Parts of this piece first appeared in the November issue of Competitor Magazine.
Written by: Mario Fraioli
This Sunday, over 45,000 runners will line up on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for the 41st running of the ING New York City Marathon. The biggest marathon in the world showcases the city that never sleeps, passing through all five boroughs before a grand finish in front of thousands of fans in Central Park.
In this year’s elite races, reigning champion Gebre Gebremariam of Ethiopia will be back to defend his title, while last year’s women’s winner, Edna Kiplagat of Kenya, was forced to withdraw from this year’s race because of a knee injury.
There will be plenty of firepower in both races, as this year’s Boston Marathon champions, Geoffrey Mutai and Caroline Kilel of Kenya look to add another big-city marathon win to their already impressive racing resumes. The reigning London Marathon champions will be in the mix as well: Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya will contend for victory in the men’s race, while compatriot Mary Keitany should be in the hunt on the women’s side.
Here’s a quick rundown of all the top contenders in both the men’s and women’s races.
Last November the Ethiopian made his first-ever marathon a memorable one by winning the ING New York City Marathon in 2:08:14. The reigning champion is back to defend his crown at this year’s race, and if one thing’s certain, it’s that he won’t sneak up and surprise anyone this time around. The 27-year-old has proven himself to be a masterful marathoner; he followed up his win last November with a podium slot at the Boston Marathon, where he finished third with a personal best of 2:04:53. Gebremariam dropped out of the world championships marathon in early September, but has said he will be ready to compete in New York City on Nov. 6.
The runner-up at last year’s New York City Marathon, Mutai is back with one goal in mind—win at all costs. The 27-year-old Kenyan followed up his second-place finish in the Big Apple last fall with a big win earlier this year at the London Marathon. In that race, he shattered the previous course record running 2:04:40 to beat compatriot Martin Lel, who will also race this year’s New York City Marathon.
Emmanuel won’t be the only fast Mutai in the field on Nov. 6. His countryman Geoffrey joined the fray in late September. The fastest marathoner of all-time by way of his jaw-dropping 2:03:02 performance at Boston in April, Mutai was untouchable on the roads this past summer. He ran the fastest 10K on U.S. soil (27:19) to win the BAA inaugural 10K in June, then came back a month later to decimate a loaded field—which included Gebremariam and Emmanuel Mutai—at the Giro di Castelbuono 10K in Sicily. His presence in the race and front-running reputation will put the course record of 2:07:43 in serious jeopardy.
Kisorio will be making his 26.2-mile debut in New York City. Gebremariam proved last year that first timers should be taken seriously at this race, and top contenders would be wise to keep a close eye on Kisorio. On Sept. 18 in Philadelphia, the 22-year-old Kenyan ran the fastest-ever half-marathon on American soil, winning the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia event in 58:46, which was also a personal best and the third-fastest half-marathon of all-time. Inexperience could get the best of him, but the rest of the field shouldn’t bet on it.
Can Meb still contend for a major marathon title, or are the 36-year-old’s best days behind him? The 2009 New York City Marathon champion and 2004 Olympic Marathon silver medalist will be the perennial crowd favorite in the Big Apple, but he’ll have his hands full attempting a second win against one of the most competitive fields in the race’s history. Keflezighi has had a quiet year of racing, so all eyes will be watching if he goes for broke in NYC or saves himself for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Jan. 14.
One thing’s for certain: the diminutive Kebede knows how to win a 26.2-mile footrace. The Ethiopian comes to New York with a 2:15:18 personal best from the 2009 Fukuoka Marathon, where he was victorious in both 2008 and 2009. Kebede also captured the win at the 2010 London Marathon, running just a second off his personal best. Most recently, he finished fifth at London this past April, running 2:07:48. This will be his first run in New York City, where he hopes to challenge his countryman and defending champion, Gebre Gebremariam, for victory.
