The WR Holder, The Olympic Silver Medalist & The Defending Champ: Here Are The Guys Galen Rupp Must Defeat To Win Chicago

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By LetsRun.com
October 5, 2017

It’s Chicago Marathon week and the LetsRun.com staff is getting excited. What was initially an underwhelming men’s elite field has received several high-profile additions, making for a compelling race on Sunday morning. When the field was first announced in August, we openly wondered whether it was being set up for Galen Rupp to win. At the time, there were only two guys in the field who had ever broken even 2:08 in a recognized marathon and one of them, Dennis Kimetto, hadn’t a good marathon in over two years.

That was significant as research by LetsRun.com revealed that since Tokyo joined the World Marathon Majors in 2013, every single Abbott World Marathon Major men’s race had been won by a global medallist or someone with a PB of under 2:08 (96.4% had a PR under 2:07 or a global medal and 92.9% had a PR under 2:06 or a global medal). Thus, using the criteria of needing to have a global medal or sub-2:08 to your name to be a contender, there were only three “potential winners” entered in the field initially.

We’re not complaining anymore as Chicago has done a nice job of beefing up its field since then. There are now eight “potential winners” (nine if you count Zersaney Tadesse‘s time from the Nike sub-2 event). Two weeks ago, race organizers announced that they had added two sub-2:05 guys to the field in Stanley Biwott (2:03:51 pb, 2015 NYC champ) and Feyisa Lilesa (2:04:52 pb, Olympic silver medalist). But that’s not all. Chicago also brought in a 2:05 guy in Ethiopian Sisay Lemma, plus a pair of 2:06 Kenyans in Ezekiel Chebii and two-time Amsterdam champ Bernard Kipyego. And returning champ Abel Kirui (2:05:04 pb), who was initially announced in August, is still entered. If Galen Rupp wins this race, he will almost certainly have had to earn it.

Not all of these guys are going to run well on Sunday, but for a race to be considered a legitimate World Marathon Major, it’s important to have a critical mass of bodies in the elite race. Look at this year’s Boston Marathon. Geoffrey Kirui hadn’t done anything mind-blowing before that race (3rd in Rotterdam, 7th in Amsterdam in 2016), but he had run 2:06, and if you get enough 2:06 guys in a race, one of them is going to pop a big one. Boston’s investment paid off as Kirui wound up winning the race in a great duel with Rupp.

We’ve broken down Rupp’s chances in a separate article (LRC Is Galen Rupp a 2:05 Guy? LetsRun Debates: How fast can Galen Rupp run for 26.2 at Sunday’s Chicago Marathon?) as he’s the only American with a shot at the win in Chicago. But we haven’t forgotten about the other American men, as you can see in this preview: LRC The 2017 Chicago Marathon Men’s Race Is LOADED With American Talent Besides Galen Rupp – Find Out Who Here. That leaves the women (coming later) and the international men — whom we preview below.

We focus on the “potential winners” — guys who have run sub-2:08 in their career — although obviously someone with that type of talent level could also win the race even if they haven’t done it yet.

What: 2017 Bank of America Chicago Marathon

When: Sunday, October 8, 8:30 a.m. ET (7:30 a.m. local time)

Where: Chicago, Illinois

How to watch: For Chicago-area residents, the race will be shown live on NBC 5 starting at 7 a.m. local time. For everyone else, you can stream the race live online at NBCChicago.com starting at 8 a.m. ET or watch it live on NBC Sports Network or NBC Sports Gold at 8 a.m. ET.

Important links: LRC All 2017 Chicago Marathon coverageLRC 2016 Chicago Marathon coverage * Race website * Course map

International elite field * Full elite field

NameNationPBComment
Dennis KimettoKenya2:02:57WR holder hasn’t run a good marathon since taking 3rd at ’15 London
Stanley BiwottKenya2:03:51Was great in ’15 (NYC win) and early ’16 (2:03 in London) but has DNF’d last 2 marathons
Feyisa LilesaEthiopia2:04:52Olympic silver medalist was only 12th in London in April
Abel KiruiKenya2:05:04Defending champ was 4th in London in April
Sisay LemmaEthiopia2:05:16Has finished in the top 5 in Dubai the last 3 years
Ezekiel ChebiiKenya2:06:07PR’d in Amsterdam last fall, then won Lake Biwa in March
Bernard KipyegoKenya2:06:192-time Amsterdam champ was 3rd in Chicago in ’11 but no WMM wins in 9 starts
Kohei MatsumaraJapan2:08:09Has only broken 2:10 once in his life
Galen RuppUSA2:09:58Has run well in all 3 career marathons; can he earn first WMM victory?
Zersenay TadeseEritrea2:10:41Ran 2:06:51 at Breaking2; this time, he won’t have to go out on 2:00:00 pace
Michael ShelleyAustralia2:11:152014 Commonwealth Games champ
Chihiro MiyawakiJapan2:11:5025th at Lake Biwa in March
Ryoichi MatsuoJapan2:12:11Ran 2:13 to win Nobeoka Marathon in Feb
Stephen SambuKenya2:13:35Former NCAA star was 5th in debut in Chicago last year

