The Greatest Women’s Marathon Ever? London 2017 Is Absurdly Loaded; How Fast Will Mary Keitany Go?

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By LetsRun.com
April 21, 2017

For fans of women’s running, the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon is a real treat. 2011 & 2012 champ Mary Keitany, the second-fastest woman in history, is coming off a third straight New York City Marathon title and just PR’d for the half marathon (65:13). She leads a field that includes four women who have broken 2:20 and four more under 2:22. This week, the London Marathon website called it “the best elite women’s field ever assembled.”

Alongside Keitany, the other two major marathon winners last fall, Aberu Kebede (Berlin) and Florence Kiplagat (Chicago) are also entered, as is world champion and Olympic bronze medallist Mare Dibaba. Then there’s 2015 London champ Tigist Tufa — who should really be a two-time champion considering she was second to doper Jemima Sumgong last year — and 2016 Tokyo champ/World Champs runner-up Helah Kiprop. Plus London will see the renewal of one of the sport’s best rivalries as two of the greatest track runners in history — three-time Olympic champ Tirunesh Dibaba and 2016 Olympic 5,000 champ Vivian Cheruiyot — will face each other at the marathon distance for the first time (it’s Cheruiyot’s debut; Dibaba ran 2:20:35 at London 2014). American fans will get the chance to see Kellyn Taylor (6th Olympic Trials marathon, 4th Olympic Trials 10k) and Laura Thweatt (7th in her debut in New York in 2015) chase personal bests.

With Keitany in terrific shape, a stacked field to challenge her, and good conditions for running (overcast with a high of 62 degrees Fahrenheit on race day) we could see something very special on Sunday morning. We break everything down for you 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

Note: London pays out a ton in appearance fees to get the best fields.

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.

Official site * 2016 LRC coverage

Elite Women (sub-2:32) *Full elite field

NameNationPBComment
Mary KeitanyKenya2:18:372-time champ coming off 3rd straight NYC Marathon win; ran 65:13 HM PR in Feb.
Aselefech MergiaEthiopia2:19:312010 champ was 5th in London, 6th in NYC last year
Florence KiplagatKenya2:19:443rd last year (2nd if you remove Sumgong), she’s won 2 straight Chicago titles
Mare DibabaEthiopia2:19:52World champ & Olympic bronze medallist defeated solid field to win Lisbon Half in March
Aberu KebedeEthiopia2:20:304th in Tokyo last Feb, then won her 3rd Berlin Marathon in Sep.
Tirunesh DibabaEthiopia2:20:35Returns for her 2nd career marathon after Olympic 10k bronze in Rio
Helah KipropKenya2:21:272016 Tokyo champ was a pacer in London last year
Tigist TufaEthiopia2:21:522015 champ should really have won 2 in a row; she was 2nd behind Sumgong in ’16
Lisa WeightmanAustralia2:26:0531st in Rio
Andrea DeelstraThe Netherlands2:26:4660th in Rio
Maja NeuenschwanderSwitzerland2:26:492015 Vienna champ was 29th in Rio
Jessica TrengroveAustralia2:27:45Commonwealth Games bronze medallist was 22nd in Rio
Diana LobacevskeLithuania2:28:0317th in Rio
Laura ThweattUSA2:28:23After finishing 7th at ’15 NYC in her debut, she’s back for marathon #2
Jo PaveyGreat Britain2:28:2443-year-old taking 1st crack at marathon since DNFing Yokohama in ’12
Krista DucheneCanada2:28:3235th in Rio
Kellyn TaylorUSA2:28:406th Oly Trials Marathon, 4th Oly Trials 10k in ’16
Alyson DixonGreat Britain2:29:30Top Brit last year (13th); 28th in Rio
Louise DamenGreat Britain2:30:00Last marathon was ’14 Commonwealth Games (7th in 2:32)
Charlotte PurdueGreat Britain2:30:0416th last year, then ran PR in Frankfurt in Oct.
Susan PartridgeGreat Britain2:30:469th London start; DNF last year, best finish of 9th (’13)
Vivian CheruiyotKenyadebutOlympic 5k champ; ran 67:54 to win debut half at Great North Run in ’16

The Favorite

Mary Keitany — Kenya, 35 years old, 2:18:37 pb (2012 London), 65:13 half
Recent marathons: 9th 2016 London (2:28:30), 1st 2016 New York (2:24:26)
Prep race: 65:13 for 2nd at RAK Half on February 10

If you only go by headlines, you’d think Mary Keitany said something really outrageous at Wednesday’s elite press conference.

