2016 LRC Year-End Rankings, Women’s Marathon: London/Olympic Champ Jemima Sumgong Tops the List; Shalane Flanagan Top American

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By LetsRun.com
December 31, 2016

(What do you think about these rankings? Talk about them on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: 2016 Women’s Marathon rankings. And the #1 US rank goes to……)

With few professional events on the running calendar until 2017, LetsRun.com is once again rolling out its year-end rankings of the mid-d and distance events (2014 rankings here; 2015 rankings here).We’ve ranked the top 10 men and women in the world (plus the top five Americans) in the 800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeplechase, 3,000/5,000 and marathon. We hope you enjoy reading these rankings as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance against top-quality competition. Not all marathons are created equal. Stanley Biwott‘s 2:03:51 in London was one of the best performances of the year, even though he didn’t win the race. That’s more impressive than Abel Kirui‘s in against far worse competition in Chicago.
  • Season-best times were given some consideration, but we didn’t penalize a runner for having a slow sb if they ran tougher courses (such as New York).
  • Head-to-head results factor heavily in the ranking criteria if it’s close between two runners for a spot
  • While we strive to be objective with our rankings, with only two (occasionally three) data points for each marathoner, it’s inevitable that some subjectivity comes into play in these rankings, more so in the marathon than any other event.

LRC 2015 women’s marathon rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

LRC’s coverage of the 2016 World Marathon Majors

LRC 2016 Tokyo Marathon Recap: Feyisa Lilesa (2:06:56) Wins, Denies Dickson Chumba Share of WMM Title; Helah Kiprop Wins First Major in Course-Record 2:21:27, Moves Into Tie Atop AWMM Standings
LRC Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa Storms from Behind to Win Boston Marathon in 2:29:19 After Leaders Blow It With a 5:00 16th Mile
LRC What Drama: Jemima Sumgong Gets Taken Out From Behind, Gets Up And Wins 2016 London Marathon
LRC Kenya Is Golden At Last: Jemima Sumgong Wins Kenya’s 1st Olympic Gold In Women’s Marathon as All Three Americans Finish In The Top 10
LRC 2016 Chicago Marathon: Abel Kirui Digs Deep To Resurrect His Career With His First Win Since 2011; Florence Kiplagat Sends A Statement To Athletics Kenya
LRC Mary Keitany Three-Peats in Dominant Fashion in New York, Wins by Monstrous 3:35

LRC 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials Amy Cragg Wins, Desi Linden Runs Smart, and Shalane Flanagan Hangs On: Full Recap and Analysis of 2016 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials

World Rankings

1. Jemima Sumgong • Kenya • 32 years old 

2016 results: 1st London (2:22:58), 1st Olympics (2:24:04)

It’s simple: you win the two most competitive marathons of the year, you’re world #1. That’s exactly what Sumgong did in claiming titles in London and Rio this year, and as a result she sits on the top of this list. It’s a bit crazy to think that, at this time last year, Sumgong had never won a major marathon. But Sumgong had shown potential in big-city marathons over the years (she was second in Chicago in 2012 and 2013 and second in New York in 2014); she just needed something to push her over the edge.

That something may have come in the form of a coaching change, as in the spring of 2015 Gabriele Rosa took over her training from former protegé Claudio Berardelli.

“Nobody trusted Jemima,” Rosa told LRC in November. “She [was] always under Priscah Jeptoo, who was the most important [in Claudio’s group].”

Rosa did trust Sumgong, and after coming within seven seconds of the world title last year in Beijing, she rewarded his faith this year with two impressive victories. First, Sumgong held off defending champ Tigist Tufa to win in London despite falling during mile 22. Four months later in Rio, Sumgong made history, dropping Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa in the final mile to become the first Kenyan woman to win the Olympic marathon. Truly a year to remember.

2. Tirfi Tsegaye • Ethiopia • 32 years old 

2016 results: 1st Dubai (2:19:41), 2nd Boston (2:30:03), 4th Olympics (2:24:47)

Tsegaye didn’t medal in Rio, but she made up for it with a second in Boston and a 2:19:41 victory in Dubai, which made her the fastest female marathoner of 2016 by over a minute. And though fourth place is understandably a tough spot to finish at the Olympics, it was still a terrific result against a loaded field in a race in which Tsegaye held a share of the lead at 35 kilometers.

