Tokyo Marathon Men’s Preview: The 2017 World Marathon Majors Kick Off & Wilson Kipsang Wants the World Record?

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By LetsRun.com
February 23, 2017

The first Abbott World Marathon Major of 2017 is upon us, and just like a month ago in Dubai, the headliner has…well, made headlines by announcing that he intends to attack the world record. Wilson Kipsang, the Kenyan former world record holder who is coming off a 2:03:13 personal best in Berlin last fall, thinks he’s got a shot at the world record, despite the fact that no one has ever run faster than 2:05:42 in Tokyo (race organizers have changed the course in 2017 in an attempt to make it faster). Victory is not assured for Kipsang, however: Tokyo has five sub-2:05 guys in total, which is actually one more than the gold standard of marathons, London. However, of those five, only Kipsang and 2014 Tokyo champ/course record holder Dickson Chumba enter in good form. The others — Tsegaye KebedeTadese Tola and Bernard Koech — will all be looking for redemption in the Land of the Rising Sun. Evans Chebet, the only man to run two sub-2:06 marathons in 2016, leads a lengthy list of challengers.

Plus American Andrew Bumbalough is making his 26.2 debut in Tokyo which we examine here: LRC The Bowerman Track Club Goes to Japan: Andrew Bumbalough and Betsy Saina Set to Make Debuts at 2017 Tokyo Marathon. And maybe the best part about it is Tokyo is the only marathon major that is run in prime time in the US. So West Coasters, you don’t have to get up at some ungodly hour to enjoy it.

We preview the race below and assess whether there’s any merit to Kipsang’s record talk.

What: 2017 Tokyo Marathon

When: Sunday, February 26, 9:10 a.m. Japan Standard Time (7:10 p.m. Saturday night U.S. Eastern Time)

Where: Tokyo, Japan

How to watch: The race will be shown live in U.S. primetime on NBC Sports Network beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET. You can also stream the race live through the NBC Sports website.

All 2017 Tokyo coverage * All 2016 Tokyo coverage

Abbott World Marathon Majors

2017 Tokyo is the penultimate race in Series X of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, but the men’s title is all but decided and nothing that happens in Tokyo can impact the outcome. Eliud Kipchoge, on the strength of wins in London and the Olympics, leads the series with the maximum 50 points, and the only way anyone can even tie him is by winning two races during this cycle, which ends with Boston in April. But none of the entrants in Tokyo have won even one major during Series X, which means that no one here can catch Kipchoge, who is all but assured of the $500,000 series prize.

Elite men’s preview

Full elite field

AthleteCountryPBComment
Wilson KipsangKenya2:03:13Former WR holder coming off PR in Berlin
Dickson ChumbaKenya2:04:32Old Tokyo CR holder also won Chicago in ’15
Tsegaye KebedeEthiopia2:04:38Once one of the world’s most consistent marathoners, he’s struggled of late
Tadese TolaEthiopia2:04:49Runner-up in ’14, but only ran 2:11 in Frankfurt in October
Bernard KoechKenya2:04:539th in Paris last year in 2:11
Evans ChebetKenya2:05:31Only man to break 2:06 twice last year (in Seoul + Berlin)
Marius KipseremKenya2:06:11Won Rotterdam, 2nd Eindhoven in ’16
Bernard KipyegoKenya2:06:192016 runner-up also won Amsterdam in ’14 & ’15
Solomon DeksisaEthiopia2:06:22Late add was runner-up in Rotterdam last April
Shumi DechasaBahrain2:06:434th Tokyo, 5th Worlds in ’15 but hasn’t raced since
Alfers LagatKenya2:06:486th Paris, 7th Berlin last year
Masato ImaiJapan2:07:39Ran PR to place 7th in ’15; 13th in ’16
Stephen MokokaSouth Africa2:07:4010th at World Half Champs, 18th Olympic 10k in ’16
Arata FujiwaraJapan2:07:482012 runner-up has finished 75th, 37th, 44th last 3 years
Kazuhiro MaedaJapan2:08:00Ran PR to take 4th in ’13 but hasn’t broken 2:11 since
Gideon KipketerKenya2:08:141st Mumbai, 3rd Chicago last year
Hiroaki SanoJapan2:09:129th in ’15, 18th in ’16
Koji GokayaJapan2:09:2111th in ’15, 47th in ’16
Geoffrey RonohKenya2:09:296th Berlin in ’16
Takuya FukatsuJapan2:09:317th Chicago in ’16
Yohanes GhebregergishEritrea2:09:48
Yuki TakamiyaJapan2:10:57Top Japanese returner (8th in ’16)
Ryo HashimotoJapan2:11:20
Yuta ShimodaJapan2:11:34Ran 2:11 and finished 10th here last year as a 19-year-old
Yuma HattoriJapan2:11:46
Hiroyuki YamamotoJapan2:11:48
Andrew BumbaloughUSAdebutAfter years of injuries, ran 28:09 on the track in Nov.

