Mary Keitany missed out on Olympic selection after finishing ninth at the Virgin Money London Marathon last year, but the two-time champion is back in excellent form and leads arguably the greatest women’s field ever assembled for the IAAF Gold Label Road Race on Sunday (23).
The women’s race includes four runners with sub-2:20 lifetime bests – and four more with lifetime bests in the 2:20-2:21 range. Keitany is the fastest with her African record of 2:18:37 dating back five years and, at 35, she believes Paula Radcliffe’s women’s only world record of 2:17:42 is still within her capacity.
“If the weather is fine for us – and we cooperate – I think we will run a great time," said Keitany. "Cooperation means working with the pacemakers, and if we make sure that one person doesn’t go it alone, we will run well. I don’t know about the world record but we will run the best [women's only] time."
Keitany’s chances of becoming the first three-time winner since Radcliffe in 2005 were affected by illness last year before a heavy fall in the latter stages ultimately ended her bid. She atoned for that showing with victory in the New York Marathon in 2:24:26 and arrives fresh from a 1:05:13 lifetime best at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon, where she defeated some of her rivals in Sunday’s race.
Keitany is one of four Kenyans in the elite race – and all of them have a genuine chance of winning. The line-up features reigning two-time Chicago Marathon winner Florence Kiplagat (2:19:44 PB), world silver medallist Helah Kiprop (2:21:27 PB) and Olympic 5000m champion Vivian Cheruiyot, who is making her much-awaited debut in a city she refers to as her second home.
Cheruiyot, who often trains in Teddington in west London during the track season, has been running up to 150 kilometres per week as well as heeding advice from some of her accomplished compatriots. “I’ve also received lots of advice and encouragement from Mary and Florence so I thank them for that,” she said.
Cheruiyot was narrowly beaten at the Lisbon Half Marathon last month by world champion Mare Dibaba, who is at the forefront of a strong Ethiopian challenge. Dibaba is hoping a more conservative racing schedule might prove beneficial as far as her chances are concerned on Sunday.
“In previous years I have run three [marathons] in a year but I haven’t run a marathon since Rio and I have prepared well for this race,” she said. Dibaba has plans to return to London this summer for the World Championships although the marathon will be contested on a different course.
Her namesake and compatriot Tirunesh Dibaba will be contesting just her second marathon. She finished third in 2014 in 2:20:35 before taking time out to start a family which was followed by a terrific comeback last summer, winning a medal at her fourth successive Olympics with bronze in the 10,000m.
Tigist Tufa was the surprise winner two years ago and she will be contesting her first marathon since injury forced her to withdraw from the Olympic Games. Other leading names include Aselefech Mergia – the winner in 2010 and a sub-2:20 performer at best – and Berlin Marathon winner Aberu Kebede.
Bekele: 'I think I can improve my personal best'
Kenyan runners have won the men’s race eight times in the past decade but a strong Ethiopian triumvirate is tipped for success with last year’s champion Eliud Kipchoge and runner-up Stanley Biwott both absent.
Kenenisa Bekele finished third in 2016 but that was still a fine showing given his abbreviated build-up. Bekele lined up with less than two months’ training in the bank and while expectations were low on his comeback race, Bekele has since won the Berlin Marathon in 2:03:03. He also confirmed he is fully fit again after falling in the Dubai Marathon in January.
“I am in just as good shape as I was in Berlin last year," he said. "I think I can improve my personal best, that would be perfect for me. Of course, in a marathon anything can happen, but I can say I am ready and full of confidence."
If Bekele succeeds in his goal of setting a PB, he would eclipse Kipchoge’s course record of 2:03:05. Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57 would also come into view.
Bekele is the fastest entrant by more than one minute ahead of teammates Tesfaye Abera (2:04:24 PB) and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa (2:04:52 PB).
The fastest Kenyan in the field is Abel Kirui, who returned to form with victory in the Chicago Marathon last October – his first marathon win since retaining his world title in 2011. Kirui, who excels in non-paced races, is looking for another strong showing to cement his place on the team for London.
Daniel Wanjiru might not boast the experience of Kirui but the 24-year-old could surprise on his World Marathon Majors debut. He won the Amsterdam Marathon last October in 2:05:21 with a sizeable negative split of 1:02:03.
Bedan Karoki doesn’t boast any marathon experience but he is widely tipped to make the transition. Karoki has excelled on the track, cross country and at shorter distances on the roads and the 26-year-old is also advised by Toshihiko Seko, who won the London Marathon in 1986.
“I believe I can run a good time,” said Karoki, who won the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon earlier this year in a world-leading 59:10. "I’m not scared, my preparation has been good, it’s been consistent. I’m expecting to run between 2:04 and 2:07."
The line-up also includes world champion and New York Marathon champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from Eritrea while Tanzania’s Alphonce Simbu, who finished one place behind Ghebreslassie at the Olympic Games in fifth, looks set to smash his lifetime best of 2:09:19.
Pavey aiming to improve on her marathon comeback
An interesting subplot is the race for places on the British team for the World Championships in London. Callum Hawkins has already secured his slot but five berths remain up for grabs.
Jo Pavey hasn’t enjoyed the perfect build-up due to illness but the 2014 European 10,000m champion will be giving the distance another try after a lengthy hiatus. Pavey is looking to improve her lifetime best of 2:28:24 which would almost certainly be good enough to make her sixth World Championships team spanning two decades.
Chris Thompson and 2016 Olympian Tsegai Tewelde, who has been training with Zersenay Tadese in the lead-up to this year’s race, are among the leading names looking to join Hawkins on the men’s team for London.
Steven Mills for the IAAF