One race Tsegaye may regret is Boston, where she and three other women dropped a 5:00 16th mile with the Newton hills still to come. That surge came back to bite her as Atsede Baysa reeled her in over the final miles to claim the title. It’s a lesson Tsegaye, who has run Boston on two other occasions, likely will not forget if she returns in 2017. Still, overall the 32-year-old had a terrific year, and after finishing as our world #1 in 2014, she’s back in the top two in 2016.

3. Florence Kiplagat • Kenya • 29 years old 

2016 results: 3rd London (2:23:39), 1st Chicago (2:21:32)

Kiplagat, who won Chicago last fall and was third (second Kenyan) in London in April, had a legitimate quarrel with being left off the Kenyan Olympic team and she showed them why in October in defending her Chicago title in 2:21:32, the fifth-fastest time on the year. Sumgong, as the London winner, obviously had to be on the Kenyan Olympic team, and there wasn’t much argument about Helah Kiprop‘s place (though she DNF’d in Rio, she was coming off a silver at Worlds and a win in Tokyo). But selecting Visiline Jepkesho, the unproven Paris Marathon champ with a 2:24 PR, was laughable at the time and looked even worse in August after she finished 86th in Rio. It’s a shame that Kiplagat wasn’t able to compete in Rio — she’s never run in the Olympics — but if she can maintain this form, she has a great chance to make her debut four years from now in Tokyo.

4. Eunice Kirwa • Bahrain • 32 years old 

2016 results: 1st Nagoya (2:22:40), 2nd Olympics (2:24:13)

32 must have been the magic number in 2016 as three of our top four turned 32 this year. Kirwa, who was born in Kenya and became a Bahraini citizen in 2013, was just a shade behind Kiplagat in our minds. Kiplagat’s two marathons were both faster than Kirwa’s best time of 2:22:40 in Nagoya, but it was Kiplagat’s big win in Chicago — over veteran Edna Kiplagat — that tipped the scales ever-so-slightly in her favor as we viewed that as more impressive than Kirwa’s win in Nagoya. Still, 2016 turned out very well for her, and she now has a World Championship bronze and Olympic silver. Could World Championship gold await at London 2017?

5. Mary Keitany • Kenya • 34 years old 

2016 results: 9th London (2:28:30), 1st New York (2:24:26)

Yes, Keitany was only ninth in London (after falling during mile 22), but her victory in New York — by a ridiculous three minutes, 35 seconds (the largest in NYC in 32 years) — was so impressive that she has to be included in the top five (even if the NYC field wasn’t quite as stacked as usual). Keitany, like Florence Kiplagat, has good reason to feel hard done by when it comes to the Olympics, and Keitany spent the summer and fall making the Kenyan selectors look like fools, ripping course records at the Bix 7 and Beach to Beacon before dominating the field in New York.

Right now, we have to call Sumgong the best marathoner on the planet, given her victories in London and Rio, but if Keitany can go to London and win on the back of her victory in New York, Keitany will once again reign supreme at 26.2 miles.

6. Meselech Melkamu • Ethiopia • 31 years old 

2016 results: 3rd Dubai (2:22:29), 1st Hamburg (2:21:54), 1st Amsterdam (2:23:21)

Melkamu didn’t run any of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, but she won two marathons (both in times that ranked in the top 10 in the world this year) and finished third in Dubai, which is annually deeper than several majors. It was a nice bounce back from Melkamu, the sixth-fastest woman ever at 10,000 meters (29:53), who was only sixth in her final marathon of 2015 (2:33:59 in Saitama) after winning Daegu earlier in the year.

Given her track speed and past success in Dubai (in addition to her third-place showing this year, she was second there in 2014), it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her back there next month. But Melkamu’s wins in Hamburg and Amsterdam demonstrated that she’s more than a one-trick pony; she should be a force in any marathon she enters in 2017.

7. Aberu Kebede • Ethiopia • 27 years old 

2016 results: 4th Tokyo (2:23:01), 1st Berlin (2:20:45)

Tokyo and Berlin are two of the weaker World Marathon Majors (the women Kebede beat in Berlin — Birhane DibabaRuti Aga and Rea Iwade — are not exactly headliners) but the clock doesn’t lie and 2:20:45 was the second-fastest time of the year by any woman. And though she was beaten in Tokyo, she ran fast there as well (2:23:01, #13 time in the world this year). So #7 seems right for 2016, but we hope Kebede squares off against the big girls at London or New York next year and shows us what she can really do.