The Favorite

Kipsang set the world record in 2013; he couldn't possibly do it again in Tokyo, could he?

Kipsang set the world record in 2013; he couldn’t possibly do it again in Tokyo, could he?

Wilson Kipsang — Kenya, 34 years old, 2:03:13 pb (2016 Berlin), 58:59 half
Last two marathons: 
5th 2016 London (2:07:52), 2nd 2016 Berlin (2:03:13)

Entering last fall’s Berlin Marathon, there was some question as to whether we had seen the best of Wilson Kipsang. Kipsang’s stretch from 2010 to 2015 ranks among the most impressive by any marathon ever: wins in London (twice), New York, Berlin, Frankfurt (twice), Lake Biwa, Honolulu, an Olympic bronze medal, a world record and six sub-2:05s (Kipchoge is the only other man with more than three in his career). But he was 34 years old, and though his results in his last three marathons were not disastrous (a DNF at Worlds, 4th in New York, 5th in London), they were not classic Kipsang. Then Kipsang went out and ran a personal best of 2:03:13.

Now, riding the confidence of that run in Berlin, Kipsang has been talking about reclaiming the world record from countryman Dennis Kimetto in Tokyo.

“My preparation all through from Berlin is going very well and I feel I have the potential to run faster than Berlin if all conditions allow,” Kipsang told Citizen TV. “I know it will be very cold but if the weather will be good, there is a high possibility because Tokyo is one of the fastest courses, if guys have been running 2:05 it shows it’s a very fast race.

“If I prepare myself well with the right approach and strong pacemakers, we want to really try to see whether we can run under 2:02:57.”

At the Tokyo press conference, Kipsang predicted a 2:02:50 for himself.

After Kenenisa Bekele‘s experience in Dubai, we don’t want to overhype Kipsang’s run in Tokyo as a world record attempt, especially considering no one has run faster than 2:05:42 in Tokyo. If you want to board the Kipsang hype train, though, here are a couple of reasons for encouragement:

1) The Tokyo course may be faster than in years past

Tokyo has unveiled a new course for the 2017 edition with the aim of making the race faster. In years past, the final 6k featured several hills. Those have been removed — or more, accurately, shifted around. Instead, there is now a series of six bridges just after the halfway point that runners will have to cover twice each. Japan Running News’ Brett Larner points out that the new hill/bridge section in the middle actually climbs 15 meters more than the final 6k of the old course. Larner has done a terrific job analyzing the changes to the course on his website (he’s critical of a sharp turn that comes about 100m before the finish line), summarized well in this excerpt:

The question is, will it be faster?  The hills on the old course weren’t terrible but came at the worst possible time.  From the Nihonbashi intersection just before 29 km on the return trip all the way to the finish, the new course is almost totally flat.  Describing this section as flatter and faster would be accurate, as would saying that overall the course has shifted its hills from the end of the race to the middle.  Will that make it faster?  Maybe.  With few corners and only a 180′ turnaround at Shinagawa Station just after 35 km there’s nothing to stop someone who handles the mid-race hills well from getting into a rhythm that carries them to a very fast time.  Nothing except wind, which could be more of an issue on this course than the old one if it blows from the north or south.

