2016 TCS NYC Marathon U.S. Men’s Preview: What Has to Happen for an American to Win for the First Time Since 2009

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By LetsRun.com
November 2, 2016

The year’s final Abbott World Marathon Major is upon us, as the TCS New York City Marathon will take place in the Big Apple on Sunday. The New York Road Runners have brought in some big international names (defending champ Stanley Biwott, world champ Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, two-time Boston champ Lelisa Desisa) and there’s a deep American field as almost all of the country’s top domestic marathoners will be there either as participants (Dathan RitzenheinTyler PennelMatt LlanoRyan Vail) or grand marshals (Jared WardMeb Keflezighi).

As always, there are plenty of storylines in New York, so we’ve broken our previews up this year. Below we take a look at the men’s domestic field. We’ll continue to roll out previews during the week and will be on-site in New York starting on Thursday to provide insight from the top pros. If you missed our first preview, looking at the international men’s field, you can read it at the link below.

2016 TCS NYC Marathon International Men’s Preview: Can Studs Stanley Biwott and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie Bounce Back From the Olympics Against Mr. Consistent (Lelisa Desisa) & Rising Star Lucas Rotich?

What: 2016 TCS New York City Marathon

When: Sunday, November 6, 9:20 a.m. ET (elite men start at 9:50 a.m. ET)

Where: New York, New York

How to watch: The race will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2, with coverage beginning at 9 a.m. ET. You can also stream the race online through WatchESPN. Locally, the race will also be shown on ABC7, with coverage beginning at 7 a.m. ET.

Prize money
Overall

1st$100,0006th$10,000
2nd$60,0007th$7,500
3rd$40,0008th$5,000
4th$25,0009th$2,500
5th$15,00010th$2,000

U.S.-only

1st$25,000
2nd$15,000
3rd$10,000
4th$5,000
5th$3,000

Time bonuses

Sub-2:05:30$50,000Sub-2:07:30$30,000
Sub-2:06:00$45,000Sub-2:08:00$25,000
Sub-2:06:30$40,000Sub-2:09:00$15,000
Sub-2:07:00$35,000Sub-2:10:00$10,000
Additionally, there is masters and NYRR prize money. For a full breakdown, go here.

Abbott World Marathon Majors

The Abbott World Marathon Majors consists of eight major marathons — Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, the World Championships and the Olympics — with the winner of each series taking home $500,000. The current series runs from the 2016 Boston Marathon to the 2017 Boston Marathon, and right now Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge is the leader with 50 points thanks to his victories in London and at the Olympics. Kipchoge cannot be caught, only tied, as athletes can only count two marathons per cycle. Since none of the guys entered in New York have won a marathon in this cycle, they’d need to win here and in Tokyo or Boston next year just to tie Kipchoge. And even then, they’d still likely lose out on the $500,000 grand prize as in the event of a tie, the WMM race directors hold a vote to determine the champion and no one is topping Kipchoge’s resume (2:03:05 CR in London and Olympic gold).

Important links: LRC 2015 New York City Marathon coverage * Race website

Men’s U.S. Field

NamePBComment
Dathan Ritzenhein2:07:47DNF’d Oly. Trials but has been on fire since. 60:12 half at Great North Run
Abdi Abdirahman2:08:564-time Olympian is 37 now; 62:46 at Great North Run
Ryan Vail2:10:57Has battled injuries in recent years but was 9th at NYC in ’14
Matt Llano2:12:286th at Olympic Trials and has gotten better w/ every marathon
Shadrack Biwott2:12:55Former Oregon star was 7th at Olympic Trials
Tyler Pennel2:13:325th in Olympic Trials
Craig Leon2:13:52Top US returner from NYC last year (8th); 29th at Oly. Trials
Christo Landry2:14:30US HM and 25K champ has yet to taste real marathon success
Tim Ritchie2:14:5061:23 half marathoner was 25th at Olympic Trials
Patrick Smyth2:15:008th at Olympic Trials
Tyler McCandless2:15:26Has broken 2:20 once in each of last 6 years but hasn’t done it this year
Brendan Martin2:15:30Former Columbia runner was 20th in Olympic Trials.
John Dewitt2:17:3866th at Olympic Trials
Michael Wardian2:17:49Masters runner has already run Berlin (2:28:19) and Chicago (2:32:02) this fall.
Ben Payne2:18:3735-year old has PRd at 5000 (13:44.54), 10,000 (28:36.43) and marathon this year. 17th at Olympic Trials
Michael Cassidy2:18:54Published author on LetsRun.com missed out on dream of Trials this year.
Matt Hensley2:19:51Ran 2:23 in Houston this year.
Zachary Ornelas2:20:11Former Michigan runner.
Jerry Faulkner2:21:5335-year old ran 31:21 at Penn Relays this year.
Jonathan Grey2:24:09Ran 13:37 and 27:59 in 2015.

