2018 Tokyo Marathon Men’s Preview: Wilson Kipsang Looks to Repeat; What Can the Japanese Men, Led By the Daring Yuta Shitara, Do?

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By LetsRun.com
February 22, 2018

When it comes to the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the Tokyo Marathon is usually overshadowed. London has all the money and fantasy fields. Boston has the history. Berlin has the world records. Tokyo has…what, exactly?

But allow us to make the case for the forgotten major.

1) The timing is great for American fans

If you live in the U.S. and want to watch the Boston Marathon, you have to take the day off of work (unless you live in Massachusetts or Maine) since the race is held on a Monday morning. If you want to watch London, you have to either get up at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning (East Coast) or stay up until an ungodly hour on a Saturday night (West Coast). But Tokyo is perfect. The race starts at 7:10 p.m. ET on a Saturday night, which lets you watch the race in its entirety and still gives you time to hit the town (if that’s what you’re into).

2) There’s some star power

The fields in Tokyo aren’t as star-studded as those in Boston or London later this spring, but there will still be some familiar faces. In the men’s race, defending champion Wilson Kipsang will be back and aiming to lower the 2:03:58 course record he set last year. Plus there are major champions Dickson Chumba of Kenya and Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia. On the women’s side, American Amy Cragg, last year’s bronze medalist at Worlds, will be trying to take a huge chunk out of her 2:27:03 personal best.

3) You never know what the Japanese will do

Last year’s race saw one Japanese runner, Yuta Shitara, hit halfway on world record pace in his marathon debut. Japanese marathoners are fearless, and it’s always fun to see how many members of the inevitably massive top pack of Japanese men will be able to hang on.

Hopefully that’s convinced you that Tokyo is worth your time, but if you need a few more reasons, check out our full men’s preview below (women’s preview coming soon).

What: 2018 Tokyo Marathon

When: Sunday, February 25, 9:10 a.m. Japan Standard Time (7:10 p.m. ET, Saturday, February 24)

Where: Tokyo, Japan

How to watch: Live on the Olympic Channel or online through NBC Sports Gold at 7:00 p.m. ET on Saturday night.

2018 Tokyo Marathon men’s elite field

NameCountryPBComment
Wilson KipsangKenya2:03:13Turns 36 next month but was near top of his game in ’17 with win in Tokyo, 2nd in NYC
Tesfaye AberaEthiopia2:04:24Won Dubai & Hamburg in 2016 but last 3 marathons have gone poorly
Dickson ChumbaKenya2:04:322014 champ was 3rd last year, then 2nd in Toronto
Tsegaye MekonnenEthiopia2:04:32Won Hamburg last year, but only 19th at Worlds in August
Feyisa LilesaEthiopia2:04:522016 champ was only 12th in London, 14th in Chicago last year
Vincent KiprutoKenya2:05:13His 5th-place finish at ’17 Berlin was his first time under 2:09 since ’13
Amos KiprutoKenya2:05:43Won Seoul, then set PR in Amsterdam last year
Gideon KipketerKenya2:05:51Set PR to finish 2nd here in 2017
Bernard KipyegoKenya2:06:192-time Amsterdam champ was 2nd at ’16 Tokyo, 3rd at ’17 Chicago
Hiroto InoueJapan2:08:22Top Japanese finisher last year in 8th
Yuta ShitaraJapan2:09:03Japanese record holder in half marathon (60:17)
Suehiro IshikawaJapan2:09:1036th at 2016 Olympics
Hiroyuki YamamotoJapan2:09:1210th last year (2nd Japanese finisher)
Kibrom GhebrezgiabhierEritrea2:09:3641st at Worlds last year
Mohamed Reda El AarabyMorocco2:09:5030th at Worlds last year
Ryo KinameJapan2:10:30
Minato OishiJapan2:10:39
Chihiro MiyawakiJapan2:11:50
Yuki SatoJapan2:12:14
Daichi KaminoJapan2:12:50
Juan Luis BarriosMexico2:14:10Has only run 3 marathons since ’11, none faster than 2:18
Akinobu MurasawaJapan2:14:48
Takashi IchidaJapan2:19:24
Kengo SuzukiJapandebut61:36 half marathon

Update: Abera (sickness), Kipyego (injury), and Ishikawa (injury) have been announced as scratches

The Favorite

Embed from Getty Images

Wilson Kipsang — Kenya, 35 years old, 2:03:13 pb (2016 Berlin), 58:59 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 5th 2016 London (2:07:52), 2nd 2016 Berlin (2:03:13), 1st 2017 Tokyo (2:03:58), DNF 2017 Berlin, 2nd 2017 New York (2:10:56)

Kipsang came to Tokyo for the first time last year talking about breaking the world record on the reconfigured course. While he didn’t manage to achieve that goal, he was on world record pace through 30 kilometers and wound up setting an Asian all-comers record of 2:03:58, in the process becoming the first man to record four sub-2:04 marathons.

