a comfortable lead after the 14-mile mark. In his marathon debut, Ngatia had more than a minute on Rice’s Marty Froelick and Wolfgang Krueger of West Germany at 20 miles, running at sub-2:10 pace. That’s when the wheels came off for Ngatia, though, as he was hobbled by blisters and was reeled in by Froelick. Cutting the gap steadily into the final mile, Froelick finally passed Ngatia with just under a half-mile to go and went on to just miss the course record with his 2:11:14.

Froelick’s time was likely the fastest ever on the course, though, as a recent TAC rule change mandated that certified courses be one-tenth of a percent longer than the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards.

Two Canadians fought it out for the women’s title, with top honors going to 1984 OIympic eighth-placer Sylvia Ruegger in 2:28:36, almost a minute ahead of Jacqueline Gareau. The duo ran together for 22 miles before Ruegger started to pull away and win in only her third marathon ever. She lowered her own national record in the process.

January 19
Men’s Winner: Paul Cummings 2:11:31
Women’s Winner: Veronique Marot (Great Britain) 2:31:33

A new single-loop course that covered more of the city set the stage for a pair of contrasting races. Britain’s Veronique Marot, the third-placer in 1985, was a gun-to-tape winner in the women’s race, clocking 2:31:33 to beat U.S. legend Francie Larrieu-Smith in her marathon debut. Larrieu-Smith, a four-time Olympian who would eventually take 12th in the ’92 marathon at Barcelona, stayed within 30 seconds of Marot through 20 miles, but couldn’t make a real dent in the lead as she finished at 2:33:36.

Sub-4:00 miler and 1984 10K Olympian Paul Cummings made the most of his footspeed over the last 5K to outleg Canada’s David Edge by eight seconds in 2:11:31. Those two had to make up a lot of ground in the final half of the race to catch defending champ Marty Froelick, who had a 26-second edge after 21 miles. By 23 miles Froelick was out of contention, and Cummings sealed the win over the final quarter-mile.

The new course also drew in more volunteers, going from 950 in 1985 to 2,500 in ’86.

January 18
Men’s Winner: Derrick May (South Africa) 2:11:51
Women’s Winner: Bente Moe (Norway) 2:32:37

A collegian and a collegiate coach picked up the hardware as Seattle Pacific University’s Bente Moe of Norway captured the women’s title and South Africa’s Derrick May, an assistant coach at Nevada-Reno, won the men’s race. Moe’s biggest issue on the day came post-race, as she had to decide whether to accept the $22,000 prize money and forego her NCAA eligibility. From seven miles on Moe was basically unchallenged, winning by more than three minutes in 2:32:37 on a day that saw gusty winds lower the temperature from 43 to 38 degrees over the duration of the event.

Basically an unknown coming into the race, May eased into the lead pack at 10 miles, challenging a group of three that included 1985 runner-up Sam Ngatia by 17 miles. Hanging with Ngatia for the next seven miles, May made a decisive move at 24 miles and won at 2:11:51, 15 seconds ahead of Norway’s Geir Kvernmo, who was running only his second marathon.

The race also served as the U.S. men’s championship, with Ric Sayre the top American in seventh at 2:13:54 to earn a spot on the Pan American Games squad.

January 17
Men’s Winner: Geir Kvernmo (Norway) 2:11:44
Women’s Winner: Linda Zeman 2:34:52

Sometimes, it’s just your day. And it certainly was for Linda Zeman, who stunned everyone by easily winning the women’s race with a huge personal best as she became the first-ever “uninvited” woman to mount the podium. After deciding to run the race on January 1 as a part of her New Year’s resolutions, Zeman crushed her previous PR by eight minutes to clock 2:34:52, more than a minute ahead of the runner-up. Hotter-than-usual conditions at the start also affected the race, with the temperature at 64 degrees and the humidity at 85%.

Moving up a place from his runner-up finish in ’87, Norway’s Geir Kvernmo held off Mexico’s Salvador Garcia to win at 2:11:44. Kvernmo, who set a Norwegian record of 2:10:17 to place fifth at London in 1987, cranked up the pace at the halfway mark and held a 30-second lead over Garcia at 21 miles. Over the final five miles Garcia inched closer and closer, but he couldn’t close the gap completely and ended up six seconds back.

January 15
Men’s Winner: Richard Kaitany (Kenya) 2:10:04 (course record)
Women’s Winner: Veronique Marot (Great Britain) 2:30:16

Heavy fog at the race start limited visibility to less than 50 yards, but a little more than two hours later it was abundantly clear that no one could match the quality of former Iowa State runner Richard Kaitany of Kenya, who set a course record of 2:10:04 to win by more than 90 seconds. Those four seconds on the end of his time were heartbreaking, though, as Kaitany missed out on a $10,000 bonus on offer to the first man to break 2:10. He had run 2:09:39 at Chicago the previous October and said he would have gone under the bonus time if only there had been a clock for him to see as he raced to the finish. Kaitany and ’88 winner Geir Kvernmo were together through 17 miles, where the Kenyan felt jostled and took off, never to be challenged again.

Three years after her first Houston victory, Britain’s Veronique Marot ran with Maria Trujillo and Norway’s Sissel Grottenberg for the first 10 miles before moving away and easing to the win more than two minutes ahead of Kim Jones at 2:30:16. Three months later, on April 23, Marot ran the best race of her career to win at London in 2:25:56.

