For all intents and purposes, the women’s race in Sunday’s New York City Marathon was over before the halfway point, when two-time defending champion Mary Keitany dropped in a few miles in the low 5-minute range, effectively changing a lead pack of eight into a duo of her and fellow Kenyan Joyce Chepkirui. The pair ran together for a few miles, and then going up the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan, Keitany surged once more, opening up a gap of 20 seconds.
From then on, as she widened her margin, spurred on by the cheering crowds on First Avenue, it became a question of whether she’s moved too early, and if not, would she break Margaret Okayo’s 2:22:31 course record, set 13 years ago.
“My preparation for this year was better than it was the past two years, so I was confident,” Keitany said of her bold early break.
Keitany, 34, continued to push the pace into the Bronx then back into Manhattan, and although she began to slow coming up Fifth Avenue before entering Central Park, and lost her chance at the record, the others behind her were falling back even more, as her lead expanded to almost four minutes.
Save a massive physical collapse or an errant horse drawn carriage, there was no way Keitany was not going to become the first runner to threepeat in New York since Grete Waitz did it as part of her incredible five consecutive wins (and nine overall) in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, attention switched to the shifting places behind Keitany, so far back that they were invisible on TV, only discernable through online tracking. And most of it was focused on Molly Huddle, America’s best long distance track star who was making her long awaited debut in the marathon.
Huddle went with Keitany’s first move but then was dropped by the second, and spent much of the middle miles of the race running by herself.
“I was just kind of surviving the last 10 miles, looking ahead and trying to catch people,” said Huddle, 32, who lives in Providence, R.I. “I was just kind of flailing. But I felt like I held it together, like I didn’t hit a solid wall, per se. So I’m happy with that. I think I managed the fluid and gels pretty well, so that’s why things didn’t fall apart too bad. But I did feel like I was tightening up in weird places.”
In spite of that, just past 25 miles Huddle was able to pass Chepkirui, who had been caught by Sally Kipyego a mile before. Keitany was already in her cool down after crossing the line in 2:24:26 when Kipyego (2:28:01) and Huddle (2:28:13) filled out the podium. Behind them, American women had a banner day, taking half of the top 20 places. Neely Gracey placed eight in 2:34:55 while Sara Hall was ninth in 2:36:12.
Huddle hedged on her intentions to run another marathon anytime soon, saying she would focus on the track and IAAF World Championships next year, but didn’t rule it out.
“She only did an eight-week buildup for this one,” said her long-time coach, Ray Treacy. “I think with a full buildup she can run 2:20 or so.”
For Kipyego, a former Texas Tech athlete, her runner-up finish was redemption for last year’s DNF.
“The biggest lesson I learned from that is the marathon is not a sprint,” she said. “Just because you feel good for 20 miles doesn’t mean that much in a marathon. You need to be able to survive the whole 26.2 miles.
“So I think I respected the course. I held back a lot, ran within myself. It turned out great today.”
Indeed, under near perfect conditions, almost the entire elite women’s race turned out pretty great, as well.