The Defending Champ

Abel Kirui — Kenya, 35 years old, 2:05:04 pb (2009 Rotterdam), 60:11 half
Marathons since the start of 2016: 5th 2016 Tokyo (2:08:06), 1st 2016 Chicago (2:11:23), 4th 2017 London (2:07:45)

Kirui earned the Olympic silver medal in 2012, but struggled for the next three years before resuscitating his career last year with a 2:08 in Tokyo and a win in Chicago. In April, he ran 2:07:45 to take fourth in London, his fastest marathon in six years, and now he has his sights set on becoming the first repeat winner in Chicago since Sammy Wanjiru in 2009-10.

Most marathoners at Kirui’s age (35) would be hesitant to change things up, but Kirui did just that by training for Chicago in Patrick Sang‘s group with Eliud Kipchoge. Kirui told RunBlogRun’s Sabrina Yohannes that he still works with coach Renato Canova as well but that he’s been in Sang’s base of Kaptagat for this buildup.

“I went like three months ago to Kaptagat,” Kirui told Yohannes. “I wanted actually to see these guys; they are running the best times, so I wanted also to catch up to the times. Because I’m like a 2:05 guy; if I join their group, I will improve a lot.”

Kirui may not have to run 2:05 in Chicago to win — 2:11:23 was all it took last year — but he will need to be able to close, and he told Yohannes that he believes his speed has improved under Sang. As a result, it may be in the interest of the rest of the field to push the pace against Kirui. He has a fantastic record in championship-style marathons, but has run faster than 2:06:51 only once.

Looking for a Bounce-Back Race

Stanley Biwott — Kenya, 31 years old, 2:03:51 pb (2016 London), 58:56 half
Marathons since the start of 2016: 2nd 2016 London (2:03:51), DNF 2016 Olympics, DNF 2016 New York
Tuneup race: 65:54 for 4th at Bogota Half Marathon on July 30

In the spring of 2016, Eliud Kipchoge was the world’s best marathoner and Stanley Biwott would have been a popular pick for world #2. But while Kipchoge has continued to dominate over the ensuing year and a half, Biwott, who won New York in 2015 and ran 2:03:51 to take second behind Kipchoge at London 2016, has had a hellish go of it. It began in Rio, where Biwott dropped out of the Olympic marathon with stomach problems. Biwott rushed back to defend his New York title less than three months later, but he developed a calf problem three weeks before the race that ultimately caused him to drop out. He entered London this spring, but had to scratch from that due to a hamstring issue.

Biwott is still only 31, and he ran 2:03 just 18 months ago. If he’s healthy, he has every chance of winning on Sunday. But given his recent history, that’s a big “if.”

His prep race – a 65:54 at altitude in Bogota – looks horrible (Lilesa won the race in 64:39) especially considering he ran 63:15 in the same race in 2015, but the guy who was one spot ahead of him in the race in 65:04 (Tola Shura) – 50 seconds faster – just ran a 60:10 half marathon.

Feyisa Lilesa — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:04:52 pb (2012 Chicago), 59:22 half
Marathons since the start of 2016: 
1st 2016 Tokyo (2:06:56), 2nd 2016 Olympics (2:09:54), 4th 2016 Honolulu (2:15:57), 12th 2017 London (2:14:12)
Tuneup race: 64:30 for 1st at Bogota Half Marathon on July 30, 61:32 for 3rd at the Great North Run (half marathon) on September 10

Lilesa, like Biwott, was on fire midway through 2016 as he won Tokyo and finished second at the Olympics, in the process becoming one of just three men to have defeated Galen Rupp in the marathon. But in the wake of his famous protest against ethnic violence at the end of that race, Lilesa endured a tumultuous few months that saw him relocate to Flagstaff, Arizona, away from his wife and children. Finally on Valentine’s Day, his family was able to join him in the U.S. Lilesa raced another marathon, in London in April, but he went out aggressively (14:13 for the first 5k, 61:41 for the first half) and wound up blowing up over the second half, staggering home in 12th place in 2:14:12.

