2017 London Marathon Men’s Preview: Kenenisa Bekele Takes on Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, Feyisa Lilesa, Abel Kirui & Rising Star Daniel Wanjiru in Another Stacked Race

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By LetsRun.com
April 20, 2017

For what seems like the hundredth time in a row, the Virgin Money London Marathon has assembled the best marathon field of the year. The winners of last fall’s four most prestigious marathons — Kenenisa Bekele (Berlin), Abel Kirui (Chicago), Daniel Wanjiru (Amsterdam) and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (New York) — will all assemble in the British capital for the race’s 37th edition on Sunday. They’ll be joined by Olypmic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa, fresh off a win at the NYC Half, 2016 Dubai Marathon champ Tesfaye Abera (2:04:24 pb) and debutant Bedan Karoki of Kenya, who earned silver medals at the 2015 World Cross Country and 2016 World Half Marathon Championships.

As amazing as the field is, it’s lost some star power compared to recent years. None of the major players in the last two editions — pulse-pounding duels between Eliud Kipchoge and Wilson Kipsang in 2015 and Kipchoge and Stanley Biwott in 2016 — return this year. Kipchoge passed on a chance at a three-peat and will instead attempt to break the 2:00 barrier in a Nike-sponsored race in Italy next month. Kipsang elected to run Tokyo instead, setting the course record of 2:03:58 there in February, while Biwott was forced to withdraw from London with a hamstring injury. That leaves Bekele (3rd) and Ghebreslassie (4th) as the top returners. While both men are fantastic marathoners, the fact is, the world’s top marathoner will not be in London — the first time that’s been the case for at least five years.

Still, if you can’t get excited for Kenenisa Bekele in a marathon, you probably don’t like running very much. We take a look at his chances and the rest of the London field below.

What: 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon

When: Sunday, April 23, 2016. Women’s elite start at 9:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m. ET); men’s elite start at 10:00 a.m. (5:00 a.m. ET)

Where: London, England

How to watch (U.S. viewers): Live on NBC Sports Network or streaming via NBC Sports Live. Coverage begins at 3:30 a.m. ET.

How to watch (UK viewers): Coverage begins on BBC Two at 8:30 a.m. and shifts to BBC One at 9:55 a.m. (local time), continuing until 3 p.m. BBC Two will air race highlights at 6 p.m.

How to watch (rest of world)
Network   Country/area
Brazil SporTV      
Canada FloTrack    (requires subscription)
Europe  Eurosport   (outside of UK & Switzerland) 
New Zealand Sky Sport   
North Africa OSN     
Pan Africa SuperSport
Pan Asia  Eurosport  
Pan/Latin America ESPN        
Pan Middle East OSN         
Switzerland SRG SSR   

Talk About the Race: You can talk about it both now and as it happens live on our fan forum / messageboard: MB: Official 2017 London Marathon Live Discussion Thread.

Prize money (amount is the same for men’s and women’s races)

1st: $55,000                           6th: $7,500                          11th: $1,500
2nd: $30,000                         7th: $5,000                         12th: $1,000
3rd: $22,500                          8th: $4,000
4th: $15,000                          9th: $3,000
5th: $10,000                          10th: $2,000

Bonuses
Several time bonuses, from $100,000 for sub-2:05 or $75,000 for sub-2:06 down to $1,000 for sub-2:11
Course record (2:03:05): $25,000
World record (2:02:57): $125,000

Abbott World Marathon Majors

London is one of six Abbott World Marathon Majors (AWMM) events (the others are Tokyo, Boston, Berlin, Chicago and New York). London 2017 is the first race of Series XI, which concludes at the 2018 London Marathon. Though the scoring system remains the same (25 points for a win, 16 for 2nd, 9 for 3rd, 4 for 4th and 1 for 5th; only two races can count in a given series), the prize structure has changed dramatically. The series champion now receives $250,000 (compared to $500,000 in the past), while second and third place — which previously received nothing — earn $50,000 and $25,000, respectively. Eliud Kipchoge was the Series X champion.

