Up until this year’s Berlin Marathon, Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kipsang were the two men with claims on being the fastest marathoners in the world; Mutai by virtue of his un-ratifiable 2:03:02 course record in Boston in 2011, Kipsang by virtue of holding the ratified world record of 2:03:23 from the 2013 Berlin marathon.
After Berlin, they stand second and fifth on the all-time, all-conditions list, but time has always been secondary in the New York City Marathon, which will be run Sunday (2). A clash at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race between these two, indisputably among the fastest marathoners in history and closely matched in ability, is a remarkable event.
Kipsang and Mutai, who have occasionally been training partners, have already telegraphed their mutual desire to attack Mutai's course record of 2:05:06, also set in Mutai's phenomenal 2011 season.
While the marathon, as always, is unpredictable, Mutai may have the edge in New York. The artificial hills of New York’s five bridge crossings and the course’s frequent turns normally cater to experience and skill, not just conditioning, and Mutai is the two-time champion looking for a third consecutive victory.
Should Mutai claim that third victory, he will become the first man to win three times in New York since Alberto Salazar, whose third win in 1982 came just two weeks after Mutai’s first birthday.
Each of his New York victories has been dominant. In 2011, he won by more than two-and-a-half minutes even though runner-up Emmanuel Mutai was also under the old course record; in 2013, he led two massive surges, first to demolish the pack and finally to dispatch his last rival, Stanley Biwott. In March, at the NYC Half Marathon, Mutai seized a moment of confusion when Mo Farah lost his footing to deliver the winning coup barely halfway into the race, and ran alone down the West Side as though the street had been closed just for him.
Kipsang, on the other side, was the London champion and course record-setter (2:04:29) this spring, when Mutai could only finish sixth. His London win, reclaiming a title he first won in 2012, was his fifth sub-2:05 marathon; more than any other runner in history.
While races without pacemakers have not traditionally been Kipsang's strong suit – his early move in the 2012 Olympic marathon may have cost him the gold medal there – Mutai could fill the role of pacemaker in New York.
Kipsang is also looking at a potentially huge payday; should he win in New York, he will edge Dennis Kimetto, the man who broke his marathon world record, for the 2013-2014 World Marathon Majors title, by a single point. Should Kipsang take that title, he will add $500,000 US to his New York City winnings.
Mutai and Kipsang have raced one another five times previously with Mutai currently holding the advantage at 4-1. But in their only clash over the full marathon distance, Kipsang came out on top.
Should both of the favourites meet misfortune – and in a marathon, misfortune is always just over the shoulder of success – world and Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich, world silver medallist and former Boston and Dubai champion Lelisa Desisa and evergreen Gebre Gebremariam, the 2010 New York City champion, will be ready to pick up the pieces.
Also on the starting line will be the often-underestimated Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist, 2009 New York winner, and dramatic champion of this year’s Boston Marathon. Keflezighi’s preparation for New York was challenged by the celebration of his Boston win, but his best races have usually come when he is discounted.
Bizunesh Deba has been second twice in a row in New York, and again this spring in Boston, where she put up her PB of 2:19:59. In 2011 she helped Firehiwot Dado hunt down the fast-starting Mary Keitany in the closing miles in Central Park, while in 2013 she broke from the pack early but was ultimately reeled in by a sustained late-race attack from Priscah Jeptoo.
Dado and Keitany are both back, the former to attempt to regain her 2011 title and the latter hoping to wrap up her own unfinished business in New York.
Deba has her own New York story. The Ethiopian athlete has been living and training in the Bronx for years, and should she manage a victory she would become the first New York City-based athlete, male or female, to win in more than 30 years.
After her two runner-up finishes, Deba is now an athlete the spectators watch for. Her 2013 race, which might have succeeded had Edna Kiplagat not mounted a heroic counterattack in the race’s second half, demonstrated that she has the strength and courage to bid for the win.
Likelihood may point to yet another runner-up finish for Deba, but the shape of the race is even harder to predict. Keitany has a history of fast starts, most famously for her 2:18:37 in London in 2012 which made her the second-fastest woman in history, but in 2011 her 1:07:56 first half in New York was too much, too soon.
In September, she ran 1:05:39 to set a course record at the Great North Run. The open question is whether three years of additional experience – during which time she took a break to give birth – has given Keitany the patience to manage the New York City course effectively.
Kiplagat, the 2010 champion, might answer that, with two children of her own and two of her late sister’s at home. The first woman to win back-to-back World Championship marathons, in 2011 and 2013, Kiplagat’s commitment to those summer championships may have hampered her ability to return to the top in New York City, but this year, with a London victory under her belt – in a PB of 2:20:21 – she may have her best shot since 2010.
Dado’s 2011 victory in New York, a 2:23:15, remains her fastest marathon and her highest-profile win, but in Prague this May she ran 2:23:34 for the win, suggesting she may be ready to challenge for the New York title once again.
Local favourites in the pack include 2008 third-place finisher Kara Goucher, the fastest US woman ever in New York City, 2011 Boston Marathon runner-up Desiree Linden, and 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Deena Kastor, now 41 and the world masters record-holder in the half marathon at 1:09:36.
Parker Morse for the IAAF