Other than London, however, Lelisa’s other results in 2017 have been pretty solid, with three half marathons at 61:32 or faster (including a 60:04 win at the NYC Half in March) and a win at the Bogota Half Marathon in July, where he beat Biwott by 84 seconds (Lilesa ran 64:30 in the race, which was held at 8,600 feet of elevation). Lilesa has run fast in Chicago before — he set his pb of 2:04:52 here to place second in 2012 — and considering he won’t be going out in 61:41 again, he should fare much better in Chicago than he did in London in April.

Is the World Record Holder Done?

Dennis Kimetto — Kenya, 33 years old, 2:02:57 pb (2014 Berlin), 59:14 half
Last two marathons: DNF 2015 Fukuoka, 9th 2016 London (2:11:44)

Kimetto came out of nowhere to run (until recently) the fastest debut marathon in history in 2012, clocking 2:04:16 in Berlin. Over the next two and a half years, he was one of the best marathoners on the planet, winning Tokyo and setting the course record in Chicago in 2013 (2:03:45) before setting the world record in Berlin in 2014. Since the world record, however, Kimetto has run just one good marathon — his third-place showing at 2015 London (2:05:50). In three marathons since then, Kimetto has gone DNF-DNF-2:11 and hasn’t finished a race at any distance since April 2016.

Kimetto has cited a variety of injuries as the reason for his failure to race, but claims that his training has been going well for Chicago and he certainly doesn’t think he’s done. After watching Kipchoge attack his world record in Berlin last month, Kimetto reportedly told the Daily Nation, “It has been hard to break the world record I set in 2014 and I think it’s a high time I go back there and lower the time.”

We’re not quite as optimistic. It’s been a looong time since Kimetto has run a good marathon, and his recent progression is very similar to that of his old training partner Geoffrey Mutai, who was one of the world’s best marathoners in the early 2010s but has faded into obscurity. And even if Kimetto is healthy, after missing so much time and struggling for form over the past two years, is he in any kind of shape to win in Chicago? Kimetto needs to show that he can run a good marathon before we take him seriously again in a World Marathon Major.

The Other Contenders

The guys listed above are the most accomplished marathoners in the field (minus Rupp), but as you can see, all except Kirui have major question marks. So here are five more guys to watch for in Chicago.

  • Sisay Lemma, 26 years old, Ethiopia, 2:05:16 pb: Lemma is a strong, and above all, fairly consistent marathoner. He’s broken 2:10 in nine of the last 10 marathons he’s finished, and he’s run 2:08:04 or faster in six of the last seven, including wins in Vienna and Frankfurt and, most recently, a third-place showing in Dubai in January. Lemma only ran 2:08:04 there, but that performance is worth more than the time suggests as he ran it by going out in a ridiculous 61:36 for the first half before holding on for dear life in the second half. Considering Lemma has a pb of 2:05:16 and has shown breaking 2:10 consistently is no problem for him, expect him to hang around for a while in this one. We probably should mention that after Dubai, he was a DNF in Boston.
  • Ezekiel Chebii, 26 years old, Kenya, 2:06:07 pb: Chebii will be making his World Marathon Majors debut in Chicago, and it could not come at a better time. Last fall in Amsterdam, he shaved over a minute off his PR to run 2:06:07 (but that only placed him 5th) and this March he traveled to another proving ground for up-and-coming marathoners, the Lake Biwa Marathon in Japan, and won it despite battling strong winds. He also owns a blazing 59:05 half marathon personal best so he certainly has the talent to win a major. However, his prep race last month was far from impressive. He only ran 62:51 and was 11th in a half marathon in France on September 2 — although that was an upgrade from the 63:40 half he ran in June in the Netherlands.
  • Bernard Kipyego, 31 years old, Kenya, 2:06:19 pb: Kipyego, like Lemma, is a consistent marathoner, albeit one who has yet to taste victory in nine career WMM appearances. He’s run 2:08:10 or faster in seven of his last eight marathons, with the only exception coming on a bad-weather day on the hilly Boston course in 2015 where he was fourth in 2:10:47. After wins in Amsterdam in 2014 and 2015, Kipyego has taken a step back recently, taking 8th in Amsterdam last fall (though he still ran 2:06:45) and 6th in Tokyo in February in 2:08:10. Can he finally win a major in attempt #10?
  • Zersenay Tadese, 35 years old, Eritrea, 2:10:41 pb: Officially Tadese owns a pb of 2:10:41 – slower than what history says it takes to win an Abott World Marathon Major at least since 2013 – but he ran 2:06:51 at Nike’s Breaking2 event in Monza in May. Even if he benefited from some of Nike’s innovations in that race, 2:06 is probably a fair assessment of Tadese’s ability in a big-city marathon as he ran that time after going out in 60:xx for the first half. Ostensibly, the big issue that Breaking2 seemed to solve was hydration — according to National Geographic’s Breaking2 documentary, Tadese had never taken fluids during his previous marathon. But if that truly was the root of Tadese’s problems, we can’t understand why it took so long for him to solve it — his manager knew about his fueling problems over two years ago. We’re still skeptical of Tadese’s ability to contend for the win in a major marathon, but Breaking2 was a good step forward and he does have the two fastest half marathon times in history (58:23 and 58:31).