The drawback of holding a fall marathon during an Olympic year is that the Olympians generally won’t want to run another marathon so close to the Olympics. And that is the case with the U.S.’s three Olympians, Galen Rupp, Jared Ward and Meb Keflezighi. But Dathan Ritzenhein, the third-fastest American ever, is running in New York, as are the 5-6-7-8 finishers at the Olympic Trials in Tyler Pennel, Matt Llano, Shadrack Biwott and Patrick Smyth. Add in Ryan Vail, who missed the Trials with a stress fracture but was 9th in New York two years ago, four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman and U.S. half marathon/25k champ Christo Landry and you’ve got yourself quite a field.

Could an American-Born Man Win in New York for the First Time Since 1979?

When the U.S. elite fields were released in September, we wondered if an American had a shot at winning the men’s race, something that has happened only once in the past 33 years. Our reasoning was simple: there are only four top-tier international men (Stanley BiwottGhirmay GhebreslassieLelisa Desisa and Lucas Rotich) and two of them (Biwott and Ghebreslassie) are doubling back from the Olympic marathon, which was held just 11 weeks ago. Plus the presumptive top American in New York, Ritz, is running really well right now. If Biwott and Ghebreslassie aren’t 100% because of the Olympics (and running their third marathon of 2016, something neither of them has ever done before), one of the Americans really only has to beat two proven marathoners in order to win, and one of them, (Rotich) lost to two Americans in Chicago last fall, a weaker field that the one he’ll face in New York.

Of course, it’s unlikely that all four of those guys run poorly on Sunday, but it’s also unlikely that all four run well. Attrition is a fact of life in major marathons. The only American to win World Marathon Majors in recent years is Meb Keflezighi, and he benefitted from some high-profile DNFs both times. When Meb won NYC in 2009, two-time NYC champs Martin Lel (pre-race scratch) and Marilson Gomes Dos Santos (DNF) were both nonfactors, as was our pick to win, Patrick Makau (DNF). When Meb won Boston five years later, Lelisa Desisa, who won Boston in 2013 and would win again in 2015, dropped out of a marathon for the first (and so far, only) time in his life, while Dennis Kimetto, who was coming off a 2:03:45 course record in Chicago and would set the world record in Berlin five months later, was also a DNF. They don’t just hand out major marathon victories, however; Meb was in terrific shape both times. In New York, he beat some total studs, including a two-time world champ/reigning Olympic silver medallist (Jaouad Gharib) and a five-time major champ (Robert Cheruiyot), while in Boston he won thanks to a bold, perfectly-executed strategy.

None of the Americans running New York on Sunday are as good as Meb (Ritz’s PR is better, but Meb’s career is inarguably better), which means they’ll have to catch even more breaks than he did if they are to win. But they’ve already caught a big one: the international field is shallow. Only a few guys have to bomb on Sunday for an American to win it.

