2011 Virgin London Marathon Women's Preview: Liliya Shobukhova Vs. The "Strongest" London Women's Field Ever

by: LetsRun.com
April 13, 2011

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When Virgin London Marathon race director Dave Bedford describes his women's field as "undoubtedly our strongest ever," you'd better take notice. London is the widely regarded as the most competitive marathon in the world outside of the Olympics and World Championships (and some would say including those events, which are limited to three Kenyans/Ethiopians per event). Thus, its "strongest" women's field ever is going to be a treat.

Leading the 2011 London field is defending London champion and the reigning World Marathon Majors Champion Liliya Shobukhova. She'll be challenged by the reigning World Champion Bai Xue of China, the 2008 Olympic champion, Constantina Dita of Romania, 2008 and 2009 London and World Marathon Champion (winning a cumulative $1,000,000 bonus) Irina Mikitenko of Germany, the reigning ING New York City Champion Edna Kiplagat of Kenya, and the reigning Berlin Champion Aberu Kebede of Ethiopia. Wait, we're not done yet - throw in the world's best half marathoner and world record holder Mary Keitany and 2007 London champ and sub-2:20 runner Zhou Chunxiu. We still haven't mentioned former World XC and World Half Marathon champ and 2:22:22 marathoner Lornah Kiplagat, 2:21 marathoner Magarsa Assale Tafa of Ethiopia or 2:22 Russian challenger Inga Abitova.

Since just listing the names of contenders takes a full paragraph, handicapping this field must be difficult, right? Not at all.

Liliya Shobukhova The Top Female Marathoner In The World

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL
25: Liliya Shobukhova of Russia crosses the finish line to win the VLM Womens Elite section of the 2010 Virgin London Marathon on April 25, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Liliya Shobukhova is without a doubt the top current female marathoner in the world and the favorite. The former world record holder at the indoor 3,000m (8:27.86) not only has tremendous speed (14:23 5k), but she is great at the marathon and has won her last three marathons getting faster each time. She also has a lethal kick we have never seen before in the marathon.

What we wrote about her before she won last fall's Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 2:20:25 in less-than-ideal conditions still holds. We update our quote below to reflect her Chicago win.

    Shobukhova has been the best marathoner in the world the last two years and ... has to be considered the favorite. After finishing 3rd in London in her first marathon, she won Chicago last year by over 30 seconds over Mikitenko and then ran a PR 2:22:00 to win the most competitive marathon in the world (London) this last spring. (And followed that up with a 2:20:25 come from behind win in Chicago last fall). She has stellar track credentials (14:23 for 5k and 30:29 for 10k on the track) and has shown the marathon distance suits her quite well. At 32 33, she likely has a few good years left in the tank.

The good thing for the other competitors is that marathons by their nature often do not go according to form and a heavy favorite usually has less than a 50% chance to win. Before we turn to the other competitors, however, we must discuss two things: Shobukhova's marathon savvy and her finishing kick. Last year at Chicago, Shobukhova won by over 3 minutes, yet at 20 miles, the announcers were crowning Ethiopian Atsede Baysa (whom we didn't mention above, but is running London) the champion, as Baysa had built up a big lead. Shobukhova, however, knew in the warm conditions in Chicago what pace she could run and stuck to it. Baysa ended up blowing up big time and Shobukhova still ran 2:20:25 in the heat. She also had a very fast finish, covering the last 2.2k at 5:06 pace. That may sound impressive until you realize the year before in Chicago off a slower pace and better conditions, she ran the final 2.2km (almost 1.5 miles) at 4:49 mile pace. Winning the men's race that day by one second in a sprint finish was the world's best marathoner, Sammy Wanjiru, and Shobukhova ran her last 2.2km faster than he did. Truly incredible and something we have never seen in women's marathoning.

We know of no races by Shobukhova this spring to gauge her fitness, but that is not that uncommon and she has to be the favorite. Let's take a look at some of the other contenders starting with the most credentialed:

Impressively-Credentialed Women We Can Dismiss
The most credentialed and fastest marathoner in the field is Irina Mikitenko, who won the World Marathon Majors in 2008 and 2009 and has run a 2:19:19. Mikitenko, however, struggled in 2010 with a DNF at London and a fifth place in Chicago. She ran well at 36, but now she's 38 and two full years from her last marathon win. She did run a 32:06 10k earlier this month, but her best days most likely are behind her.