WORLD RECORD IS ON THE CARDS, SAYS KEITANY

KENYA’s MARY KEITANY EYES MARATHON WORLD RECORD IN LONDON

MARY KEITANY EYES LONDON MARATHON HAT-TRICK IN RECORD TIME

As much as we love to make bold statements here at LetsRun.com, these are pretty misleading headline. We’d actually call it borderline “fake news.” First of all, Keitany was talking about the women’s-only world record. That would be the 2:17:42 Paula Radcliffe ran in London in 2005, not the far superior 2:15:25 she ran on the same course two years earlier. Second, what Keitany actually said was far from a bold proclamation. While several on-site reports claim Keitany said Radcliffe’s 2:17:42 was within her sights, there’s no money quote. What she did say, according to Race Results Weekly, is this:

“I think what I can say if the weather will be fine for us, also all of us cooperate, we can run the best time…I don’t know about the world record, but we will run the best time.”

Okay. Now at least you have the fact.

2:17:42 seems ambitious– since Radcliffe ran it in 2005, only two women have even broken 2:19 — but it’s not inconceivable that we could see a time like that if everything breaks right. Here’s why:

  • Keitany is in monster shape. Last year, Athletics Kenya left Keitany — probably the second-greatest female marathoner in history, after Radcliffe — off its Olympic team after Keitany could only finish ninth in London. It didn’t matter to AK that Keitany had been almost unbeatable to that point, or that she was sick coming into the race and fell down during mile 22. Instead, they went with little-known Paris Marathon champ Visiline Jepkesho – a decision which we ripped when it happened. Jepkesho finished 86th in Rio, while Keitany has been crushing it ever since. She blasted course records at the Bix 7-Miler and Beach to Beacon 10K last summer and made a joke of the women’s race at the NYC Marathon, winning by a ridiculous 3:35. Most recently, she ran a half marathon PR of 65:13 at the RAK Half in February, where it took a world record to beat her. That’s significantly faster than she’s ever run on that course.

    YearRAK Half resultLondon Marathon result
    20111st, 65:501st, 2:19:19
    20121st, 66:491st, 2:18:37
    20151st, 66:022nd, 2:23:40
    20172nd, 65:13???
  • Women should be able to run 2:18 or faster in the marathon. Keitany and Radcliffe have already shown it’s possible to run 2:18 or faster. It just doesn’t happen very often. Consider the last two London Marathons. Both fields were stacked, but the winning times were only 2:22:58 and 2:23:21 as no one was willing to go with the rabbits after the first few downhill miles. But there has been a 2:15, a 2:17 and two 2:18’s on this course. Obviously that requires a special talent, but Keitany is exactly that.
    Plus, take a look at the recent spate of fast half marathons: 64:52 by Joyciline Jepkosgei, 65:06 by Peres Jepchirchir, 65:13 by Keitany, all in the first four months of 2017. If McMillan’s running calculator is to be believed, Jepkosgei’s time is worth 2:16:31 for the marathon; Keitany’s equates to a 2:17:15. It may just be the case that, as with the 10,000 meters, we just haven’t seen all the top women chasing a fast time under ideal circumstances. London 2017 could be the marathon’s version of the 2016 Olympic 10,000 where four women broke 30:00..
  • The field is loaded. Even with this field, Keitany might struggle to find company willing to go through halfway in 69:00, if that is indeed her plan. But she’s more likely to find someone to push her in London than anywhere else (the top four went through in 69:16 as recently as 2014), and she may be able to persuade the organizers to give her a rabbit at 2:18 pace. If not, Keitany has shown in the past that, when fit, she has the confidence to push the pace early. Remember 2011, when she went out in 67:56 in New York?  Well maybe we shouldn’t mention that race as Keitany blew up spectacularly. Keitany has developed into a better tactical racer in the five and a half years since that day, but she’s not afraid to make a big move early in the race.
  • Weather conditions look good. As we noted above, the weather is supposed to be good. According to weather.com, it looks like it will be high 40s, low 50s with little wind during the race (women’s race starts at 9:15 am). That’s good marathoning weather.