Official site * 2016 LRC coverage

Elite Men (sub-2:15) *Full elite field

NameNationPBComment
Kenenisa BekeleEthiopia2:03:03If healthy, he’s the favorite but coming off a DNF in Dubai
Tesfaye AberaEthiopia2:04:24Won Dubai & Hamburg in ’16 but DNF’d Olympics
Feyisa LilesaEthiopia2:04:52Won Tokyo + 2nd in Olympics in ’16; looked good in winning NYC Half
Abel KiruiKenya2:05:042-time world champ resurrected career w/ Chicago win last fall
Daniel WanjiruKenya2:05:21Took down stacked field (top 10 all sub-2:08) to win Amsterdam in October
Tilahun RegassaEthiopia2:05:275th and 6th last 2 years but hasn’t raced in a year
Ghirmay GhebreslassieEritrea2:07:46World champ was 4th last year, then 4th in Rio, 1st NYC
Amanuel MeselEritrea2:08:1721st Olympics, then 5th Fukuoka
Asefa MengstuEthiopia2:08:41Won Bloemfontein last year, then big PR to win Cape Town
Alphonce SimbuTanzania2:09:195th Olympics, then won Mumbai in January
Ayad LamdassemSpain2:09:28Hasn’t run a marathon since taking 8th in Fukuoka in 2013
Javier GuerraSpain2:09:337th in ’15; 9th in Tokyo last year
Ghebre KibromEritrea2:09:3610th last year
Abdellatif MeftahFrance2:09:46Hasn’t run a marathon since taking 11th in Paris in 2015
Abdelhadi El HachimiBelgium2:10:35PR’d last year at Gold Coast Marathon at age 41
Scott OverallGreat Britain2:10:552012 Olympian was 13th in Chicago last fall
Michael ShelleyAustralia2:11:152014 Commonwealth Games champ was 47th in Rio
Chris ThompsonGreat Britain2:11:1916th last year
Jesus EspanaSpain2:11:58Ran PR to take 6th in Seville last year; 65th in Rio
Tsegai TeweldeGreat Britain2:12:2312th last year; top returning Brit
Andrew LemoncelloGreat Britain2:13:40 Former steeplechaser for FSU has shown great range, 8:22 st, 27:57 10k and 2:13 marathon.
Kevin SeawardIreland2:14:52 31-year old competed in Olympics last year.
Bedan KarokiKenyadebut’15 World XC/’16 World Half runner-up coming off 59:10 win at RAK Half

The GOAT

Kenenisa Bekele — Ethiopia, 34 years old, 2:03:03 pb (2016 Berlin), 60:09 half
Recent marathons: 3rd 2016 London (2:06:36), 1st 2016 Berlin (2:03:03), DNF 2017 Dubai

Bekele may not be the greatest marathoner in history (for now, that title belongs to Kipchoge), but when you combine what he’s accomplished on the track (3 Olympic golds, 5k/10k world records), roads (2:03:03 marathon PR, #2 all-time) and cross country (11 world titles), he’s the greatest distance runner to ever live. London will be marathon start #7 for Bekele, and at this point, we have a pretty good idea of what he’s capable of. If Bekele is at his best (and for him, this usually comes down to how healthy he is), he’s as good as anyone, as evidenced by his 2:03:03 victory over Wilson Kipsang at last year’s Berlin Marathon. But ever since he won his final world title on the track in 2009, health has been a constant concern. The injury bug bit again in his last marathon in Dubai in January, and in unfortunate fashion. Bekele fell at the start of the race, was trampled by the crowded masses behind him and injured his calf as a result, causing him to drop out just after halfway.

Before that race, Bekele and his team made no secret of his ambitions: he wanted to break the marathon world record in Dubai. We imagine that goal is still on Bekele’s list, but Bekele’s agent, Jos Hermens, was more guarded about Bekele’s ambitions in London when we spoke to him on the phone on Wednesday.

“He was very confident [in Dubai] but now we don’t want to speak out,” Hermens said. “[The] main goal is to win the race.”

When we were in Boston last week, a source told us that he’d heard Bekele wasn’t doing well and wondered if he’d pull out of London.

Hermens admitted that Bekele ran into some “troubles” after Dubai as a result of the fall, but said that he’s doing well now and that he’s “ready to race” in London.

Update: At the press conference today, Bekele said he was in “good shape.” 

Bekele certainly enters London 2017 in a far better spot than London 2016. Coming into last year’s race, he hadn’t finished a marathon in 18 months and many were starting to doubt if he’d ever overcome a nagging calf injury. He managed to take third behind Kipchoge and Biwott and used that performance as a springboard to his 2:03 in Berlin five months later. Bekele is not a guy who needs a ton of training to get into shape, so as long as he didn’t miss too much time after Dubai, we expect him to be in the mix on Sunday.