World Champion Bai Xue had tremendous success with the surprise win in the summer of 2009 in Berlin at the World Champs, but has done hardly anything since. She was 7th in London last year in 2:25:18 and while 2:25 will contend in a lot of places, it won't put you in contention in London. No one expected her to win Worlds, and unless she somehow got into that sort of fitness again, she looks overmatched here.

Constantina Dita may be the reigning Olympic champion, but for all intents and purposes, now she's a masters runner. 41 years old, she hasn't broken 1:14 for the half marathon or 2:36 for the full marathon since the Olympic year. She had one amazing performance left in her body and she delivered it at the perfect time - Beijing Olympics.

Berlin And New York Champs Hoping To Make An Impact
Edna KiplagatThat brings us to the women in the field most likely to challenge Shobukhova. Edna Kiplagat had a tremendous 2010. Until last year, she was known as one of the top road runners on the circuit but not a marathoner. That all changed last year, as she first won the LA Marathon in 2:25:38 (and, perhaps most importantly, the gimmicky $100,000 Battle of the Sexes), and then she followed that up by winning the ING NYC Marathon. As impressive as winning New York was, winning last year's New York City Marathon tells us very little about her abilities as a marathoner. Why? New York in 2010 was a 20-mile jog followed by a 10k race. The top ten women all finished within 95 seconds of one another. If a marathon ever favored a shorter road racer, that was it. In New York, Kiplagat pulled away with final miles of 5:11 and 5:18. Remember what Shobukhova did in Chicago in 2009 over her final miles and it's no comparison. Kiplagat ran consistently well in 2010, but is she a 2:20 marathoner (the kind of class it takes to win in London)? We doubt it. Kiplagat is coming into the race off of a 1:09:00 half marathon PR for second in New York, so her fine running appears to be continuing in 2011.

Aberu Kebede of Ethiopia also had a stellar 2010. Prior to 2010, she had great track (30:38 10,000m) and road credentials (1:07:39 half marathon) but had never run a marathon. She took care of that in grand fashion by running 3 successful marathons in 2010. First was Dubai (2:24:26 - 2nd place by 8 seconds), then Rotterdam (2:25:29 - 1st), then her first World Marathon Major win in Berlin (2:23:58 PR - winning by a minute). Is she ready to step it up one notch and contend in London? Possibly, but 2:23:58 is nearly 4 minutes away from 2:20. She comes into the race in good form, having run 1:08:28 to win the Lisbon half marathon last month.

Inga Abitova of Russia has shown she can contend in London. She finished second last year in London to Shobukhova and followed that up with 4th in the ING New York City Marathon. Like Shobukhova, she's got good track speed (30:31 10,000m).

Let us take a break from this exhaustive process to dismiss a bunch of people with impressive resumes who will not contend:

  • Lornah Kiplagat: She set the World Record for the half marathon (1:06:25) in 2007, but never has run as well at the marathon and hasn't finished a marathon since 2007 and we think hasn't even started one since 2008. Her days at competing on the track for medals are over, and she realizes her future has to be at the marathon. She may be a factor in 2012, but she was injured this January and says this on her website: "Her main goal is to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. To qualify, she needs to run sub 2:27:24 in London this year. It is less then four weeks before the Virgin London Marathon and Lornah is very positive about a good result." (If anyone is interested in training in Kenya, check out her website)
  • Zhou Chunxiu: She's run sub-2:20 but hasn't been under 2:25 since 2007, although she did beat Zhu Xiaolin in 2:25:00 to win the Asian Games last fall.
  • Magarsa Assale Tafa: She may have run 2:21 to win Berlin in 2008 but she ran three marathons last year, none faster than her 2:24:39 for 5th in London.
  • Atsede Baysa: Baysa is a tremendous talent and led Chicago last fall for 20 miles until wilting in the heat and finishing second. We wrote this about her last fall in our Chicago preview: "The women most likely to prevent another win by (Shobukhova) is Atsede Baysa of Ethiopia. Bayisa has the second-best time in the world in 2010 (2:22:04 to win in Paris). Her problem is this is her 7th marathon in the last two years. She ran four last year and this is her third this year (a win in Xiamen in January and in Paris in April)." Baysa put on a fine performance in Chicago and it seemed she could contend in World Marathon Majors. What did she do since then? She went out and ran the Dubai Marathon this January. So that made it 8 marathoners for her in the roughly two years. This will be 9 marathons in 27 months. That's way too much racing and totally crazy and makes us rule her out. She seriously needs to switch managers.