America’s Best Hope

The Trials didn't go well, but Ritz has moved on

The Trials didn’t go well, but Ritz has moved on

Dathan Ritzenhein — 33 years old, 2:07:47 pb (2012 Chicago), 60:00 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 
7th 2015 Boston (2:11:20), DNF 2016 Olympic Trials
Prep race: 60:12 for 2nd at Great North Run (half marathon) on September 11

When we talk about an American having the opportunity to win New York, we’re mainly talking about Ritz. Though he dropped out of the Trials in February, he’s unquestionably the top dog among U.S. entrants here. Ritz has run 2:10:00 or faster four times in his career. Abdi Abdirahman has done it twice. Only one other American in the field has ever broken 2:12 (Ryan Vail).

Not only is Ritz the most credentialed American in New York, he’s also had the best season post-Olympic Trials. It began with his 28:12 10k on the roads in Boston in June, and Ritz followed that up with a 28:28 10k at Beach to Beacon in August to finish second behind Ben True and a 47:24 solo effort at the Crim 10-miler three weeks later. Most impressively, he ripped off a 60:12 half marathon at the Great North Run on September 11. Yes, the course is a net downhill, but the time was still phenomenal, only eight seconds slower than that of the winner, Olympic 5k/10k champ Mo Farah.

So Ritz is in great shape, supremely motivated after his disappointment at the Olympic Trials, and is almost the same age as Meb when Meb won New York (Meb was 34, Ritz turns 34 next month). He won’t have a better opportunity to win a major marathon.

Ritz has already overcome his biggest challenge, namely getting to the start line healthy. Though he was banged up after the Trials, he hasn’t suffered any injuries (that we know of, we’ll talk to him later this week in NYC) since then. Now comes challenge #2: closing out the marathon, made especially difficult in New York by the Central Park hills beginning at mile 23. This is an area Ritz has struggled with in his past two NYC appearances. Check out his 10k splits for his first two go-arounds in the Big Apple:

2006: 31:00/31:10/30:43/33:09 (36:22 pace final 2.2k) Total: 2:14:01, 11th place (#2 American)
2010: 32:02/30:05/30:08/32:26 (35:04 pace final 2.2k) Total: 2:12:33, 8th place (#2 American)

The silver lining for Ritz is that during the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials in New York (which actually took place in November 2007), he ran the final 10,382 meters in 32:19, or 31:07 10k pace. The course wasn’t the same as the layout for the NYC Marathon, but almost all of the race (including the final 10k) was run within Central Park, good chunks of it overlapping with the NYC Marathon course.

The final 10k in New York can be a killer, though. Last year, Biwott won by closing in 28:35 from 20 miles to the finish (almost exactly 10k). Geoffrey Kamworor, the runner-up, closed in 28:47, while marathons studs Lelisa Desisa and Wilson Kipsang, who were with the leaders at 20 miles, were left to pick up the chunks of their psyche after Biwott and Kamworor obliterated them in Central Park. It’s unlikely that the race closes that fast again in 2016 (Biwott ran a 4:24 21st mile), but if Ritz is going to win, he’s going to have to close hard.

“I’ve been studying New York and watching all the old races that I can, particularly the last few years and seeing the trends and whatnot and watching other races that aren’t rabbitted too like Chicago this year and last year,” said Northern Arizona Elite coach Ben Rosario, whose athlete Matt Llano is in the U.S. elite field in New York. “And one thing that you see happen with the Americans is they stay with the lead pack and it’s kind of slow and that seems great and it looks great on TV and everything. But then what happens is, a lot of times the African athletes in particular are able to drop a 4:40 or a 4:35 or a 4:30 [mile] and then it’s just chaos because the Americans, typically they don’t train that way. And they’re not capable of dropping that kind of time 18 miles into a race after they’ve been jogging along at 5:10’s or 5:05s.”

That has certainly been the case in Chicago the past two years and New York in 2014 (when Wilson Kipsang averaged 4:39/mile — or 28:56 10k pace — for the final 5.2 miles) and 2015. If Ritz can translate his road success at 10 kilometers this year to his final 10k in New York and he receives some help in the form of bad races by a couple of the international studs (Biwott, Desisa, Ghebreslassie, Rotich), he has a chance. Either that, or he has to take his chances with a Meb-in-Boston-like breakaway.

