Sammy Wanjiru and Tsegaye Kebede on the eve of the Chicago Marathon (Victah Sailer) © Copyright
Preview Chicago, USA

With the strongest fields of the year assembled, Chicago stage set for ‘historic’ race – Chicago Marathon preview

The stakes are high for this Sunday's (10) 33rd running of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. The top contenders in the battle for the World Marathon Majors(WMM) men's and women's titles, worth $500,000 each, are on the line, as well as the unofficial rankings for top marathoner in the world for both genders.

Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru, the defending champion at this IAAF Gold Label Road Race and the World Marathon Majors, and Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede, the 2010 Virgin London Marathon champion, could lock up the WMM men's title with a win.  Chicago and London women's winner, Lilia Shobukova of Russia, and two-time defending women's WMM champion and 2009 London women's champion, Irina Mikitenko of Germany, can take home the half-million with a win on the streets of Chicago. 

The top marathoner of the year title is only worth bragging rights, but most of the contenders for the title will be on the starting line.  Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski has touted Sunday's field as the best in the race's history with the men's field featuring as headliners the Olympic champion, Wanjiru, the London champion, Kebede, and this year's Boston winner, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot.  And it's not inconceivable that none of them will cross the finish line first.  Vincent Kipruto, who pushed Wanjiru most of the way in last year's Chicago race, is back, and a trio of Ethiopians - Feyisa Lilesa, Deriba Merga, and Negari Terfa - could upset the form charts.  Five runners in the field have already run under 2:06.

Shobukova was cagy in her comments at the pre-race press conference, saying that she was here to give a good performance and do her best, but the focused look in her eyes revealed the burning desire to increase her string of victories to three.  Mikitenko was more circumspect declaring that what was important for her was to run well to get back her confidence, which has been dented by injuries that forced to her drop out of races and perform below the high level that won her two consecutive WMM women's titles.

Wanjiru vulnerable?

For the first time since he ran what many believe was the top marathon performance of all time to win the Beijing Olympic marathon, Wanjiru looks vulnerable.  He dropped out of this year's London Marathon and his training has been hampered by illness and injury.  Most recently, a stomach virus interrupted his training three weeks prior to the race, and Wanjiru, often open about his quest to get the world record, has instead merely talked of winning the race.  Wanjiru said he hopes the problems of this year are behind him, but he talks of the race as more of a test of where he is at and hopes of putting the year's tribulations behind him, rather than his usual confident swagger.  Both he and Cheruiyot said they did not want the first half pacesetters to go under 1:02.  They both believe that negative splitting is the way to run the race.  When asked if he would try to push the pace from the start, as Wanjiru did in Beijing, Cheruiyot replied that he wouldn't because he didn't want the pacemakers to go too fast.

"If we push, that may make them go to fast," he said.  But both he and Wanjiru both said they would be up front in the lead pack and not lay off. 

Kebede intends to run the same way. He has finished behind Wanjiru before, but believes that this may be his chance to best his rival or, at the very least, run faster than his best of 2:05:18, which would better Wanjiru's's Chicago course record from 2009.

The most impressive thing about the field, says Pinkowski, is that the top contenders are all young and on the rise in their careers.  They are all confident and hungry and want to run fast, Pinkowski says. 

"This is the place where Steve (Jones) and Joan (Samuelson) started the tradition of running fast," Pinkowski said.  That 1985 event where Samuelson outran Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen in a dual for the top spot in women's marathoning and set an American record and Jones narrowly missed the world best he ran on the course the year before, set the tone for the races that followed.  That Chicago may be nicknamed the "Second City" in the US, but not when it comes to running fast marathon times. 

Samuelson is using the race as an attempt to extend her string of sub three hour marathons at age 53, and become the first woman to do that in five separate decades. She won't be up front with Shobukhova and Mikitenko, who will be pushed by a trio of Ethiopians and Naoko Sakamoto of Japan, but will be followed by a film crew doing a documentary for her sponsor, Nike. 

The weather, as always, is the wildcard, but as Wanjiru proved in much tougher weather conditions in Beijing, it doesn't have to slow them down much.  Pinkowski said that he hoped for the men to dip under 2:05, and unlike last year, World record talk was not on everyone's lips.  After his breakthrough performance in Boston this spring, Cheruiyot demonstrated that he is capable of threatening the world record.  "The stage is set for a historic race on 10-10-10," said Pinkowski.

Jim Ferstle for the IAAF