    Women's race starts at 9:32

    The forecast according to weather.com. Women’s race starts at 9:15 am

This is all speculation, of course. If the lead women really start dragging their feet after the first 5k (which is significantly downhill), they’re not going to run 2:18. But this is as good a chance to run fast since Keitany’s last 2:18 in 2012, as any as she’s in awesome shape, the field is deep behind her, and the conditions should be good.

No matter the winning time, we still think Keitany wins on Sunday. Per All-Athletics.com, she’s won 33 of her 45 career races (73%) and she just ran her fastest half marathon ever (#4 all-time).

Coming In Off Big Races

Florence Kiplagat — Kenya, 30 years old, 2:19:44 pb (2011 Berlin), 65:09 half
Recent marathons: 3rd 2016 London (2:23:39), 1st 2016 Chicago (2:21:32)
Prep race: 68:15 for 1st at Barcelona Half Marathon on February 12

Kiplagat was third last year (second if you remove Sumgong), and she’s only gotten better since then. She followed London up by winning her second straight Chicago Marathon title in 2:21:32 — her fastest marathon since 2014 — and in February won her fourth straight Barcelona Half Marathon. Though her 68:15 winning time paled in comparison to the world records she set in 2014 and 2015, it was over a minute faster than what she ran last year. Kiplagat usually runs well in London, but not well enough to win, which is something she wants desperately.

The good news for Kiplagat is that she’s well-positioned to contend for the win again in 2017. The bad news is that she needs to defeat an in-form Keitany to prevail.

Aberu Kebede — 30 years old, 2:20:30 pb (2012 Berlin), 67:39 half
Recent marathons: 
4th 2016 Tokyo (2:23:01), 1st 2016 Berlin (2:20:45)

Kebede hasn’t raced since winning her third Berlin Marathon title in September. She’s consistently done better in Berlin than anywhere else, but she’s also picked up wins in Tokyo (2013), Shanghai (2013) and Frankfurt (2014) during her career. Her best London finish is 5th, from 2014. She’s definitely got a shot to better that on Sunday. Though the field she beat in Berlin last year wasn’t the greatest, her time — 2:20:45, the second-fastest by a woman in all of 2016 — was impressive.

Mare Dibaba — 27 years old, 2:19:52 pb (2012 Dubai), 67:13 half
Recent marathons: 6th 2016 London (2:24:09), 3rd 2016 Olympics (2:24:30)
Prep race: 69:43 for 1st at Lisbon Half Marathon on March 19

Dibaba, our World #1 in 2015, has been among the world’s best and most consistent marathoners for the past several years, and the 2015 world champ enters London on the back of two strong races. The first came in Rio, where she crossed the line third (though she’s second in our minds considering Sumgong won the race). She didn’t race again until March, but when she did, it was impressive: she defeated Olympic 5,000 champion Vivian Cheruiyot as well as Mary Wacera, who has medalled at the past two World Half Marathon Championships, to win in 69:43. The time wasn’t great, but we value the scalps more than the clock in this case.

Dibaba has traditionally been stronger in the full than the half marathon, so we’re excited to see what she can do in London.

The London Specialist

Tigist Tufa — 30 years old, 2:21:52 pb (2014 Shanghai), 70:03 half
Recent marathons: 2nd 2016 London (2:23:03), DNF 2016 Olympics

Tufa has run well outside of London in her career (she was third in New York in 2015 and won Ottawa and Shanghai in 2014), but based on her personal bests (2:21 for the full and a modest 70:03 for the half), it’s amazing how much success she’s enjoyed in the British capital. In 2015, she ran away from a field that included Keitany, Sumgong, Florence Kiplagat over the final three miles to claim a surprising victory in 2:23:22. She proved that run was no fluke one year later as she took second behind Sumgong in 2:23:03. But considering what we now know about Sumgong, Tufa should really be viewed as a two-time London champion. And that puts her in elite company alongside the likes of Keitany, Radcliffe, and Norwegian pioneers Grete Waitz and Ingrid Kristiansen.

Tufa hasn’t finished a race since London 2016 (she dropped out of the Olympics with a leg injury), but she said on Wednesday that training has been going well for the last eight months. Once again, London is loaded, but that hasn’t stopped her the past two years.