Other Fall Marathon Champs

Ghirmay Ghebreslassie — Eritrea, 21 years old, 2:07:46 pb (2016 London), 60:01 half
Recent marathons: 4th 2016 London (2:07:46), 4th 2016 Olympics (2:11:04), 1st 2016 New York (2:07:51)
Prep race: 62:43 for 3rd at Egmond aan Zee Half Marathon on January 8 (2 secs behind winner)

The 21-year-old Eritrean has yet to run a bad marathon since debuting in the event in 2014. In his first race, 2014 Chicago, he was supposed to serve as the rabbit through 25k but wound up staying in the race and ran 2:09 for sixth. He ran a PR of 2:07 in Hamburg in his next race before breaking out with a win at Worlds last year. He built on that success last year, taking 4th in London and the Olympics before winning New York in 2:07:51. Only four men have ever run faster in NYC.

If you can’t tell, Ghebreslassie is a stud. The one thing he hasn’t yet done is run a truly fast marathon, as his PR is ‘only’ 2:07:46. Considering he ran within five seconds of that in New York last year, he should be able to run much faster in London. He’ll need to, as it’s taken 2:05:19 or better to win London in eight of the past nine years (the exception is 2013, when everyone blew up after a 61:34 first half).

Daniel Wanjiru — Kenya, 24 years old, 2:05:21 pb (2016 Amsterdam), 59:20 half
Recent marathons: 4th 2016 Prague (2:09:25), 1st 2016 Amsterdam (2:05:21)
Prep race: 62:16 for 12th at RAK Half on February 10

Wanjiru is an outstanding half marathoner who showed last fall in Amsterdam that he could become a star at 26.2 miles as well. Wanjiru entered Amsterdam, his third career marathon, with three career sub-60 half marathons under his belt, including wins at the Prague Half in 2015 and 2016. He proceeded to set the course record, winning the race by 24 seconds in 2:05:21 and defeating a stacked field in the process (top 8 were all under 2:07 including 7th placer Geoffrey Kirui who won Boston last week, top 10 were all under 2:08). Wanjiru, who is not related to the late great Sammy Wanjiru, has the talent to do something special in London. The only concern is his tuneup race, where he only ran 62:16 at the RAK Half in February. That result is a little troubling, especially given his proficiency at the half marathon distance, but that was a long time ago and he has to be considered among the top contenders. Galen Rupp was certainly able to shake off a subpar 61:59 two weeks before Boston so a 62:16 in February isn’t an issue if the training has been going well.

Abel Kirui — Kenya, 34 years old, 2:05:04 pb (2009 Rotterdam), 60:11 half
Recent marathons: 5th 2016 Tokyo (2:08:06), 1st 2016 Chicago (2:11:23)
Prep race: 61:30 for 4th at Barcelona Half on February 12

After world titles in 2009 and 2011 and Olympic silver in 2012, Kirui went through a rough patch, failing to win a marathon or run faster than 2:09 from 2013 to 2015. He hinted at a revival with a 2:08 fifth-place finish in Tokyo before returning to the top by winning Chicago last fall. Granted, Chicago was the easiest of the six majors to win last year, but a win is a win. Now it gets interesting. Kirui faces a much tougher field in London, and though he’s shown the ability to run fast in the past, a non-rabbitted race would play more to his strengths. Remember, the last time he ran London, sandwiched between his 2011 World title and 2012 Olympic silver, he only ran 2:07:56. In addition, his agent Jos Hermens said Kirui had some “healthy problems” during this buildup.

But there are reasons to be confident. His 61:30 at the Barcelona Half was solid, and his coach Renato Canova told us he ran 2:07:06 for 40k — that’s 2:14:04 marathon pace, at elevation — in a workout during his buildup, dropping training partner Geoffrey Kirui hard over the final two kilometers. As you may recall, Geoffrey Kirui just won the Boston Marathon on Monday.

Two More Guys Who Ran Well in Rio

Feyisa Lilesa — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:04:52 pb (2012 Chicago), 59:22 half
Recent marathons: 1st 2016 Tokyo (2:06:56), 2nd 2016 Olympics (2:09:54), 4th 2016 Honolulu (2:15:57)
Prep race: 60:04 for 1st at NYC Half on March 19

Lilesa’s amazing story — which LRC helped break — has been well-documented since his Olympic silver in Rio eight months ago. Though he struggled in his first race back in Honolulu, we’re not putting too much stock into his 2:15 marathon there. First, Honolulu is a tough, hilly course. Second, given the uncertainty surrounding his family/living situation, his training last fall was far from ideal. Now that he’s settled down in Flagstaff, Lilesa has returned to top form, getting narrowly outkicked by Leonard Korir at the Houston Half Marathon before clocking 60:04 at the NYC Half to take down in-form Brit Callum Hawkins. He looks to be ready to go in London, where his best finish is fourth from 2013.

