Elite women's preview: NYC Marathon
Kenya's Mary Keitany came to New York City a year ago as the second-fastest female half-marathoner of all time and as the world record-holder at 25 kilometers. Her talent was abundant and exceptional, and, as she was to make her marathon debut in New York, the issue to be determined was whether she was ready to handle the full 26.2-mile distance.
The answer was "not quite." Keitany ran in close company with fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat and American Shalane Flanagan until the very late stages of the 2010 ING New York City Marathon before drifting back and finishing third. But she's a quick study. After setting a world half-marathon record of 1:05:50 early in 2011, Keitany traveled to the Virgin London Marathon in April and won in a very brisk 2:19:19. The time made her the sixth-fastest female marathoner in history.
Now, while Kiplagat rests up after her victory in the marathon world championships this summer and Flanagan focuses on getting ready for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in January, Keitany is back in New York for Sunday's marathon. It's always difficult to predict outcomes in the marathon, a race in which any previously unforeseen little problem can rear up and derail one's best-laid plans. But if Keitany is healthy, as she appears to be, she's a prohibitive favorite for Sunday's trip from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Central Park. Indeed, the exceedingly quiet Keitany -- she's what Seinfeld referred to as a "low talker" -- may supply spectators with a preview of a future gold medal performance in the 2012 London Olympics.
Who can challenge Keitany in New York? One obvious candidate is Kim Smith, a New Zealander who attended Providence College and still resides in Rhode Island. Smith, always an aggressive front-runner, had a sizable lead at the Boston Marathon in April when she was beset by a severe calf cramp and had to withdraw. The usually taciturn Smith, who did not appear fatigued, was disconsolate that her date with destiny had been thwarted. It's anybody's guess as to whether she would have been able to maintain her scorching pace for the final 10 miles in Boston if she hadn't cramped.
We may find that out in New York on Sunday. What we do know is that no permanent damage was done in Boston. Smith's 1:07:11 to win the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in September is the fastest "half" ever run by a woman in the United States. And the presence in New York of Smith, who might not wish to leave a battle with Keitany to a final kick, virtually guarantees a fast early pace through Brooklyn and Queens on Sunday. Margaret Okayo's 2003 course record of 2:22:31 could be vanquished. Indeed, the husband and coach of another entrant, Ethiopia's Buzunesh Deba, insists his wife is capable of bettering that time.
There hasn't been an American women's champion in the New York City Marathon since Miki Gorman in 1977, and there won't be one on Sunday. The leading U.S. entrants are Jen Rhines, a three-time Olympian who's doing her first marathon in five years and has a personal best of just 2:29:32, and Lauren Fleshman, a two-time U.S. champion at 5,000 meters who's tackling her first marathon and whose professed aspirations for this race are somewhat limited: She hopes to be a 2012 Olympian on the track, in the 5,000. But Deba could give the race something it hasn't had since it adopted its current five-borough format in 1976 -- a winner who is a bona fide New Yorker. She is from Ethiopia, but she has lived in the Bronx since 2007, and she's a familiar figure on the city's roads, trails and tracks. Deba races very often and very well. She won the Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon in June in 2:23:31, and her husband insists she was on a 2:20 pace until the final three miles. If she can sustain her strength for those closing stages in Central Park on Sunday she could give Keitany company.
The chances of Caroline Kilel, the 2011 Boston Marathon champion who was pressed to the very last steps by American Desiree Davila, can't be totally overlooked. But the Kenyan's 2:22:36 in Boston is more than three minutes slower than what Keitany ran in London; it was aided by an unprecedentedly strong tailwind; and she was visibly spent by the effort. Kilel's room for improvement could be limited. The fourth-place finisher from Boston, Caroline Rotich, has already tasted victory once in New York this season; she won the 2011 NYC Half-Marathon in March in 1:08:52. But a half-marathon is a half-marathon.
Russians have traditionally performed well in the New York City Marathon, and their best entrant this year is Inga Abitova, the 2010 London runner-up in a personal-best time of 2:22:19 and the fourth-place finisher in New York last year. But she was just 15th in her return to London this past April. Others likely to still be in the hunt as the field crosses the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan for the final 10 miles on Sunday are Isabellah Andersson, a Kenyan-born Swede with a best time of 2:23:41, and Firehiwot Dado, an Ethiopian who won the Rome Marathon in April in 2:24:13.
Another Ethiopian, Werknesh Kidane, could supply one-half of a saga more suited for Valentine's Day than for early November. Kidane is married to the 2010 New York City Marathon men's titleholder Gebre Gebremariam. She was supposed to run the 2010 race, too, but an injury kept her out. The couple will be at the Staten Island starting line on Sunday, when Gebremariam will have his own arduous battle with Kenyans Geoffrey Mutai and Emmanuel Mutai -- the respective 2011 Boston and London Marathon champions who are not related, except by speed. And Kidane, a world cross country champion, hasn't shown recent evidence that she retains that top form, and her fastest marathon is a 2:26:15.
The handmade laurel wreaths that adorn the heads of the New York City Marathon winners are a lovely tradition now four decades old. Strange and unexpected things can happen -- Kim Smith, who certainly has true grit, could summon up a fearsome finish, and Buzunesh Deba could be buoyed by a New York running community that really does know and love her. But on Sunday in New York, if you don't see that laurel wreath on Mary Keitany's head two hours and 20-something minutes after her first strides on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, be very surprised.
New York City-based journalist Peter Gambaccini has covered distance running for Runner's World and other outlets for the past 30 years, and is the author of a book about the history of the New York City Marathon.