The Track Stars

Tirunesh Dibaba — 31 years old, 2:20:35 pb (2014 London), 66:50 half
Recent marathons: 3rd 2014 London (2:20:35)
Prep race: 66:50 for 5th at RAK Half on February 10

If you took a poll of knowledgeable running fans and asked them to name the greatest female distance runner of all time, Dibaba might very well be the top answer. Dibaba, who has been around forever but is still only 31 years old, has amassed three Olympic golds, five World Championship golds, four World XC titles and owns the world record for 5,000 meters (14:11.15). Yet despite winning her first world title all the way back in 2003, she’s still setting PRs. Her 29:42.56 10,000 in Rio was only good for bronze, but it was 12 seconds faster than she had ever run before. Her 66:50 half marathon at the RAK Half in February was another personal best. She’ll go for another PR in London on Sunday, where she ran 2:20:35 in her first (and only) marathon of her career back in 2014, the fifth-fastest debut ever.

Dibaba may not be on Keitany’s level at the longer stuff (Keitany beat her by 1:37 at RAK), and in her comments to the media on Wednesday, she stressed how difficult it’s been transitioning to the roads.

“I have trained well, but road racing is very tough and the marathon is especially hard,” Dibaba said. “It’s not only the racing that’s hard, though, the training is tough too.”

But she was third in her debut marathon in London, only 14 seconds behind winner Edna Kiplagat, and a good chunk of that came at 30k when Dibaba dropped her bottle and stopped to pick it up. Compare that to fellow track stud Mo Farah, who debuted in the same race and was never in contention, finishing eighth in 2:08:21, and it’s clear Dibaba is built for marathon success even if it may take her body a while to adapt to the training. No matter what happens, Dibaba said she’ll return to the track at some point after London, but between her track credentials and her successful debut, she looks to have a very bright future in the marathon.

Vivian Cheruiyot — 33 years old, debut, 67:54 half
Prep race: 69:44 for 2nd at Lisbon Half Marathon on March 19

Cheruiyot, like Dibaba, is one of the biggest talents to ever lace up a pair of spikes. After claiming four world titles and three Olympic medals on the track, she finally earned gold at her fourth Olympics last summer, shocking Ethiopia’s Almaz Ayana to win the 5,000 in Rio. And though this will be her debut marathon, you can make the case that she’s even better prepared for it than Dibaba is for her second.

Consider: Cheruiyot beat Dibaba in the 10,000 in Rio, clocking 29:32.53 (#3 all-time and 10 seconds ahead of Dibaba) and beat Dibaba again, 67:54 to 68:04, in her half marathon debut at the Great North Run in September. Cheruiyot has raced once more since then, and though she only ran 69:44 in that race, the Lisbon Half Marathon, she was just one second behind winner Mare Dibaba, herself an Olympic bronze medallist in the marathon.

Like Dibaba, we expect Cheruiyot to run well in her debut marathon. Look at the five fastest 10,000 runners in history (who have also run a marathon) fared in their first marathons:

Athlete10k pbMarathon debutResult
Wang Junxia29:31.781993 Tianjin1st, 2:24:07
Tirunesh Dibaba29:42.562014 London3rd, 2:20:35
Meselech Melkamu29:53.802012 Frankfurt1st, 2:21:01
Paula Radcliffe30:01.092002 London1st, 2:18:56
Berhane Adere30:04.182001 Rotterdam15th, 2:41:50*

*Adere’s 10,000 pb was only 30:51 at the time of her marathon debut. In her next marathon, 2006 London, which came three years after she ran 30:04, she ran 2:21:52 for fourth place

That’s a pretty clear trend. And given Cheruiyot, who said she bumped her mileage from 100km/week to 150km/week (62 miles/week to 93 miles/week) displayed tremendous fitness last summer/fall, we expect her to continue it in London (although that bump in mileage seems a bit extreme and may not pay off until next year). The problem is, she still has to race all the women we’ve already listed in this preview, which means it will be hard to earn a top place. Cheruiyot knows that, and is approaching her debut realistically.

“I want to run fast,” she told race organizers, “because it’s my first marathon, but equally I don’t feel too much pressure as it’s my debut; I know the line-up is strong so my goal is to run well and finish.”

Best of the Rest

We could go into more detail about the London field, but in the interest of keeping this thing under 10,000 words, we’ll run through some of the other notable names below before quickly discussing Americans Kellyn Taylor and Laura Thweatt.