MB: Ritz and NYC

The Other Americans

Ritz has the highest ceiling, but there are several other guys who have a chance at the $25,000 prize for top American in New York. It’s worth noting that what Ben Rosario said in the Ritz section about a hard late-race move will likely impact the race for top American honors as well — if it goes slow on Sunday, guys like Llano, Pennel and Vail could all find themselves in the lead pack with 10k to go. A slow pace could certainly happen as the forecast on Sunday is calling for 21 mph winds with gusts of up to 36 mph according to AccuWeather. And that wind will be coming out of the north-northwest, not good for the runners considering the course runs mostly south to north.

Guys Who Ran Well at the Olympic Trials

Pennel leading Rupp and Meb at the Olympic Trials

Pennel leading Rupp and Meb at the Olympic Trials

Tyler Pennel — 28 years old, 2:13:32 pb (2014 Twin Cities), 61:44 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2014 Twin Cities (2:13:32), 5th, 2016 Olympic Trials (2:14:57)
Prep race: 48:10 for 7th at the U.S. 10-Mile Champs on October 9

New York will be Pennel’s third career marathon, and the 28-year-old Western State grad looks to be a natural fit for the distance. In 2014, he debuted by winning the U.S. marathon title at the Twin Cities Marathon. Then in February, Pennel finished fifth at the Olympic Trials after breaking the race open during mile 16. With some time to reflect on the race, Pennel’s coach at ZAP Fitness, Pete Rea, admits that his move may have been “slightly ill-advised.” With that said, Rea was extremely proud of Pennel’s courage to make a move against an Olympic silver medalist (Meb) and a 26:44 guy (Galen Rupp) and that “often great things don’t happen without great risk.”

This time around, however, Rea has impressed upon his athlete the importance of patience, especially since there will be no Olympic berths awarded on Sunday.

“A lot of people have gotten excited too early in the 5k after 59th Street Bridge (roughly 25k to 30k),” Rea said. “I know that he’ll run his best marathon if he can just continue to tell himself to be patient and wait, be patient and wait and then not really run forward until he hits the park at 21/22 [miles].”

Pennel’s buildup has been different from his previous two in that he entered at a much lower level of fitness, the result of a sacral stress fracture that caused him to miss several months of training in the spring. That led to a bit of a rough go of it at the U.S. 10-Mile Champs on October 9 (Pennel was 7th), but since then Rea believes Pennel’s fitness has improved dramatically and that he’s now “as fit, if not fitter, than he was in LA.”

Rea pointed to a key workout Pennel hit a couple weeks back, which he described as the best long run Pennel has had since he began coaching him. It’s a monstrous workout that stresses several systems and totals around 24 or 25 miles of volume. The format was as follows: 3 miles warmup, 5 miles hard, 1 mile float, 4 miles hard, 1 mile float, 3 miles hard, 1 mile float followed by 5 x 1k (1:45 rest between reps), 5 mins rest, 6 x 400 (1:00 rest between reps), 15-20 min cooldown. Here’s roughly what Pennel hit for it, according to Rea:

warmup, 24:35-5:35-19:20-5:41-14:30-5:40, 2:58/2:54/2:52/2:50/2:48, 66 seconds down to 61 seconds on the 400s.

Rea said the hard blocks at the start of the workout were faster than Pennel had run them in previous buildups, and added that last week Pennel closed the final 10 miles of a 16-mile fartlek (format: 5 sets of 3 min on, 2 min off, 2 on, 1 off, 1 on, 3 off) in 50:18, another sign of good fitness (generally Rea does not have his athletes taper much before marathons).

One fun fact about Pennel: ZAP Fitness hosts adult running camps, and as part of his room and board Pennel and the other ZAP runners have to work as the staff during the camp. Eighteen of those campers will be running New York on Sunday, though they’ll likely be finishing far behind the guy who served them food and made their beds when they visited over the summer.

Llano closed well in LA; can he do it again in New York?

Llano closed well in LA; can he do it again in New York?