Two To Watch
Now that leaves us with two more contenders, one whom we have not even mentioned in this piece, Aselefech Mergia of Ethiopia. Mergia ran 67:22 for the half marathon last year and followed that up by pushing the pace during the 23rd mile of the London Marathon before settling for third. She then waited until this January to win the Dubai Marathon and the $250,000 richest first-place prize in the sport with a 2:22:45 win. Having already won $250,000 this spring and with such a stellar field in London, it seems unlikely she would race just for an appearance fee check. She challenged Shobukhova last year, why can't she do it again?

Mary KeitanyAnd then there is Mary Keitany, the half marathon ace from Kenya who ran 1:05:50 to set the world record at the RAK Half earlier this year. Mary has absolutely destroyed everyone at the 13.1 distance, with her last loss being in 2007. She made her much-anticipated marathon debut in New York last fall and was a respectable third. But as we've pointed out above, New York last year was not a true test for a marathoner. Going a very easy pace for 20 miles and then ramming it home is very different from running 2:20 pace from the gun. So the question marks remain about how Keitany will handle the marathon distance, but she now has at least a little experience and even more impressive credentials at the half marathon.

LRC Predictions: We love picking upsets at LetsRun.com to show how smart we are, but we're going with Shobukhova here. She has the speed and the experience. There are a handful of women who can challenge. It's easy to fall in love with Keitany, which we will do in our picks below, but Mergia coming off of Dubai appears to be ready to challenge even more so than she did in 2010, and Kebede appears ready to make the jump up in class in London.

Predictions: 1) Shobukhova  2) Keitany  3) Mergia  4) Kebede 5) Abitova 6) Kiplagat

Will We See A Sub-2:20? While men's marathoning has taken off in the last five years, women's marathoning has strangely gone the other direction (we'd love to hear anyone's theories on this - please email us). In early 2008, five men ever had gone sub-2:06 in the marathon, now 24 have. On the women's side in 2008, 13 women had gone sub-2:20 and now 14 have. We've had one sub-2:20 in 3 years and it's been nearly five full years since the second one.

If a field was ever going to produce a sub-2:20, we think it's this one. Shobukhova sub-2:20.

Magdalena Lewy BouletAmerican Magdalena Lewy-Boulet Hoping For A Sub-2:25

2008 Olympian Magdalena Lewy-Boulet has shown she will go abroad for fast times. Last year, she ran in Rotterdam and set a nearly 4-minute PR in 2:26:22, making her the fifth fastest American ever. She followed that up with a 2:28:44 in Chicago and an impressive 18th place at the World Cross Country Championships.

The goal for her in London is a sub 2:25 clocking and she should have plenty of people to run with. With the tsunami in Japan cancelling the last Japanese World Championships qualifying race, there are now 8 women from Japan hoping to qualify for Worlds in London and they should be running sub-2:25 pace. Plus, there is former Euro XC Champ Jessica Augusto making her debut, and Brit Jo Pavey making her debut after her 1:09:33 half marathon in New York.

In the US all-time lists, two runners running Boston are just ahead of Magdalena: Kara Goucher is at 2:25:52 and Desiree Davila is at 2:26:20. There then is a big jump up to Joan Benoit at 2:21:21. Hopefully one of these three puts a US woman in the 2:23 or 2:24 range this weekend.

Virgin London Viewing Options - Watch Live Or On Demand: The race can be viewed live throughout the world via television or the internet; for all the options, click here.
In the US, live coverage is at 3:55am Eastern on Sunday. For those in the US who want to get some sleep, we're proud to announce the race for the first time will be available on demand in the United States starting at 9am Eastern and we won't be displaying results to our visitors, and will direct our visitors to the on-demand coverage so you can watch it without knowing the results. For more info on the on-demand coverage, click here.

Disclosure: The Virgin London Marathon has partnered with LetsRun.com to promote the live and on demand stream of the race and is advertising the coverage on LetsRun.com.

More US Women's News: Desiree Davila Gets Ready For The 2011 Boston Marathon

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