  • Aselefech Mergia, 32 years old, Ethiopia, 2:19:31 pb: Mergia actually has the second-best PR in the field and was brilliant in 2015 (1st Dubai, 4th London, 2nd New York), but compared to the rest of this field, the 2010 champ didn’t have a standout result last year (5th London, 6th New York).
  • Helah Kiprop, 32 years old, Kenya, 2:21:27 pb: Kiprop earned her way onto the Kenyan Olympic team by taking second at Worlds in 2015 and 1st in Tokyo last year, but she dropped out in Rio and was soundly beaten by the likes of Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba in her prep race (67:48 for 6th at the RAK Half).
  • Jo Pavey, 43 years old, Great Britain, 2:28:24 pb: As in the men’s race, the top two British women’s finishers will earn a berth at the 2017 World Championships, provided they have the 2:36:00 UK standard. Pavey has only run two marathons in her storied career, both in 2011 (she was 16th in London in 2:28:34 and 9th in New York in 2:28:42), but she said on Thursday that she still thinks she’s capable of PRing at the distance. She was 15th in the 10k in Rio last year.
  • Alyson Dixon, 38 years old, Great Britain, 2:29:30 pb: Dixon was the top Brit in London (13th, 2:31:52) and Rio (28th, 2:34:11) last year and at 38 years old is positively youthful compared to Pavey.

The Americans

Kellyn Taylor, 30 years old, 2:28:40 pb (2015 Houston), 71:01 half
Recent marathons: 6th 2015 Houston (2:28:40), 6th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:32:56)
Prep race: 3rd at USA XC Champs on February 4; 32:16 for 5th at Stanford Invite 10,000 on March 31

London will be Taylor’s third career marathon and she looks poised to record a nice personal best. She’s run more miles in this buildup than her previous two, logging five consecutive weeks of 99+ miles in February and March, something she had not done in the past.

“Obviously her first two [marathons] also went very well but I do think that the training seemed to come a little easier this time,” Ben Rosario, Taylor’s coach, told LetsRun.com. “I think it wasn’t so much that she hit way faster times than she did before the Olympic Trials, but I just think the times came easier and more efficiently. And she was actually better at hitting the splits evenly than she has been in the past.”

In particular, Rosario was pleased with a 16-mile tempo Taylor ran on March 25. Taylor averaged 5:50 pace for that workout at 7,000 feet, which came in the middle of a 103-mile week and just three days after a tough 20 x 400 track workout. You can check out the log of Taylor’s entire buildup here.

Taylor has raced three times this year. Her 73:13 at the Houston Half in January came in muggy conditions after a limited fall of training. Then she took third at USA XC in February before running ran 32:16 for 10,000 on the track on March 31. That time was well off her 31:40 PR from last year, but she also had far more volume in her legs as she ran 90 miles that week and had a heavy block of training in the weeks beforehand.

Rosario thinks Taylor can run 2:25 or 2:26, and that seems like a reasonable expectation given Taylor’s improved fitness, London’s fast course and the good racing conditions in the forecast.

Laura Thweatt, 28 years old, 2:28:23 pb (2015 New York), 71:02 half
Recent marathons: 7th 2015 New York (2:28:23)
Prep race: 2nd at USA XC Champs on February 4; 49:54 for 4th at US 15K Champs on March 11

Thweatt and Taylor are similar runners in many ways. Both are based at altitude. Neither were big stars in college. Their half marathon and marathon PRs are nearly identical, but both should be capable of much faster for 26.2 miles in the right situation. They went 4-5 at the Olympic Trials last year in the 10,000 (Taylor beat Thweatt by 15 seconds) and 2-3 at USA XC in February (Thweatt finished 25 seconds up on Taylor).

Thweatt showed terrific marathon potential by taking seventh in her debut in New York in 2015 (only 10 seconds slower than Molly Huddle ran in her debut the following year). She’s battled osteitis pubis (inflammation of the tendons that attach above the pelvic bone) on and off for the last 12 months, and though it hampered her training last fall, she told us she has managed to get it under control recently. Thweatt said her buildup went “as well as I think any marathon buildup can go” and she ran well in both her tuneup races. If Taylor is capable of 2:25 or 2:26, we expect Thweatt could run the same (Thweatt told us she’d be happy with anything at 2:28 or faster). In fact, considering how similar the two are, it may make sense for them to work together, especially if there’s no dedicated rabbit running 2:26 pace.

Talk about the race on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Official 2017 London Marathon Live Discussion Thread.