January 14
Men’s Winner: Paul Pilkington 2:11:13
Women’s Winner: Maria Trujillo 2:32:55

Former Weber State steeplechaser Paul Pilkington had all cylinders firing on the way to his career-best 2:11:13 win, the third-fastest time ever at Houston. Race veteran Sam Ngatia of Kenya, who had tried five times previously to win, had the lead at the halfway point and stayed with Pilkington through 18 miles, but the American was clearly stronger and powered away to win his first marathon in six starts.

With thoughts of her late-race fade the previous year, Maria Trujillo staved off Germany’s Kerstin Pressler over the last eight miles to win at 2:32:55. The German was on Trujillo’s shoulder at 18 miles, but cited fatigue and the course’s hills for her failure to maintain that challenge, finishing second at 2:34:49.

January 20
Men’s Winner: Carey Nelson (Canada) 2:12:28
Women’s Winner: Veronique Marot (Great Britain) 2:30:55

Strong winds blew throughout the race, gusting to 15 mph, but they couldn’t stop Britain’s Veronique Marot from becoming the first-ever three-time women’s champion at 2:30:55. Marot, who also won in ’86 and ’89, ran with Denmark’s Dorthe Rasmussen for 17 miles and then took off and created a two-minute gap over the runner-up. One year later at Barcelona, Marot would finish 16th in the Olympic marathon.

Men’s champion Carey Nelson of Canada, a 5K Olympian in 1988, won his second straight marathon in 2:12:28, the slowest winning time since Ron Tabb’s 2:13:36 in 1980. Contending with Czechoslovakia’s Martin Vrabel through 23 miles, Nelson’s winning move made up a 30-yard gap and he sprinted on to win by 12 seconds over Vrabel. Nelson finished 35th in the ’96 Olympic marathon at Atlanta.

January 26
Men’s Winner: Filemon Lopez (Mexico) 2:13:12
Women’s Winner: Kimberley Webb 2:50:17
Women’s Olympic Trials Winner: Janis Klecker 2:30:12

Houston ’92 served as the U.S. Olympic Trials race for women and it lived up to its potential. Top-seeded Kim Jones dropped after three miles with an ankle injury, leaving ’88 Olympian Cathy O’Brien and four-time Olympian Francie Larrieu-Smith to contend with Janis Klecker, who was running for her sixth time on the course. A strategic race dictated a moderate pace, and the turning point came at a water stop at 15 miles when Klecker got her feet tangled and fell. O’Brien helped her up.

Those two got back on pace and at 20 miles O’Brien broke away to open up a 20+-second margin over Klecker by 23 miles. Klecker and Larrieu-Smith worked together to close the gap and Klecker was 100 yards adrift of O’Brien with just over a mile to go. With less than a quarter-mile left, Klecker moved ahead for good and won by 14 seconds in 2:30:12, with O’Brien and Larrieu-Smith claiming the other two Olympic berths. For Larrieu-Smith, it was to be her fifth Olympic team.

Mexico’s Filemon Lopez was looking for his own qualifying time for his national Olympic team (2:11), but the pesky winds and his solo run late in the race put paid to those hopes. Lopez and Michael Heilmann of Germany opened up a 200-yard lead on the pack by 10 miles, but just before the 11-mile point Heilmann had to stop and tie his shoe and he could never reclaim the time that cost as Lopez moved away and eventually crossed the line at 2:13:12.

January 24
Men’s Winner: Frank Bjorkli (Norway) 2:13:21
Women’s Winner: Kristy Johnston 2:29:05

Scandinavian-like weather, with wind chills in the 30-degree range and 30 mph gusts, played into the hands of Norway’s Frank Bjorkli, who was running only his second marathon. Defending champ Filemon Lopez dropped at 10 miles due to leg cramps, leaving Bjorkli, ’90 champion Paul Pilkington and Mark Plaatjes to work the next seven miles. After Pillkington and Plaatjes began to drop, Bjorkli’s way was clear and the story was Sean Wade’s charge from 15th to second place over the final stretch. Bjorkli clocked 2:13:21, with Wade second at 2:16:09. Plaatjes would be the story of American marathoning later in the year with his stunning win at the World Championships in Stuttgart.

The conditions didn’t bother women’s winner Kristy Johnston at all, apparently, as she knocked 10 minutes off her personal best with a 2:29:05 that was the third fastest ever on the course. At the halfway mark Johnston was running with Hungary’s Karolina Szabo and Russia’s Albina Gallyamova, and she began to move away from those two, throwing down her fastest mile of the day at 17 miles to virtually guarantee her win. Gallyamova was second, more than two minutes behind Johnston.

January 16
Men’s Winner: Colin Moore (Great Britain) 2:13:34
Women’s Winner: Alevtina Naumova (Russia) 2:34:47

Slow times were the order of the day in damp and windy conditions, with veteran Russian Alevtina Naumova taking advantage of the neophyte tactics of Ukraine’s Tetyana Pozdnyakova to claim the women’s win and Britain’s Colin Moore running a very business-like race to take top men’s honors. Naumova let Pozdnyakova go when the Ukrainian surged at nine miles, and there was a minute gap by 17 miles, with Trina Painter joining Naumova in the chase. Debutante Pozdnyakova hit the proverbial wall after mile 19, and Naumova continued to gain ground. She took the lead at 25 miles and went on to the win at 2:34:47, 22 seconds ahead of Pozdnyakova.

Brick mason Moore and Canada’s Peter Fonseca were the leaders after 15 miles, breaking away from the field. Nearing the final miles, Moore took advantage of Fonseca’s cramping problems to take the lead for good at 25 miles and win by 19 seconds at 2:13:34.