Kipsang made another attempt at the world record in Berlin in September, and once again he was on world record pace through 30 kilometers. But with Eliud Kipchoge and Guye Adola two seconds ahead of him, Kipsang shockingly stepped off the course and dropped out of the race. However, he returned six weeks later to finish second in New York, just three ticks behind champion Geoffrey Kamworor.

All of which is to say that, even as he approaches his 36th birthday (March 15), Kipsang isn’t showing many signs of aging: since he’s turned 34, he’s run 2:03 twice, won a major, and finished second in two others. As a result, he starts as the favorite to defend his title in Tokyo. No other man in the field has run within a minute of Kipsang’s 2:03:13 pb, and though there are four other sub-2:05 guys in the field, none can match Kipsang’s consistency. Check out the chart below, which lists all five sub-2:05 guys in the Tokyo field.

NamePB# of sub-2:05 marathons
Wilson Kipsang2:03:138
Tesfaye Abera2:04:241
Dickson Chumba2:04:321
Tsegaye Mekonnen2:04:322
Feyisa Lilesa2:04:521

Kipsang has eight sub-2:05s. The rest of the field, combined, has just five. If Kipsang is at his best (and he often is), he wins this race.

Other Potential Winners

After digging through the numbers last year, we came up with a formula for predicting major marathons winners. Since the start of 2013, every single WMM men’s race has been won by someone with a PR under 2:08 or someone with a global medal. In total, there are nine guys in the 2018 Tokyo field who fit those criteria. Kipsang is one. We’ve broken the others down into two categories below.

Former Major* Champions

Tesfaye Abera, Ethiopia (2016 Dubai champ, 2:04:24 pb)
Dickson Chumba, Kenya (2014 Tokyo champ, 2015 Chicago champ, 2:04:32 pb)
Tsegaye Mekonnen, Ethiopia (2014 Dubai champ, 2:04:34 pb)
Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopia (2016 Tokyo champ, 2:04:52 pb)

*For the purposes of this article, we’re counting Dubai as a major

The good news: all four of these guys have won big-time marathons in the past. The bad news: the emphasis there is the past — the most recent of those victories was Lilesa’s triumph in Tokyo in February 2016. Let’s run through each guy, in order of least to most likely to return to the top of the podium in Tokyo.

4. Tesfaye Abera

The 25-year-old Abera ran two very good races in early 2016, winning Dubai and Hamburg, but hasn’t done anything of note since then. He dropped out of the 2016 Olympics, finished 17th at 2017 London (2:16:09), and 8th at 2017 Amsterdam. He did run 2:07:39 in Amsterdam, which is a step in the right direction, but it would be a surprise to see him contend for the win in Tokyo.

3. Tsegaye Mekonnen

Mekonnen has run two great races in Dubai (2:04:32 debut win in 2014, 2:04:46 for 3rd in 2016) but not much else: in his six other marathons, he’s run poorly in five of them, with a 2:07:26 win at 2017 Hamburg the lone exception. Considering that win came less than a year ago and he’s officially just 22 years old Mekonnen certainly isn’t done, but he’s just not very consistent.

2. Feyisa Lilesa

Lilesa had a huge 2016 with a win in Tokyo and silver medal at the Olympics, but since his brave finish-line protest in Rio, he has struggled to find his marathon form. That’s certainly understandable. After the Olympics, he relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, but spent the next few months living in fear that something might happen to his family in retribution for his actions at the Olympics. His family was able to join him in the states in February 2017, but his two marathons last year were poor: 12th in London and 14th in Chicago, neither time under 2:14.

However, Lilesa has still been running well in the half marathon. Last year, he was 3rd at the Great North Run, 2nd in Houston, and posted wins in NYC and Bogota. Last month, he ran 60:20 to place 3rd in Houston. He’s not back to his best — he hasn’t broken 60:00 since February 2014 after doing it every year from 2012-2014 — but his result in Houston suggests he’s capable of far better than the pair of 2:14 marathons he managed last year.

Embed from Getty Images

1. Dickson Chumba

Chumba’s last marathon win was in Chicago in October 2015, but he’s come close repeatedly since then. In 2016, he was 3rd in Tokyo and 2nd in Chicago, and last year he was 3rd in Tokyo (in 2:06:25) and 2nd in Toronto. He’s incredibly consistent: Chumba has finished on the podium in his last seven World Marathon Major appearances, four of them in Tokyo from 2014-2017 (a win and three 3rds). He was the last man standing with Kipsang last year (he made it almost 35k with the eventual champ before fading on the way in) and should contend for the win again on Sunday.

Still Searching For That Major Breakthrough

Amos Kipruto (2017 Seoul champ, 2:05:43 pb)
Gideon Kipketer (2017 Tokyo runner-up, 2:05:51 pb)
Bernard Kipyego (2014-2015 Amsterdam champ, 2017 Chicago 3rd placer, 2:06:19 pb)

None of these guys have a WMM victory, but if we had to pick whether the winner came from this group or the one above comprised of past major champs, we’d take this group as all three men have been running well recently. Again, let’s take them one at a time, from least to most likely to win in Tokyo.

