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Mary Keitany Ready to Defend New York City Marathon Title

A bout with malaria behind her, Keitany ready to take on New York.

Spike Lee took center stage at the Thursday media conference for the 2015 New York City Marathon, while defending champions Mary Keitany and Wilson Kipsang sat quietly at the sidelines. The exuberant Lee, proud to be the first true New Yorker to be appointed Grand Marshall for Sunday’s marathon, presented a pulsating short video lauding New York as “the greatest city in this whole world.”

The Kenyans watched respectfully, thinking more about race tactics than bagels and subways.

“I will run very carefully. In 2011 here I started too fast. I could not finish well. My training has been good. Before the London Marathon in April, I had been ill with malaria. This time I think I will run well,” said Keitany, after posing for photos with Kipsang and Lee.

She was as enthusiastic as Lee about the race’s host city.

“When I won last year, the fans were shouting ‘Go, Mary! Go, Mary!’ I like the people. New York is a wonderful city,” Keitany said.

Keitany, 33, had just been talking with her husband and two children, who are home in Iten, Kenya. She spoke warmly of the benefits of motherhood.

“As a mother, I am not running for myself, but for my family,” she said.

She will try to be at the ceremony later Thursday when her idol Tegla Loroupe will be inducted into the race’s Hall of Fame. Loroupe (even tinier in stature than Keitany) became the first African woman to win a major city marathon when she won New York in 1994 and 1995.

“When I was in school, Tegla was very famous, and I thought, ‘Maybe I can be like her,'” Keitany said.

Keitany is the second fastest woman marathoner of all time, with 2:18:37, behind only Britain’s Paula Radcliffe. But the Kenyan’s career has been an unpredictable mix of blazing victories and fallible near-misses.

Her first major success was when she finished second in the world half-marathon championship  in 2007. She came back from childbirth in 2008 to take the world half marathon title in 2009, in an event record 1:06:36. When she set a world record for 25K in 2010 (1:19:53), she seemed to be shaping into the greatest talent ever. But in her eagerly-awaited marathon debut at New York City that year she faded to third.

She commandingly won the London Marathon in 2011, but blew it at New York six months later, when she went out much too fast and lost a two-minute lead in the second half of the race, struggling home third again.

She hit her marathon peak at London in 2012, with her historic 2:18:37. A hot favorite for the Olympic marathon in the same city later that year, she did a lot of the leading, but again seemed missing a beat and ended the sprint finish a frustrating fourth.

After giving birth to her second child in 2013, Keitany returned to win New York at last in 2014, in a modest 2:25:07.

At the London Marathon in April this year, she faced a supremely strong field. The talk was whether she could take Radcliffe’s 2003 world record (2:15:25), but at crunch time, at a pace well outside Radcliffe’s, it was the little known Tigist Tufa (Ethiopia) who took the top place. Keitany looked flat in second, and was grumpy later about the cool weather.

Only today did she mention the malaria problem.

Tufa will be there again Sunday, plus the new world champion, Mare Dibaba, also from Ethiopia, and Keitany’s Kenyan rival Florence Kiplagat.

Will it be one of those days when Keitany seems almost to fly over Spike Lee’s beloved New York streets? Or another case of Mary Quite Contrary?

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