The old course also used to end in a desolate part of town with virtually no fans and that too has been remedied so added fan support could helop the cause as well.

If the course is indeed faster, that will obviously help Kipsang. And the weather forecast looks close to ideal: minimal wind (4 mph out of the east) and a high of 57 degrees, according to Weather.com.

2) Fast runners can make for fast courses

The layout of a course obviously impacts finishing times, but great runners can run fast on any course. Consider Chicago, where Tsegaye Kebede and Kimetto took the course record from 2:05:37 to 2:03:45 in the span of two years. Or London, where Kipchoge lopped 1:24 off the previous CR last April to run 2:03:05. Or New York, where Geoffrey Mutai lowered the CR by 2:37 in 2011, running 2:05:06. Would it really be that much of a stretch to imagine a legendary marathoner such as Kipsang making a similar improvement on the Tokyo CR? Empirically, the fastest course among the world’s most prestigious marathons should be Dubai, which is flat and features just four turns. But athletes have run faster in Berlin, Boston, London, Frankfurt and Chicago. That’s because it takes more than a fast course to run a fast marathon.

Logically, you can construct an argument for Kipsang and the world record. Athletes of Kipsang’s caliber usually don’t run Tokyo, so the old course record may be soft. Plus the weather looks fantastic and the course may be faster than ever before.

But we just don’t see it. In the four fastest races of all time (2011 Boston, 2014 Berlin, 2016 London, 2016 Berlin), the winner always had someone pushing him late in the race. Will anyone push Kipsang? Kipsang is the only guy in the field who’s ever run faster than 2:04:30, and of the four other sub-2:05 guys entered, only Dickson Chumba has been in good form lately. Put Kipsang in Berlin with Kipchoge and this weather and there’s a decent chance the WR goes down. But there are too many question marks in Tokyo for us to take this seriously as a WR attempt.

With that said, Kipsang is clearly the class of the field, and if he’s in the same kind of shape as he was in Berlin (which he says is the case), he should win — unless he pushes too hard for the WR and totally blows up. We should also note that Kipsang is working with the Sub 2Hr Project — the same group Kenenisa Bekele has been working with recently — though we don’t know what that entails other than Kipsang using their special carbohydrate drink. It may explain the world record talk, though. The Sub 2Hr Project would certainly get a boost if one of their athletes could take down the world record before Nike’s sub-2:00 attempt this spring.

Threats to Win

Dickson Chumba — Kenya, 30 years old, 2:04:32 pb (2014 Chicago), 60:39 half
Last two marathons: 3rd 2016 Tokyo (2:07:34), 2nd 2016 Chicago (2:11:26)

Chumba is Kipsang’s biggest challenger. He’s run Tokyo in each of the past three years and has churned out results like clockwork, including a course record in 2014. Check out his last six marathons:

DateRaceTimePlace
2/23/2014Tokyo2:05:42 (CR)1st
10/12/2014Chicago2:04:323rd
2/22/2015Tokyo2:06:343rd
10/11/2015Chicago2:09:251st
2/28/2016Tokyo2:07:343rd
10/9/2016Chicago2:11:262nd

Running six straight good marathons is a very difficult thing to do but Chumba has done it (although we’ll note his Tokyo times have gotten slower each year as has his Chicago times), and though the Tokyo course is different this year, his experience racing in the Japanese capital can only help him. Kipsang’s best beats Chumba’s best, but if Kipsang falters, Chumba will be there to capitalize.