8. Mare Dibaba • Ethiopia • 27 years old 

2016 results: 6th London (2:24:09), 3rd Olympics (2:24:30)

Finishing ranked among the top 10 in the world when you were sixth and third in your two 2016 marathons is tough to do, but Dibaba posted those results against the two toughest fields of the year. Though Dibaba, our 2015 world #1, was only sixth in London, she was within 15 seconds of fourth. Two of the women who beat her in the British capital have already been named on this list, while two more lost to Dibaba in Rio, where the 2015 world champ landed on the podium again with a bronze medal. Put Dibaba in Berlin and Chicago and it would not have been a surprise to see her win.

9. Atsede Baysa • Ethiopia • 29 years old 

2016 results: 1st Boston (2:29:19); 6th Chicago (2:28:53)

We’re running out of women who ran two good marathons in 2016. But Baysa beat a few solid runners in Boston — notably Tirfi Tsegaye — and that’s enough to get her on this list, even though her 2:29:19 win was the slowest of any World Marathon Major this year.

10. Edna Kiplagat • Kenya • 37 years old 

2016 results: 3rd Tokyo (2:22:36), 2nd Chicago (2:23:28)

Tokyo and Chicago weren’t the world’s most competitive marathons this year, but Kiplagat placed highly in both and the women she lost to were pretty good: Florence Kiplagat in Chicago, Helah Kiprop and Amane Gobena in Tokyo. Kiplagat finished with two of the world’s top 20 times, an impressive accomplishment at age 37.

Honorable mention: Volha Mazuronak, Belarus (4th London, 5th Olympics)

U.S. Rankings

The American women did their country proud in Rio this summer. Though they fell short of a medal, Shalane FlanaganDesi Linden and Amy Cragg all finished in the top nine, a remarkable achievement considering that in the previous eight Olympic marathons, only two American women, total, had pulled that off. In fact, only one other country (Kenya in 2008) had ever placed all three of its entrants in the top 10 in the women’s Olympic marathon. If you scored the Olympic marathon cross-country style, the U.S. would have won with 22 points.

As impressive as their runs in Rio were, however, it also showed that the gap between the top Africans and top Americans remains very real. All three Americans came to Rio in great shape and for the most part ran smart races, yet the best of them, Flanagan, was still almost a minute out of the medals. That is not intended as a slight, merely recognition that there is still work to do and goals to realize for American marathoners as we head into 2017.

1. Shalane Flanagan • Nike Bowerman Track Club • 35 years old 

2016 results: 3rd Olympic Trials (2:29:26), 6th Olympics (2:25:26)

2. Desi Linden • Hansons Brooks Distance Project • 33 years old 

2016 results: 2nd Olympic Trials (2:29:00), 7th Olympics (2:26:08)

3. Amy Cragg • Nike Bowerman Track Club • 32 years old 

2016 results: 1st Olympic Trials (2:28:27), 9th Olympics (2:28:25)

These three women were clearly a cut above the rest in 2016, though putting them in order was a little tricky since their finish at the Olympic Trials (Cragg, Linden, Flanagan) was the opposite of their finish in Rio (Flanagan, Linden, Cragg). But considering that the Trials is, for the very best athletes, a selection race, we ranked the Americans according to their Olympic finish.

Flanagan appeared the most likely of the three to make the U.S. team back in February and looked strong through 20 miles at the Trials, but the heat of LA really caught up to her at the end of the race. Cragg put almost a minute on Flanagan over the final two kilometers, but Flanagan had run so well for the first 25 miles that Kara Goucher could not reel her in for the final Olympic spot. Cragg, meanwhile, produced a stellar performance at the Trials, never once looking uncomfortable, to breeze to the win four years after finishing fourth in Houston. Linden, as always, ran a smart, patient race to earn her spot.

In Rio, the three Americans were within six seconds of the lead through halfway, but Volha Mazuronak‘s surge early in the second half dropped Cragg and Linden. That left only Flanagan, running in what may have been her final Olympics, in contention. She was one of seven women at the front at 35 kilometers, but at that point she did not have the strength to answer another move. When Eunice Kirwa, Tirfi Tsegaye, Jemima Sumgong and Mare Dibaba went just after 35k, they took Flanagan’s medal hopes with them.