It will be his first attempt at 26.2 miles, but there’s reason to believe the Villanova grad will shine in his debut at the distance. At the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in September, Curtis ran 61:54 to place ninth amongst a loaded field. With sub-27:30 10K credentials (he ran 27:24 on the track at Stanford earlier this year), he’s got the tools to mix it up with the rest of the elite field. Curtis downplayed his own expectations just a few days before the race, saying, “I’m really going into this thing with realistic expectations. I’m kind of flying under the radar.”
She hasn’t won a marathon yet, but that could change on Nov. 6. The 29-year-old New Zealander, who trains in Providence, R.I., returns to the race where she finished fifth last year. Smith has had an up and down year, with her low point at the Boston Marathon in April, where she dropped out because of a calf injury after leading the first 18 miles. Her high was at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, where she set a U.S. all-comer’s record, winning the race in 1:07:11. Smith likes to race from the front, so the rest of the field won’t let her get too far ahead.
A prolific marathoner, Deba is having quite a year for herself on the roads. In March, the Ethiopian who lives in the Bronx won the Honda LA Marathon in 2:26:34, then came back in June to win the Dodge Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Marathon in a California state record of 2:23:31. She knows how to race to the finish line in Central Park, having won the UAE Healthy Kidney 10K in 33:29. In 2010, Deba won two marathons (Twin Cities and Grandma’s) while placing tenth in New York last November.
The third-place finisher at last year’s New York City Marathon in her debut at the distance, Keitany won’t sneak up on anyone at this year’s race. In February, the 29-year-old Kenyan shattered the world record in the half-marathon, becoming the first woman to run under 66 minutes with a 1:05:50 clocking. She followed that up with a victory at the London Marathon in April, breaking the tape in 2:19:19, the fourth-fastest women’s marathon of all time. If she makes a break halfway through the race like she did in London, it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, goes with her.
A first-time marathoner, Fleshman is coming off a successful summer of racing that saw her place seventh in the 5,000 meters at the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea, tying the highest-ever finish by an American woman. Fleshman, who has a lengthy injury history, runs lower volume than most marathoners, topping out at near 80 miles per week. She’s never raced longer distance on the roads, but did win the XTERRA Trail Run National Half Marathon in 2010. It will be interesting to see if she can exercise the patience of a seasoned racer or if she displays the aggressiveness of a track runner. Some combination of both will suit her best on November 6.
Who could forget the finish at the Boston Marathon in April with Kilel and American Desiree Davila racing stride for stride all the way to the finish line? In the end, it was Kilel who took the victory, her first in a major marathon. The 30-year-old Kenyan, who is known for her strong finishing kick, has won five big city marathons over the course of her career. Can she add New York to her resume in November? If it comes down to a finishing sprint through Central Park, the chances are good.
The 38-year-old from Great Britain is still a relative rookie to the marathon. She made her debut in London in April, finishing 19th in a solid 2:28:24. Pavey is no stranger to New York City—she finished sixth at the NYC Half-Marathon in March in 1:09:33 and seventh at the NYRR Mini 10K in June in 32:46. And although she’s new to the 26.2-mile distance, her racing experience should serve her well on one of road racing’s biggest stages.
Rotich is 1-for-1 so far racing on the roads of New York City this year. In March she won the New York City Half Marathon, running away from 2010 New York City Marathon champion Edna Kiplagat to win in a course record 1:08:51. Rotich went on to finish fourth at the Boston Marathon, running 2:24:26, and also won the Quad-City Time Bix 7 this past summer. The Kenyan, who trains in New Mexico, is hoping to improve upon her 8th-place finish in New York City last November.
Jessica Augusto & Ana Dulce Felix
A Portugese runner has never won the New York City Marathon but one of these two women hopes to change that this year. Augusto and Felix have each only completed one marathon, but there’s good reason to watch this dynamic duo on Nov. 6. Augusto ran 2:24:33 to finish eighth in her debut in London in April, while Felix, who dropped out of last year’s New York City Marathon, ran 2:26:30 to finish as runner-up in Vienna earlier this year. Both competed in the 10,000 meters at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, with Felix finishing eighth and Augusto placing 10th.