Bernard Kipyego — Kenya, 30 years old, 2:06:19 pb (2015 Amsterdam), 59:10 half
Last two marathons:
 2nd 2016 Tokyo (2:07:33), 8th 2016 Amsterdam (2:06:45)

Kipyego, like Chumba, has been remarkably consistent during his career, though he’s yet to reach the same peak as Chumba and win a major. He’s broken 2:08 in 11 of his 15 career marathons (three of the others came in Boston, where he was 3rd in 2012 and 4th in 2015, and at 2013 Worlds, where he was 12th), but he’s never run faster than 2:06:19. These days, you need to be capable of running 2:04/2:05 to win a major, so a win in Tokyo would require a breakthrough. Still, Kipyego is the top returner from last year and he’s won the highly competitive Amsterdam Marathon twice (2014 and 2015).

Evans Chebet — Kenya, 28 years old, 2:05:31 pb (2016 Berlin), 60:13 half
Last two marathons:
 2nd 2016 Seoul (2:05:33), 3rd 2016 Berlin (2:05:31)

Chebet debuted with a 2:08:17 in Prague in 2014 but reached another level last year as he was the only man in the world to break 2:06 twice. Though he didn’t win either race, he finished behind only Bekele and Kipsang in Berlin. Obviously the problem there is that Kipsang smoked him in that race, which makes beating Kipsang in Tokyo considerably harder. But 2:05 is no joke, and if he can come close to that in Tokyo he will battle for the win.

One minor concern: Chebet is listed in the results for the Ziwa 10K on December 10 in Kenya, finishing eighth in 29:30 (winner 28:47), which isn’t great. However, given the race was at altitude over two months ago (and we can’t be certain it wasn’t a different Evans Chebet), we’re not too worried about it.

Marius Kipserem — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:06:11 pb (2016 Rotterdam), 62:20 half
Last two marathons: 1st 2016 Rotterdam (2:06:11), 2nd 2016 Eindhoven (2:08:00)

Kipserem debuted with a 2:18:51 at the 2011 KASS Marathon in Eldoret and since then has gradually climbed the ranks of global marathoning. From 2012 to 2015, he picked up wins in Brescia, Mont-Saint-Michel and Hefei before exploding with a three-minute PR to win Rotterdam last April. He followed that up with a 2:08:00 runner-up showing in Eindhoven in October and now makes his major debut in Tokyo. This will be the best competition Kipserem has ever faced, but he has consistently raised his game to match the competition and could be dragged to a high finish here.

Sub-2:05 Men Looking to Resurrect Their Careers

London 2010 was one of many exceptional marathons by Kebede *More 2010 London Marathon Photos

London 2010 was one of many exceptional marathons by Kebede
*More 2010 London Marathon Photos

Tsegaye Kebede — Ethiopia, 30 years old, 2:04:38 pb (2012 Chicago), 59:35 half
Last two marathons:
8th 2015 Tokyo (2:07:58), 5th 2016 Rotterdam (2:10:56)

It seems like Kebede has been around forever, but in fact he just turned 30 last month; he’s almost five years younger than Kipsang. However, he has been running marathons for 10 years, (20 in total), and all that pounding has started to show over the past few years, as he’s gone from a three-time major winner (2010 London, 2012 Chicago, 2013 London) and one of the best marathoners of the late 2000s/early 2010s to eighth in Tokyo and fifth in Rotterdam in his last two races. And though he’s broken 2:07 an astounding 10 times in his career, he hasn’t done so since April 2014 in London — his last good marathon. He was scheduled to run Chicago last fall, but pulled out before the race with an injury.

Again, Kebede is only 30 years old, so we’re not writing him off entirely, but it’s been a long time since he contended for the win in a major.

Tadese Tola — Ethiopia, 29 years old, 2:04:49 pb (2013 Dubai), 59:49 half
Last two marathons: 
DNF 2016 Dubai, 5th 2016 Frankfurt (2:11:15)

Tola, the 2013 World Champs bronze medallist and runner-up in Tokyo three years ago, has failed to break 2:10 in his last five marathon starts, a stretch that includes two DNFs (2014 Chicago and 2016 Dubai). Though his most recent outing, in Frankfurt in October, was not encouraging, he did win the Bogota Half Marathon last July, defeating Kipserem, among others, and running 65:16 at 8,600 feet of elevation. That’s a promising sign even if it’s been almost three years since his last good marathon.