Best of The Rest

  • Stephen Sambu, 29 years old, Kenya, 2:13:35 pb: Based on his PR, Sambu doesn’t technically qualify as a “potential winner,” but he ran that time in his one career marathon in Chicago last year, where the winning time was only 2:11:23 (Sambu wound up 5th). Given Sambu’s half marathon pb (60:41) and his success as a road racer (he ran 28:04 for 10k in Boston in June and won his fourth straight Falmouth Road Race in August), he should be capable of something much faster if the pace gets going on Sunday.

Things to Consider about the Men’s Elite Race

Will anyone push the pace? 

Two years ago, race director Carey Pinkowski made the decision to eliminate rabbits in Chicago, and though there have been some positive benefits — the top Americans stay in the race longer, and the finish of last year’s men’s race went down to the wire — the biggest effect has been on the finishing times. In the three years before dropping the rabbits, the winning times in Chicago were 2:04:38 (course record), 2:03:45 (course record) and 2:04:11. The two years since have been 2:09:25 and 2:11:23. Granted, the elite fields were also weaker in the last two years (an in-his-prime Dennis Kimetto won in 2013 and Eliud Kipchoge won in 2014), but it’s rare for any major to be won in 2:11:23 — no winner has run that slow in New York since 1990, and the New York course is WAY slower than Chicago.

If Chicago wants to ensure that the winning time isn’t really slow, we have a simple solution. Do what many Chinese marathons do — say the prize money will be reduced by 50% if it’s not under 2:10 (if the weather is horrific, the reduction should be lifted).

Slow times aren’t always a bad thing — again, the finish of the 2016 race was terrific — but there are two reasons to think Chicago might be faster this year. First, this field is stronger than 2015 or 2016, meaning it’s more likely that one of the studs decides to push the pace early. Second, Galen Rupp is running. We don’t know how much of an emphasis Rupp will place on the win vs. running a fast time in this race, but you’ve got to think that one of the reasons Rupp chose Chicago over New York (which traditionally has deeper pockets when it comes to appearance fees) was that he could run fast on the Chicago course. We expect the winning time will be faster than it was in 2015 or 2016, but how much faster depends on…

The weather

Remember the weather in Berlin that supposedly prevented Eliud Kipchoge from breaking the world record? Well the forecast for Chicago on Sunday is looking pretty similar. Right now, the forecast calls for a high of 76 with occasional showers and winds around 12 mph. The race goes off early in the morning (7:30 local time) which means that the temperature should be in the 60s for most of the race, but if the sun comes out for the final miles, it could feel pretty hot. The good news is it’s not supposed to be as humid as in Berlin, and it’s not supposed to rain on Saturday, meaning the course should be dryer. Plus, even though the weather was not ideal in Berlin, a guy still managed to run the fastest debut marathon in history there so we’ll see what’s possible in Chicago on Sunday.

If you haven’t read our other Chicago men’s articles, do so now:

Talk about all things Chicago Marathon on our messageboard:

MB: Is Galen Rupp a 2:05 Guy? Wejo, Rojo and You Debate
MB: Jeff Eggleston has run 2:10, Derrick, Chelanga, Puskedra, Estrada Should be 2:08 or better
MB: The 2017 Chicago Marathon is loaded with American talent – find out who here
MB: Rupp’s last workout before Chicago- what is he wearing (pics)?
MB: Is there any chance that Chris Derrick could be the next Ryan Hall?
MB: Chicago Marathon weather not looking great, other options?
MB: Joan Benoit Samuelson Out of Chicago with Injury
MB: Chicago Elite Marathon Field. Who is the favorite?


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