New York, New York — Every marathon is a universe of one, particular to itself and its time. Yet in New York City 2015 the after effects of the IAAF World Championships Marathon still linger. Because so many of New York’s top male contenders raced for their countries in the heat and humidity of Beijing at the end of August, they had to reduce their recovery time while compressing their training for New York.
As a consequence each has a fuel tank perhaps a little under filled, which may lead to a less than aggressive first half to two-thirds of the 45th TCS New York City Marathon. That means the real fireworks of speed may be left to the latter stages in Central Park. And wouldn’t that make for an exciting day for all who live for such moments of gut-clenching glory?
That said, defending champion Wilson Kipsang of Kenya is looking to become the first man to take year-to-year NYCM titles since John Kagwe pulled the double in 1997-1998. Yes, Geoffrey Mutai won two in a row, but his came in 2011 & 2013 with the Hurricane Sandy cancellation in 2012 wedged between.
Kipsang is one of the Beijing World Champs performers, and perhaps the one best served due to the fact that he dropped out in Beijing at 35Km, not taking to the high heat and humidity. Generally, 35km is plenty long to compromise a second, closely scheduled marathon, but according to Kipsang he quit pushing after 30Km, and now views Beijing as little more than a long tempo effort.
“I went back home, recovered a little bit, then did fartlek training up and down,” said the former marathon world record holder who took second at London this year. “I did 10 repeat 1000 meters between 2:48 and 2:45.”
When asked if a course record (a mighty stern 2:05:38 run by countryman Geoffrey Mutai in 2011), Kipsang, as most Kenyans, was respectful, but non-committal.
“It will depend on the weather and the cooperation of the competition.”
At the latest reading (Saturday afternoon) marathon Sunday will begin in the low 50s and rise to near 70 by mid-afternoon. But for the pros the range should be from 53 to 60F. That isn’t ideal, nor is it debilitating, as it was each of the last two years when cold blustery headwinds had men hiding in the lee of the pack. Last year Kipsang was only going for the win, as the Abbott World Marathon Majors title was on the line, and a win would secure the series title and $500,000 payday. This year the cycle will end in Tokyo in early 2016, but the outcome could be determined in New York, just the same.
Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa, the two-time and reining Boston Marathon champion, remains the biggest threat. Last year Desisa challenged Kipsang till the final 385 yards before giving way. This year, the smaller Ethiopian (who ran 7th in Beijing at the World Champs) admitted that he made a tactical error against Kipsang last year when he allowed the rangy Kenyan to dictate the pace over the final 5Km in Central Park. He said he still think about what might have been in 2014, and is highly motivated to turn the tables on Sunday.
Desisa only took one week to recover after Beijing, while taking a full month off after his win in Boston in April. Yet he claims he didn’t alter his preparation for New York from before. One factor he may have in his favor is that Kipsang has been in town all week making the rounds of appearances expected of a defending champ, while Desisa has laid low conserving his energy. When you consider that just a 1% difference in a two-hour event equals 72-seconds, every little margin can make all the difference in the world.
American king Meb Keflezighi is entering his 10th New York City Marathon, which, in itself, makes him a modern movement marvel. Debuting in 2002 in 9th place, Meb has since finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th in the Big Apple, and anything in the top 10 would be a fine performance for the aging wonder. Remember, Meb has the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials coming up in early February 2016, so the question is, will he gut himself in New York, or save something for L.A.? Know this, if the situation plays out and Meb finds himself in a position to win, you can damn well bet the ranch he’ll give everything he has to the cause before him. There are no guarantees in this game, so bird-in-hand is the order of the day.
Ethiopia’s Yemane Tsegay (pronounced Seh-Guy) is another major contender to watch. Runner up in both 2015 Boston and the Beijing World Championships, 30 year-old Tsegay is hungry for an Abbott World Marathon Majors win. And sometimes, a good marathon performance is easier to recover from than a poor one.
“My confidence is very good, “ he told me. “My target is to win. But the field is very strong, so you never know.”
This is Tsegay’s first run in NYC, but he said he watched the race every year back home, and trains on the kind of layouts that mirror New York’s ups and downs. In Beijing Eritrean teenager Ghirmay Ghebreslassie took home the gold, coming from behind in the heat.
“I learned from that,” claims Tsegay, “and I hope history will change on Sunday.”
The other World Championships marathoner in the field is Italy’s Daniele Meucci who took 8th in Beijing. The reining European Marathon champion is motivated by his performance in China, because he had the lead at 30km before a 90-second bathroom break ruined his medal chances. His training partner, Ruggero Pertile finished fourth, and according to Meucci’s manager his man was in three times the shape of Pertile. Meucci ran New York in 2013 as his first serious marathon, finishing in 2:12:03. He took second at Lake Biwa this March under horrendously rainy conditions, and says he will maintain an even pace rather than get caught up in the surge and release tactics favored by the Africans.
The wildcard in the men’s race is 22 yeaer-old Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya. The World Championship silver medalist behind Mo Farah in the 10,000m, world half marathon and world cross country champion has all the pedigree one expects to produce a championship marathoner. But to date in five attempts, including three in Berlin, he has only posted a 2:06:12 best (Berlin 2012). Only in the rarefied air of Kenyan marathoning is 2:06 considered modest.
“He has had energy management problems in his previous marathons,” admitted manager Jos Hermens. “He is the fastest 10,000 (26:52), half marathon (58:54) in the field, but hasn’t figured out his fueling yet.”
On Sunday he will try a new drink out on the course, and change out to another solution after 30Km in search of a breakthrough.
“He has been in world record paced races in Berlin, which were too fast for him in his development,” said Hermens. “So we’ve brought him to a non-paced, hilly course which is more in line with his world cross country background. “
He has been broken at each previous marathon at 32Km, so if he makes it past the Willis Avenue Bridge at 21 miles, he instantly becomes a factor and a threat. As my friend Ed Caesar, author of the new book Two Hours: The Quest To Run The Impossible Marathon, said of Geoffrey, “When I first saw him on a dusty track outside Eldoret training with Emmanuel Mutai and Eliud Kipchoge I thought he looked like a young bull. Among all the world-class athletes out there, he’s the one who stood out.”
And after Geoffrey paced the Berlin Marathon in 2011 to 30Km leading Patrick Makau over Haile Gebrselassie to the world record of 2:03:38, Haile told Caesar, “one day that kid will break the world record.”
The last man I want to mention is Stanley Biwott of Kenya, the last man to hang with Geoffrey Mutai in New York in 2013 before fading to fifth. That’s Biwott’s MO, another late race fader looking to find new power via more long runs. This year he didn’t race the World Champs, so among the A-level talent in NYC perhaps he is the fittest with three full months of preparation to draw on. He trains with Chicago champion Dickson Chumba, and that will build his confidence.
“I haven’t won a World Marathon Major,” he told me. “But this time I trained specifically for the New York course.”
The Paris Marathon course record holder at 2:05:12, and second in London 2014 at 2:04:55, Biwott has eliminated the chronic hamstring issue that bedeviled him for several years. But he still needs to prove himself in competition.
No matter how it plays out, this race of champions promises to be a burner at some point, and a major indicator of Olympic strength for Rio 2016. Please watch on ESPN2 nationally and on ABC 7 in NYC. I will man the lead men’s motorcycle and report from the field.