“Return of the Super Five” they might call it. Five of last year’s top six men line up again Sunday for the New York City Marathon: Lelisa Desisa (first in 2018), Shura Kitata (second), Geoffrey Kamworor (third), Tamirat Tola (fourth), and Jared Ward (sixth).  That quintet have the same top rankings as last year, and they are all talking podium.

It’s worth revisiting 2018’s race of surprises as we wait for the rematch. One year ago, canny Desisa (Ethiopia, now 29), with a tactically perfect late surge,  out-thought two rising stars, Kitata (Ethiopia, 23) and Kamworor (Kenya, 26). Desisa, a two-time Boston winner, jubilantly gestured “Number 1” as he completed his first New York victory, having three times stood lower on the podium. Kitata and Kamworor held on to give us the fastest ever New York race in depth, the three moving to second, third and fourth on the all-time list. Tola (Ethiopia, 28) and Ward (USA, 31) are also back for more.

What’s new for 2019? Big recent achievements from all five. Tantalising questions about all five. One of the world’s great coaches predicts a course record. Ideal weather is predicted. All round, Sunday’s race looks a lot more than a repeat showing.

Desisa winning NYCM 2018
photo: NYRR

The World Champion, Lelisa Desisa

Desisa, narrowly outsprinted for this year’s Boston Marathon win, comes to New York with a yet greater fame as new World Champion, the convincing winner of the coveted global title in Doha, Qatar. As achievement, that’s major. But it was only four weeks ago, and it was run in extreme heat, which raises the question—can even a great marathoner win again, after only thirty-four days’ recovery from a peak effort?  Desisa today was circumspect.

“I try my best. I have done recovery training,” he said. Then he added with feeling, “The Marathon is not easy, my friend. It is not 5,000 or 10,000.”

Top 2 Men 2018 NYCM
photo: NYRR

The Training Partner: Shura Kitata

He warmed more to the question whether he might help his training partner Kitata.

“He is better than last year,” Desisa said. “We have the same coach, Haji Adilo. I help Kitata. I advise him.”

Kitata was not at the media opportunity, but coach Adilo, who directs one of the world’s most successful running groups outside Addis Ababa, was privately optimistic on his behalf.

“Kitata is ready. He is better than before. Last year, he went ahead alone, because he found the pace so easy. I think he and Desisa might work together. I believe there could be a course record,” Adilo said, unveiling his confidence in Kitata’s present potential.

Kamworor NYCM2017
Photo: NYRR

The World’s Best Half-Marathoner: Geoffrey Kamworor

Kamworor arrives with a new achievement as great as a world title—a world record. After being disappointed with third place in New York last year, he skipped the big-money marathons in the Spring, and switched focus—first to cross-country, placing third in the World Championship in March, and then, with historic results, to the half-marathon, shattering the world record with an astonishing 58:01 in Copenhagen in September.

That is truly astonishing, twenty-two seconds under the old mark. By most conversion calculations,  Kamworor’s half-marathon time is (wait for it) worth better than Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record (2:01:39) and Kenenisa Bekele’s 10,000m world record (26:17:53). It lifts Kamworor without question into world class, no longer the apprentice to his master artist Kipchoge.

The question is, can he do it in the full marathon ? Kamworor’s best marathon is a modest (for a runner of such quality) 2:06:12, and he took a long time to get down there. He was outsmarted and outlasted in New York last year after starting as hot favorite.

There have been other great half-marathoners, like Lornah Kiplagat and Zersenay Tadese, who never managed equivalent form at the full marathon. That made them no less great, any more than an 800m runner who doesn’t run equivalently at the mile. But in today’s marathon-skewed world, it for sure made them less rich.

Kamworor revealed no doubts today.

“I am training very well. I am prepared, and feel no pressure. I am familiar with the New York course—this is my fourth time here. I belong to an amazing training group, led by our mentor Eliud Kipchoge. I have no special plan but believe I can win New York, as I did in 2017,” Kamworor said.

Tola dubai 2018
photo: 2018 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon

The Fastest Marathon PR: Tamirat Tola

Tola has the fastest PR in this field (another surprise), 2:04:06. He did that on the superfast Dubai course in 2018. He also gained his only marathon win there, in 2017. His peak achievement for 2019 so far is his sixth place in London in April, in 2:06:57, not far behind Kitata. Tola is consistently podium or close. With him, the question is whether he has the extra gear, or extra focus, or sheer cussedness, to win a marathon as fiercely contested and tactical as this will be.

Jared Ward NYCM 2019 PC
photo: Jen Ator

The Top American: Professor Jared Ward

Lastly, Ward. He is not only the in-form top American, with a new PR 2:09:25 at Boston in April. He would win any contest for interesting pre-race comments.  The Brigham Young University professor of statistics at Thursday’s media opportunity expressed ideas on the accepted wisdom of the primacy of the US Olympic trials that were challenging, realistic, and courageous.

“I know the usual thing is to skip a Fall marathon before the Olympic trials. I very much want to make the US Olympic team again. But I’m in a different place from the last Olympic trials, when that was only my third marathon. Now I know the distance, and I know that my body recovers better. I also know, from my problems in 2017, about injuries, and how they can cancel all your plans. So when I’m running well, as I am now, I’m less willing to save something for the future. I was sixth here last year, and it’s a course I’m well suited for. To podium in a major marathon would mean as much to me as making the Olympics.”

How many runners have the courage to say they are unwilling to save something for the future? Seize the moment!

Ward is cool as well as passionate. He wrote his statistics masters thesis on the connection between pace judgment and finish times in the marathon. Ward’s thesis finding? Even splits work best.

If Kitata and Kamworor get that right, Coach Adilo’s prediction of a course record could be fulfilled. And given what an epic Fall season this has already been for the marathon, maybe this is the race where Geoffrey Kamworor will carry his half-marathon quality the full distance.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.