It’s too early to tell whether Flanagan, Linden and Cragg will still be factors at the Olympic Trials four years from now, but we do know that both Flanagan and Linden are running Boston in April. And at this point in their careers, the biggest goal for both women is to win a major marathon. Flanagan, of course, was raised in the Boston suburb of Marblehead; she’s long made it known that a win in Boston would mean everything to her. Linden, meanwhile, was just two seconds from victory on Boylston Street in 2011 and finished fourth last year. Of course, winning the Boston Marathon is a monumental task, but we can’t wait to see them try.

LRC Shalane Flanagan Leads US Team to Historic Day at Olympic Marathon and Says (Likely) Goodbye To The Olympics
LRC Shalane Flanagan archives
LRC Desi Linden archives
LRC Amy Cragg archives

4. Molly Huddle • Saucony • 32 years old 

2016 results: 3rd New York (2:28:13)

5. Kara Goucher • Oiselle • 38 years old 

2016 results: 4th Olympic Trials (2:30:30)

Huddle and Goucher each only ran one marathon in 2016, but no one else ran well enough across two marathons to bump them from the list. The only question was who to rank higher; we went with Huddle as she ran faster and she beat some established international names in New York (Joyce Chepkirui and former London/Dubai champ Aselefech Mergia while Goucher only faced Americans at the Olympic Trials.

Huddle, one of the U.S.’s best-ever distance runners on the track, faced massive expectations in her marathon debut in New York and lived up to them, taking third in 2:28:13. Even though many expected Huddle to run well, a debut marathon is never easy; so much goes into the preparation and execution that even a great runner can be made to look bad (just ask Kim Conley). So kudos to Huddle on her race in New York. She ran a cautious race, which may have kept her from finishing second, but it was the right strategy, especially with marathon giant Mary Keitany running away with it up front. Huddle can now go into her second marathon (whenever that is) with a better idea of her body’s limits.

Goucher’s marathon was impressive in a very different way. Written off by many midway through 2015, Goucher entered the Trials 37 years old and almost three years removed from her last good marathon (sixth in Boston in 2013). She’d battled with a variety of injuries since then and Goucher, always an emotional person, also had to deal with the stress of her exit from the Nike Oregon Project and her subsequent decision to report her suspicions about the group to USADA, ProPublica and the BBC.

“People ask, ‘How did you come back?’ Letting go of that shit is how I came back. I lost 200 pounds of fucking baggage I’ve been carrying around,” Goucher said after the Trials.

In Los Angeles, she looked like the Goucher of old, and though she did not make her third Olympic team, she ran an intelligent, patient race at the Trials. It just wasn’t enough against three eventual top-10 finishers at the Olympics.

What do you think about these rankings? Talk about them on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: 2016 Women’s Marathon rankings. And the #1 US rank goes to……

LRC Molly Huddle Very Impressively Finishes 3rd in New York in Her Marathon Debut – Is A Low 2:20s Coming Soon?
LRC Molly Huddle archives
LRC Kara Goucher archives


LRC 2015 women’s marathon rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

LRC’s coverage of the 2016 World Marathon Majors

LRC 2016 Tokyo Marathon Recap: Feyisa Lilesa (2:06:56) Wins, Denies Dickson Chumba Share of WMM Title; Helah Kiprop Wins First Major in Course-Record 2:21:27, Moves Into Tie Atop AWMM Standings
LRC Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa Storms from Behind to Win Boston Marathon in 2:29:19 After Leaders Blow It With a 5:00 16th Mile
LRC What Drama: Jemima Sumgong Gets Taken Out From Behind, Gets Up And Wins 2016 London Marathon
LRC Kenya Is Golden At Last: Jemima Sumgong Wins Kenya’s 1st Olympic Gold In Women’s Marathon as All Three Americans Finish In The Top 10
LRC 2016 Chicago Marathon: Abel Kirui Digs Deep To Resurrect His Career With His First Win Since 2011; Florence Kiplagat Sends A Statement To Athletics Kenya
LRC Mary Keitany Three-Peats in Dominant Fashion in New York, Wins by Monstrous 3:35

LRC 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials Amy Cragg Wins, Desi Linden Runs Smart, and Shalane Flanagan Hangs On: Full Recap and Analysis of 2016 Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials