Los Angeles, CA -There’s a wonderful marination to the marathon. It gets the juices flowing. And when done in communion with enough people, there’s a special energy that’s created. And occasionally there’s magic.
The 34th Sketchers Performance Los Angeles Marathon celebrates several hallmarks in 2019. It’s the 10th year for the iconic stadium to sea course, which has proven such a success over its first decade showcasing Los Angeles, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. Like a running tour through the back lot of Los Angeles.
It’s also the 30th anniversary of the Students Run LA program. If the Los Angeles Marathon did nothing else but spawn the SRLA program, it would have been a major success. 3500 students from at-risk high schools in the area will run the race again this year. Over 60,000 have participated in the program’s initial three decades.
The ripple effect on those lives and their families have been profound. 95% of the kids who run the marathon through SRLA go on to college. Congratulations to Marsha Charney and her team for first the three decades of what is one of the legacy jewels of this event.
From a competitive standpoint, this year’s Los Angeles Marathon on paper looks to be very competitive on both the men’s and women’s side.
Two-time champion Weldon Kirui of Kenya returns looking to become the first man or woman runner to win three LA titles. To date, there have been four men who have won twice including Weldon, and five women beginning with Nancy Ditz the inaugural first two years champion in 1986 and ‘87.
But Weldon will have his hands full as he has two other former champions in the field, as well as some other very closely matched contenders thanks to the yeoman work of Elite Athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull.
Of the previous champions, late entrant Elisha Barno may be the most dangerous. In January, he finished fourth at January’s Houston Marathon, dropping off the lead pack after 30 km with a balky hamstring. But he still hung close enough to finish sub-2:11. He went back home to Kenya put in his recovery and did a number of long runs and felt his hamstring holding tight. So he called his manager, Scott Robinson, and said ‘get me into LA’ where he not only won the race in 2017 but finished a close third last year.
Between 2012 and 2019, he has run a 2:11 or 2:10 each year. Just very consistent. He should be in the hunt as the race enters its final miles down San Vincente Boulevard heading towards Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica.
Unfortunately, the race lost its course record holder Markos Geneti of Ethiopia (2:06:35, 2011) who failed to get a visa to come run. But there’s another 5000-meter Olympian from the past now continuing his transition to the marathon.
Juan Luis Barrios from Mexico finished seventh in Beijing 2008, eighth in 2012 London at the Olympic 5000 m final. He has a best in the marathon of only 2:10:55 from Tokyo 2018 followed by 2:13:55, 11th in NYC last November.
When I asked him how he liked the transition from the 5000 to the marathon, he said, “I like the marathon, just not the result”.
Maybe that’ll change on Sunday. There couldn’t be a better winner for the L A Marathon than an athlete from Mexico. To date, there’s only been one Mexican male champ, Martin Mondragon in 1988, who ran a 2:10:19 which was the course record for many, many years.
Barrios is coming off the Guadalajara Half Marathon Feb. 24 where he ran 63:06 in fourth place. He felt good about that result. He trains up at Toluca, Mexico outside Mexico City at very high altitude in the Forest of the Lions. If you can’t get fit there, you can’t get fit. We’ll see how it plays out Sunday morning.
A couple of Kenyan guys to watch are John Korir and Lawi Kiptui. 26 year-old Kiptui has a PB of 2:08:30 and has won his last three marathons in Lyon, France 2017, Stockholm and Rennes, France 2018.
Lawi’s management team told me his preparation was going quite well, that the decision to run in Los Angeles was taken back in November so he’s had plenty of time to prepare specifically for this race. They say he hopes to improve his personal best 2:08:30 from last October in Rennes so that he could get himself into a fall marathon and start gunning for a sub-2:06 performance.
I’m not sure that tomorrow’s race will be a sub-2:09, but the weather conditions, ranging from 51°F to 70 Fahrenheit throughout the day, should make for good enough conditions for the pros upfront, and safe for the other 24,000 as the temperatures tend to drop as you head toward the ocean in Santa Monica.
The other top contender John Korir, age 22, is the younger brother of two-time LA and 2012 Boston champ Wesley Korir. John debuted last May in Ottawa, Canada m, running an aggressive race before finishing second in 2:09:14 after getting caught by Ethiopia’s Yemane Tsegay at 40k.
He followed that up at last October’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon. But he dropped out with a hamstring problem after 30 km while running with the lead pack.
His preparation toward Los Angeles was considered “fantastic“ by his team. He did a block of training with guys in Iten, Kenya including 2:06 man Felix Kandie who is prepping to run the Boston Marathon in April.
The top American hopeful is Tyler McCandless out of Boulder, Colorado. Tyler‘s PR is 2:12:28 when he finished second at the California international Marathon in December 2017.