Matt Llano — 28 years old, 2:12:28 pb (2015 Berlin), 61:47 half
Marathons since start of 2015: 6th 2015 Los Angeles (2:16:13), 13th 2015 Berlin (2:12:28), 6th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:15:16)
Prep race: 61:40 for 20th at U.S. 20K Champs on September 5

Llano’s in a similar situation to Pennel. Like Pennel, he finished highly at the Olympic Trials only to miss time in the spring due to injury (in Llano’s case, a double sports hernia). And like Pennel, he didn’t have a great prep race but has come on strong since then. His coach Ben Rosario believes Llano is ready for the best marathon of his career on Sunday.

“He’s definitely better,” Rosario said. “The mileage has been higher (close to 130 mpw on average). The times have been faster and he’s looked easier. That sounds like I’m being optimistic but that’s just the truth.”

Workouts have gone well, in particular NAZ Elite’s staple long steady-state run. Before Llano had never run longer than 16 in this workout, but on October 18 he averaged 5:13 pace for 18 miles at 7,000 feet — the equivalent of around 5:00 pace at sea level (you can view Llano’s entire training log here). But it’s the “looked easier” part that may be most encouraging. Two years ago, when Llano debuted in Chicago, he struggled to adapt to marathon training. But with every buildup, Llano’s body has become more accustomed to the mega miles and the pounding, and Rosario believes that his form is now more economical. The results bear that out. Check out Llano’s marathon progression:

DateRaceTimePlace
10/12/2014Chicago2:17:4324th
3/15/2015Los Angeles2:16:136th
9/27/2015Berlin2:12:2813th
2/13/2016Olympic Trials2:15:166th

Rosario wasn’t overly concerned with Llano’s lackluster prep race; his marathon buildups are usually 12 weeks and Llano was only three weeks in at the 20k champs. In terms of a race plan, Rosario believes Llano is ready to run 2:10 to 2:11 if the weather is perfect and ideally would like to see him run a fairly even-paced race, though he remains confident in Llano’s ability to close after he picked off several people in the late stages of the Marathon Trials in February.

Shadrack Biwott — 31 years old, 2:12:55 pb (2014 Frankfurt), 61:25 half
Last two marathons: 14th 2015 Frankfurt (2:12:55), 7th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:15:23)
Prep race: 61:55 for 1st at San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon on October 2

Patrick Smyth — 30 years old, 2:15:00 pb (2012 Olympic Trials), 62:01 half
Last two marathons: 33rd 2012 Chicago (2:21:34), 8th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:15:26)
Prep race: 63:21 for 2nd at San Jose Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon on October 2

Biwott, who helped Oregon to a pair of NCAA XC titles in 2007 and 2008 as Galen Rupp’s wingman, had a solid race at the Olympic Trials and has kept rolling in 2016, taking fourth at the U.S. Half Marathon Champs and running 61:55 in San Jose in his NYC tuneup race (in between he was a somewhat disappointing 8th at the US 20k champs). He looks ready for a strong run in New York, which will serve as his World Marathon Major debut.

Smyth, meanwhile, is an accomplished trail/mountain runner who excelled in the tough conditions of LA in February, finishing three seconds behind Biwott in that race. He’s won the last three XTERRA Trail Run World Championships and won the XTERRA Trail Run National Championship on September 18. The New York City Marathon will be run on roads, but with the bridges and hills, Smyth’s trail fitness may benefit him here more than at a typical marathon.

On the Comeback Trail

Vail en route to a 9th-place finish in NY in 2014

Vail en route to a 9th-place finish in NY in 2014

Ryan Vail — 30 years old, 2:10:57 pb (2014 London), 62:04 half
Last two marathons: 10th 2014 London (2:10:57), 9th 2014 New York (2:15:08)

Two years ago, Vail was one of the top contenders for a 2016 Olympic spot. In 2014, he finished top 10 in both London (2:10:57 pb) and New York (second American behind Meb) and at 28 was in his prime. Vail proceeded to put together a solid first half of 2015 (34th at World XC, 5th at USAs in the 10k) before developing a navicular stress reaction that summer followed by a sacral stress fracture that fall. That left Vail in a time crunch before the Olympic Trials, but rather than play it cautiously he gambled and, in his own words: “amped [up] volume and intensity to past levels in order to prove to myself that I had the required fitness. I decided it was worth trying to get to 95-100% rather than try the race at 80%.”