3. Bernard Kipyego

Kipyego was a very hot commodity a couple of years ago after back-to-back wins in Amsterdam in 2014 and 2015. He followed the second of those victories up with his best-ever finish in a major (2nd in Tokyo) but, despite 10 WMM appearances, he has yet to win a major. That’s not to say Kipyego has run poorly — he’s made the podium in half of those appearances, most recently finishing 3rd in Chicago in October — but he has not had the brilliant day required to win a major. Maybe Kipyego gets it done in Tokyo, but he’ll likely need some of the top guys — especially Kipsang — to be off their game.

2. Amos Kipruto

Kipruto burst onto the scene with a debut win in Rome in 2016, and all three races he ran last year were very good: a 2:05:54 PR victory in Seoul in March, a 60:24 half marathon PR in Gothenburg in May, and a 2:05:43 marathon PR in Amsterdam in October (though that was only good enough for 5th overall). He was the only man in the world to run two sub-2:06 marathons in 2017. He went from 2:08 and 2:09 in his two 2016 marathons to 2:05 in his two 2017 marathons; if he can make another small jump in fitness this year, he’ll contend for major victories.

1. Gideon Kipketer

Kipketer failed to break 2:08 in his first nine career marathons, but he struck it big in marathon #10 by running a 2:05:51 pb to take 2nd in Tokyo last year. He showed that was no fluke by placing 5th at Worlds six months later.

We know it sounds a bit suspicious when a guy goes from 2:08 to 2:05 in one race, but there are a couple of factors to consider with Kipketer. First, he’s young. He ran his first career marathon at 19 and was still only 24 when he ran his 2:05 last year. Second, he had already shown signs of progress in 2016 by winning Mumbai and placing third in Chicago. He ran 2:08:35 in Mumbai — 24 seconds off his PR even though he won the race by 45 seconds on a day where temperatures were in the 70s. In Chicago, he only managed 2:12:20, but that’s because it was a very tactical race — the winning time was 2:11:23 — the slowest in Chicago since 1993.

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There is one more guy who fits the major champion criteria: Vincent Kipruto, who owns a 2:05:13 pb. Kipruto doesn’t fit neatly into either category above as he’s never won a major before but he also doesn’t look primed for a breakthrough — his 2:05:13 pb dates to 2010 and he hasn’t broken 2:06 since 2011. By 2014-2015, he looked as if he might be washed up as he could only manage 13th at 2014 Frankfurt and 14th at 2015 Paris, but his last three marathons have gone pretty well: a 2:10 win at 2016 Xiamen, a 2:09 runner-up finish at 2017 Lake Biwa, and a 2:06:14 5th-place finish at 2017 Berlin — his fastest marathon since 2011. Running 2:06 means he can contend in Tokyo — in Berlin, he was only two seconds behind Mosinet Geremew, who just broke the course record in Dubai — but we’re not as high on him as we are on Kipruto or Kipketer.

The Japanese Contingent

Shitara isn't afraid to take big risks

Shitara isn’t afraid to take big risks

One of the reasons why the Tokyo Marathon is fun to watch is, to put it simply: Japanese runners don’t give a f***.

By that, we don’t mean that they don’t care about how they finish, but that, far more than their American counterparts, they’re willing to do something totally insane, consequences be damned. Consider Yuta Shitara. Last year, as a 25-year-old, Shitara entered Tokyo with PRs of 13:34/27:42/61:48 and decided to go out on world record pace, hitting halfway in 61:55. Did we mention it was his marathon debut? Though Shitara wound up with a sizeable positive split (61:55/67:32), he still ran a respectable 2:09:27 to finish 11th overall.

Can you imagine any American marathoner going out on world record pace? Let alone a guy with a 61:48 half marathon pb in his marathon debut?

Another Japanese man, Hiroto Inoue, entered with PRs of 13:42/28:12/61:39 and a grand total of one marathon under his belt (in which he ran 2:12:56). He went through halfway in 62:58 and wound up running a massive PR of 2:08:22 for 8th as the top Japanese finisher. Please let us know the next time an American 2:12 guy comes through halfway on 2:05 pace.

Japan also has more depth in the marathon than the USA. In this race alone, there are four guys who broke 2:10 in either 2016 or 2017. Since Meb Keflezighi won Boston in April 2014, only one American, period, has broken 2:10. The guys to watch are Inoue (who at 2:08:22 has the fastest PR), Shitara (who ran a national record 60:17 in the half marathon in September and came back a week later to run a marathon pb of 2:09:03 in Berlin), and Hiroyuki Yamamoto, who was 10th in Tokyo last year and finished 4th in NYC in 2016.

LRC prediction: Given all he’s accomplished, and his fine 2017 season (including a course record in Tokyo), we can’t pick against Wilson Kipsang.

 


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