Alphonce Simbu — Tanzania, 25 years old, 2:09:19 pb (2016 Lake Biwa), 61:59 half
Recent marathons: 3rd 2016 Lake Biwa (2:09:19), 5th 2016 Olympics (2:11:15), 1st 2017 Mumbai (2:09:32)

Simbu was only 11 seconds behind Ghebreslassie in Rio and followed that race up by winning January’s Mumbai Marathon in 2:09:32. However, he may not have the speed for London — he’s yet to break 2:09 in six career marathons, though several of them came in tough weather/courses. One more issue: he may not even start the race in London. As of Wednesday morning, he still didn’t have a visa to enter the UK as he missed the application deadline.

The Stud Making His Debut

Karoki taking silver at the World Half Champs last year

Karoki taking silver at the World Half Champs last year

Bedan Karoki — Kenya, 26 years old, debut, 59:10 half
Prep race: 
59:10 for 1st at RAK Half on February 10

We have no doubt that Karoki, who was supposed to run London last year but withdrew before the race, will be a fine marathoner one day. Whether it happens in London is hard to say — it’s always tough to predict debuts — but few men have moved to the event more prepared than Karoki. Just look at what he’s done during his half-marathon career (table courtesy of All-Athletics):

DateCompetitionPlaceResult
16.03.2014Lisboa Meia Maratona de Lisboa159:58
18.05.2014Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon160:02
20.09.2014Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon159:23
13.09.2015Copenhagen Half Marathon159:14
26.03.2016Cardiff IAAF World Half Marathon Championships259:36
18.09.2016Copenhagen Half Marathon559:32
10.02.2017Ras Al Khaimah International Half Marathon159:10

Karoki has run seven half marathons, run sub-60 in six of them and won five of them. And his most recent one was the best of the bunch, as he defeated a loaded field to win the RAK Half in a PR of 59:10 in February. Add in his accomplishments on the track (top seven in the 10,000 at the last four global championships) and in cross country (silver at 2015 Worlds) and he’s shown the ability to run well on all surfaces.

We like everything about Karoki. He’s fast, but he’s also clearly better at the longer stuff. His 5,000 pb is just 13:15, compared to 26:52 in the 10,000 and 59:10 in the half. Perhaps he goes out too fast in London and struggles late, but it’s also possible he goes out fast while feeling comfortable (since it’s so much slower than the sub-60 half pace he’s used to) and holds on for a fast time. That’s what Ethiopian Tamirat Tola, whom Karoki beat at the World Half Champs last year (he also beat Mo Farah in that race), did in Dubai in January and he wound up setting a course record of 2:04:11.

Big Talents With a Question Mark

Tesfaye Abera — Ethiopia, 25 years old, 2:04:24 pb (2016 Dubai), 60:32 half
Recent marathons: 
1st 2016 Dubai (2:04:24), 1st 2016 Hamburg (2:06:58), DNF 2016 Olympics
Prep race: 64:53 for 5th at Egmond aan Zee Half Marathon on January 8

The 6-foot-4 Abera emerged from anonymity to win last year’s Dubai Marathon in 2:04:24 and followed that up with a 2:06:58 win in Hamburg, which was enough to earn him selection for the Ethiopian Olympic team. However, he totally flopped in Rio and wound up dropping out. Since then, he’s only raced once, and it didn’t go very well — he ran only 64:53 in a Dutch half marathon in January — one second slower than Joyciline Jepkosgei‘s new women’s world record. Abera, who owns the #2 PR in the field (#12 all-time) is a high-risk, high-reward pick in London.

Battle for Britain

This year’s London Marathon will also serve as the UK trials race for the 2017 World Championships, with the top two Brits across the line earning the right to return to London in August wearing the GB singlet for Worlds (Olympic 9th placer Callum Hawkins is already on the team). By personal best, 34-year-old Butler alum Scott Overall (2:10:55 pb) is the fastest British man, but he dropped out of London last year and only ran 2:18 in Chicago last fall (the British Worlds standard is 2:16:00, which Overall still needs to hit in London). A better bet may be Eritrean-born Tsegai Tewelde, the top returning Brit from 2016 (12th in 2:12). But he dropped out of the Olympics in Rio and hasn’t raced since. Former Oregon Track Club member Chris Thompson (2:11:13 pb, 16th in London last year), who trains with Overall, has been in good form on the roads recently and will be vying to make his first World Championship team at age 36. Among Brits, he’s #10 all-time at 5,000 (13:11.51) and #4 all-time at 10,000 (27:27.36).

 We will make our race predictions on race day as we want to see what is said at today’s press conferences (Update: We’ve updated some of the stuff above with tweets from the press conference). In the meantime, talk about 2017 London on our fan forum/messageboard.

MB: Official 2017 London Marathon Live Discussion Thread