That decision backfired as Vail developed another stress fracture, ending his 2016 Olympic hopes. Vail turned 30 in March and after his experiences over the past two years, he’s been more patient in his NYC buildup.

“This time he realized, ‘Something has changed; I can’t do what I did when I was 25 or 26,'” said Dave Smith, Vail’s coach. “I think he finally got it. I kept telling him, ‘Ryan, once you get a certain amount of work, you don’t have to keep doing the same thing.'”

What Smith means is that he believes that after several buildups with mileage in the 130-140-mile per week range, Vail can afford to live with a little less mileage during this one. He’s been around 100-110 mpw this fall and very cautious about even the hint of an injury; when he felt tightness in his lower back in mid-October, he responded by immediately taking four days off from running, electing to aqua jog instead. The result is that Vail’s workouts (in particular, a hilly 16-miler at 5:04 pace on October 16) have been as good as ever, but the volume is a little lower. Smith is happy to make that tradeoff as long as Vail is healthy.

“I told him some of this forced time off might be a blessing in disguise and get him to the start line fresher than he’s ever been,” Smith said.

Still, this will be Vail’s first race of any kind since June 2015 and considering the amount of training he’s missed the last couple years, replicating his 2014 result will be a challenge. But we won’t really know what the new Ryan Vail will be capable of until he steps on the line on Sunday.

For more details on Vail’s comeback, check out his blog.

Best of the Rest

  • Abdi Abdirahman, 37 years old, 2:08:56 pb: Abdi in his prime was as good as any American in this field minus Ritz, as he’s broken 2:10 twice and beat Ritz out for the final spot on the 2012 Olympic team. But he’s 37 and hasn’t raced a marathon since 2014, when he was only 16th in Boston in 2:16:06. Abdi did run 28:39 on the roads in June and his prep race (62:46 at Great North Run) wasn’t bad, but his best days are behind him.
  • Christo Landry, 30 years old, 2:14:30 pb: Landry has excelled on the roads, winning the US Half Marathon and 25k champs this year and taking third at the 20k champs on September 5 to clinch the USA Running Circuit title, the third of his career. However, he has yet to really conquer the marathon. He withdrew from the Olympic Marathon Trials earlier this year after a poor buildup, but his coach Alex Gibby believes that he’s learned from the experience. One lesson: at 30, it may take him longer to bounce back from an over-distance long run or long threshold than when he was fresh out of William & Mary. When Gibby’s athletes have had success in NYC in the past (his wife, Kathy Newberry, was the third American in 2010; Ed Moran ran 2:11 for 10th in 2011), they’ve been patient and he believes that is the key if Landry is to run well on Sunday.
    “Ever since I started coaching him out of high school, he’s always met with success pushing the envelope, putting the hammer down, whatever cliche you want to learn. He’s had to learn that pressing, particularly in the marathon, too early is a death sentence. He’s run some very good 18-to-22 milers during the course of some of his marathons but I don’t think he’s yet to have connected with the 26.2 and that’s certainly the goal this weekend.”
  • Craig Leon, 32 years old, 2:13:52 pb: Leon ran well last year to finish 8th and is the top American returner, but his 2015 result also speaks to the dearth of American talent in the race last year as it was held just three months before the Olympic Trials (he was 29th in LA). If Leon can finish in the top 10 again, it would be a huge accomplishment.
  • Tim Ritchie, 29 years old, 2:14:50 pb: Ritchie turned heads with his 61:23 win at the Philly Rock ‘n’ Roll Half last year, and he posted top-five finishes at the U.S. 20k and 10-mile champs this fall. But he’s yet to take the next step and prove himself as a top-tier domestic marathoner (he was 25th at the Olympic Trials).

Talk about the race on our world famous fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official 2016 New York City Marathon Live Discussion Thread
*MB: Ritz and NYC