I’ve had a long conversation with the Tyler who is here in Los Angeles with his pregnant wife Kristen, coach Steve Jones, the former world record holder in the marathon, plus Kristen parents.
“I’m in the best shape of my life,” said Tyler, “better than that 2:12:28 in 2017.”
He’s had a couple half marathon prep races, including a win in Naples, Florida January 20th in 64:18. Then he followed up with the third-place finish at the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half in February 19th behind Dathan Ritzenhein and Kenya ‘s Emmanuel Bett. Tyler next ran the Road to Gold 8-miler in Atlanta to test the new Olympic Trials marathon course on March 2. He finished fourth but the three guys who beat him all ran 62 minutes at the New York City half marathon last weekend – Brogan Austin, Jared Ward, and Parker Stinson.
Tyler said he’s feeling very competitive in this field, and ran on the treadmill in Boulder during the snowy part of the winter watching reruns of the 2015 L A Marathon “getting myself pumped up”. So good luck to him.
One last late entrant on the men’s side comes our way from Ukraine, Oleksandr Sitovsky, a three-time Olympian who finished 12th in the London Games in 2012 and 20th in Rio 2016. He has a PB 2:09:11 out of 2015, but ran eighth last spring in Seoul in 2:10:12. Supposedly, at age 40, he’s in top form.
Let’s move the women’s race where no former champions have returned, so it’s wide-open. Top seed is Belaynesh Fikadu of Ethiopia who ran a 2:26:42 PB this January in Houston. She lives in the Bronx New York and runs for the West Side Runners.
She came on late to take second place in Houston after having placed 10th in New York City last November in 2:30:47. Can she keep the roll going?
She’s gonna be a challenged by another Ethiopian who lives in the New York City area, Askale Meracchi, who admitted to me yesterday that she is still having a little bit of a hamstring problem from last year’s NYC Marathon that forced her to drop out at 15K. Before that she was second at Grandmas Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota in June in a PB 2:30:18.
From Kenya comes Lucy Karimi who has a strong personal best of 2:24:46 having won in Prague 2016. She then finished third in Rotterdam 2017 at 2:25:17 but she has a not run a marathon since. Her agency told me that Lucy missed her marathon last autumn due to a fall in training. Then recovery took longer than hoped for but since then her training is going well and she’s really ready for this race and hopefully get a podium place. A PB, they say, is not outside the realm of possibility. That may entail an early break and a strong front running performance and one doesn’t expect that here on this course.
Two-time Twin Cities Marathon and former Grandmas Marathon champion Jane Kibii from Kenya is back age 34. She was second in LA in 2017 and fifth last year. She tuned up with a 71:32 2nd place finish at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in New Orleans February 10.
A single mom who lives in Auburn, California outside Sacramento, Jane is featured in a great short film on YouTube called “Run Home”. It’s a powerful story that juxtaposes Jane’s new life in California with her home in Kenya.
Jane has run 11 total marathons between 2:30 and 2:39 and averages 2:33:49 so very consistent.
On paper, you wouldn’t expect a 2:34 athlete to be a major contender but Cynthia Cherop of Kenya may be the exception that proves the rule.
Her 2:34:12 PB came finishing second in Nairobi last October. Three weeks later at even a higher altitude in Eldoret, Kenya she won the Kass Marathon in 2:39:16, taking the lead at 5 km and running free all the way to the end. And she tuned up for LA with the win at the Bomet Half Marathon in sub-74 minutes, frolicking the entire way. So she seems to be somebody who’s got the potential to hang in there a long way.
Leading the American charge is Taylor Ward of Ogden, Utah. Taylor was seventh in the Chicago Marathon last October running a PB 2:32:42. That was a three-minute personal best. For LA she tuned up with a 73:27 half marathon in Houston in January. She’s coached by 1994 L A Marathon champion Paul Pilkington, the famous rabbit who won the race.
“I think she’s in better shape than Chicago,” said Paul, niw head coach at Weber State. “She did a lot of her long runs on a hilly course.”
Taylor is also a professor in radiology science at her alma mater Weber State where she lives with her husband Kurt who has a PhD in kinesiology and is it assistant volunteer with Coach Pilkington.
2008 Olympic steeplechaser Lindsey Anderson is another Pilkington coached athlete who’s running in Los Angeles. She debuted in Chicago last year with a 2:36 finishing 12th. 2018 was her first year racing since 2013 because she became a mother and began a coaching career.
Late last year she took the top job at the College of Southern Idaho and the winter has been particularly stern in Twin Falls. So she’s not quite in the shape for LA as she was in Chicago. Just wanted to get another marathon under her belt before the Olympic Trials next February in Atlanta.
All in all, very competitive races loom. You can watch coverage locally on KTLA5 beginning at 6 a.m. Pacific time and nationally on WGN AMERICA starting at 7 a.m. Till then have a good weekend.