Bernard Koech — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:04:53 pb (2013 Dubai), 58:41 half
Last two marathons:
4th 2015 Fukuoka (2:09:43), 9th 2016 Paris (2:11:31)

Koech, who ran 44:20 for 15 kilometers on December 4 in the Netherlands, was never as good as Kebede or Tola, so it’s not as if he’s been bombing races in recent years. But he has yet to live up to the potential of his 2:04:53 debut in Dubai in 2013, and his 2:11:31 last year in Paris was his slowest career marathon by almost two minutes, suggesting he is moving in the wrong direction.

The American

Andrew Bumbalough — USA, 29 years old, debut, 62:04 half

We talked about Bumbalough’s preparation at length in a separate article, so check that out if you want to know the full story. It should be remembered though that, when healthy, Bumbalough was among the U.S.’s top distance runners (top five at USAs in the 5k every year from 2010 through 2014, 13:12 pb) and he debuted with a solid 62:04 half marathon two years, defeating Dathan Ritzenhein, among others. Bumbalough has raced sparingly the last two years due to a sports hernia and a sacral stress fracture, but he ran 28:09 on the track three months ago and says he’s only improved since then. He’ll be shooting for a time in the 2:12/2:13 range and should have plenty of Japanese athletes to run with — eight men ran between 2:12:00 and 2:14:00 in Tokyo last year.

Former Bowerman Track Club team member Matt Tegenkamp debuted at 2:12:28 in Chicago 2013. Bumbalough is lighter than Tegenkamp was so that might make him better suited for the marathon but Tegenkamp was much faster on the track (12:58 vs 13:12, 27:28 vs 27:56). What does it all mean? We’ll make a prediction for Bumbalough before the race starts on the messageboard.

MB: BTC Teammate’s Betsy Saina and Andrew Bumbalough do the 26.2, how low will they go?

Best of the Rest

  • UPDATE: Dechasa has scratched Shumi Dechasa, 27 years old, Bahrain (2:06:43 pb): The Ethiopian-born Dechasa put together a strong 2015, taking 4th in Tokyo and 5th at Worlds, but he hasn’t raced since.
  • Alfers Lagat, 30 years old, Kenya (2:06:48 pb): Lagat ran 2:06 in Frankfurt in 2015 but took a step back in his two marathons last year (2:08 for 6th in Paris, 2:09 for 7th in Berlin).
  • Masato Imai, 33 years old, Japan (2:07:39 pb): Imai’s 2:07:39 in Tokyo two years ago was the fastest by a Japanese man since 2007. He’s only run one marathon since — 2:12:18 for 13th in Tokyo last year — but he looks to be in very good shape. At the New Year’s Ekiden, he split 63:07 for 22k — basically a 60:31 half marathon plus another half mile at the same pace.
  • Stephen Mokoka, 32 years old, South Africa (2:07:40 pb): Mokoka’s track times of 13:11 and 27:40 put him second and third, respectively, on South Africa’s all-time lists and he’s #5 in the marathon thanks to his 2:07:40 in Shanghai two years ago. He returned to Shanghai last October and won his third title there in 2:10:18, suggesting he could be capable of something good in his WMM debut. However, his 2017 results aren’t encouraging: according to Tilastopaja, he ran 30:36 on the roads for 10k in Pretoria on January 21 and 1:49:04 for 32k (2:23 marathon pace) in Bronkhorstspruit on February 11 (both at 4,500 feet).
  • Gideon Kipketer, 24 years old, Kenya (2:08:14 pb): Kipketer has been in the 2:08-2:11 range for most of his marathons, which won’t be enough to contend for the win in Tokyo. But he did win Mumbai last year in 2:08:35 (45 seconds up on second) and was third in Chicago in 2:12:20.
  • Yuki Takamiya, 29 years old, Japan (2:10:57 pb): Takamiya has no chance to win, but he’s the top Japanese returner, placing eighth in 2016.