This year’s edition of the Virgin Money London Marathon could be the warmest in the history of the IAAF Gold Label road race with highs of 21-23C forecast, but Kenya’s reigning champion Mary Keitany is still bidding for a world record on Sunday (22).
The time which Keitany is targeting is Paula Radcliffe’s mark of 2:15:25 which has stood untested since 2003. The organisers have reintroduced male pacemakers to the women’s race to assist Keitany in her attempt.
Keitany won last year in a women’s only world record of 2:17:01 – the second-fastest time in history and the first time anyone has come within two minutes of Radcliffe’s record. Keitany would have almost certainly run faster with more even pacing in the first half and with more assistance in the second half.
“I think the pace will be under control,” said Keitany, who was towed by training partner Caroline Chepkoech through halfway in 1:06:54 last year. “I have trained well and I am ready for the race on Sunday.”
But the women’s race won’t be only Keitany against the clock. The field includes another three athletes with lifetime bests faster than 2:20, including last year’s runner-up Tirunesh Dibaba.
Despite suffering from gastroenterological problems in the closing stages which forced her to stop momentarily on the Embankment in last year’s race, Dibaba – who was 78 seconds behind Keitany at the 30-kilometre checkpoint – finished just 55 seconds behind the Kenyan at the finish, setting an Ethiopian record of 2:17:56 in the process.
Dibaba then won the Chicago Marathon in October in 2:18:31 before taking a two-month break. While Keitany raced at the Ras al-Khaimah Half Marathon in February, setting a lifetime best of 1:04:55, Dibaba hasn’t raced at all since Chicago.
The two other sub-2:20 competitors lining up are two-time Berlin Marathon winner Gladys Cherono and 2015 world champion Mare Dibaba, who have respective PBs of 2:19:25 and 2:19:52.
Bahrain’s Rose Chelimo, who succeeded Dibaba as world champion in London, will be making her London Marathon debut. The 28-year-old set her PB of 2:22:51 in Boston last year and recently finished 14th at the World Half Marathon Championships.
Another global champion, Vivian Cheruiyot, who retired from the track after winning the Olympic 5000m title, will be contesting her third marathon on Sunday. The 34-year-old Kenyan made her debut in London last year in 2:23:50 and went on to set a PB of 2:23:35 to win in Frankfurt later in the year.
While lacking Dibaba or Keitany’s profile, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei could be the surprise element.
Two months after finishing second to Dibaba in Chicago in 2:20:22, Kosgei then decimated the course record at the Honolulu Marathon in 2:22:15 with a negative split. “Maybe next year, I want to improve to run 2:18 or 2:17,” she said after winning that race.
Tigist Tufa, the London Marathon winner in 2015 and runner-up in 2016, also cannot be discounted. The Ethiopian set her PB of 2:21:52 when winning in Shanghai in 2014.
Kipchoge returns to regain his title
Eliud Kipchoge was a notable absentee from last year’s race. Instead of racing in London, the Kenyan was getting primed for his assault on the two-hour barrier in Monza last May. But the Olympic champion returns to the British capital for this year’s race and is the automatic pre-race favourite.
Since making his debut in 2013, Kipchoge has won nine of his 10 marathons, his only defeat coming at the Berlin Marathon five years ago when Wilson Kipsang broke the world record. Kipchoge is twice a winner in London and holds the course record at 2:03:05, also his PB, from 2016.
Kipchoge, who typically avoids racing in the build-up to marathons, was seven seconds outside the world record two years ago but was reluctant to make any specific predictions for Sunday.
“I can’t give really insight on running a world record,” he said, “but I hope to run a very beautiful race.”
The quality of the elite men’s field is such that reigning champion Daniel Wanjiru is only the sixth fastest on paper with a lifetime best of 2:05:21 set at the 2016 Amsterdam Marathon.
After following the pacemakers through halfway last year in 1:01:41, Wanjiru went on to win in 2:05:48 from Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele (2:05:57) and Kenya’s Bedan Karoki (2:07:41). All three runners are part of another all-star field.
Bekele is the second-fastest marathon runner in history with a 2:03:03 clocking from the 2016 Berlin Marathon, but while his long-time rival Kipchoge has been impeccably consistent at the distance, Bekele has a chequered marathon history with his runner-up finish in London sandwiched between DNFs in Dubai and Berlin.
“I am not happy with my marathons so far, with only two good results from eight races,” said Bekele. “My marathon achievements do not yet balance with my track career and I want to put that right.”
Bekele will be joined on the start-line by teammates Guye Adola, who ran the fastest ever marathon debut with 2:03:46 to finish second to Kipchoge in Berlin last year, and 21-year-old Shura Kitata, who makes his World Marathon Majors debut after winning the Frankfurt Marathon last year in 2:05:50.
Other leading Kenyans in the field include two-time world champion Abel Kirui – who is also coached by Eliud Kipchoge’s coach Patrick Sang – and the improving Lawrence Cherono, who won Amsterdam (2:05:09) and Honolulu (2:08:27) in the space of seven weeks last year.
After a storied career on the track, Mo Farah returns to the distance four years after finishing eighth in a solid but unspectacular debut of 2:08:21. Farah began relatively conservatively on that day, reaching the halfway stage in 1:03:08 before picking off some of the tail-enders but the Brit is planning to follow the pacemakers on Sunday.
“This is the biggest race [in the world] and there’s really only one way to run London,” he said. “If the guys are going out at world record pace, then why not go with them?”
Steven Mills for the IAAF