2018 Tokyo Marathon Women’s Preview: How Fast Can Amy Cragg Run? Could She Make It 2 Straight Major Victories For Americans?

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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 women’s preview below (you can read our men’s preview here).

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 women’s elite field

NameCountryPBComment
Ruti AgaEthiopia2:20:41Runner-up in Berlin coming off 66:39 win at Houston Half
Purity RionoripoKenya2:20:55Ran 4-min PR to win Paris last year
Shure DemiseEthiopia2:20:592nd in Dubai, 5th at Worlds in 2017
Birhane DibabaEthiopia2:21:19Ran PR to finish 2nd last year, then 10th at Worlds
Helah KipropKenya2:21:272016 champ was 7th at Worlds
Yuri KanoJapan2:24:2739-year-old hasn’t broken 2:30 since 2010
Azusa NojiriJapan2:24:57Hasn’t broken 2:30 since 2014
Eri HayakawaJapan2:25:31Ran 2:25 in 2014 but hasn’t broken 2:30 since
Anna HahnerGermany2:26:445th in Berlin last year
Kaoru NagaoJapan2:26:58Still only 28, but hasn’t broken 2:30 since 2011
Amy CraggUSA2:27:03Looking to shave minutes off PR after surprise bronze at ’17 Worlds

Note: Two-time Olympic 5,000-meter champion Meseret Defar was initially scheduled to make her marathon debut in Tokyo, but we received confirmation from her agent Mark Wetmore that she will withdraw after a training setback earlier this month due to a calf injury.

How fast can Amy Cragg run? And can she actually win this thing?

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With apologies to women like Ruti AgaPurity Rionoripo, and Shure Demise — all of whom are 2:20 marathoners, none of whom are household names — from a LetsRun.com perspective, the most intriguing aspect of the race centers around American Amy Cragg. Six months ago, Cragg earned a surprising bronze medal in a stacked race at the World Championships by running an incredibly tough final two miles in London. Three months later, she watched from home as her Bowerman Track Club teammate Shalane Flanagan win the New York City Marathon. Considering Cragg’s own success at Worlds and the fact that she ran two entire marathon buildups with Flanagan in 2016 (the Olympic Trials, which Cragg won, and the Olympics, where Flanagan was 6th and Cragg 9th), expectations will be high in Tokyo.

Cragg told Track & Field News earlier this month that her biggest goal in Tokyo is to run a personal best. We would be shocked if she does not achieve that goal. Cragg initially set her PR of 2:27:03 in her debut in Los Angeles in 2011, and tied it three years later in Chicago. But Cragg has become a significantly better marathoner in the past two years; she just hasn’t had a chance to run a fast time. Here are her three marathons since tying her PR at 2014 Chicago:

2016 Olympic Trials (1st, 2:28:20): On a warm, sunny day (temps in the 70s), Cragg won by 34 seconds over Desi Linden but could have gone even faster had she not held herself back to try to help an ailing Flanagan in the late stages of the race.

2016 Olympics (9th, 2:28:25): On another hot day (temps and humidity in the high 70s), Cragg runs just five seconds slower than she did at the Trials.

2017 Worlds (3rd, 2:27:18): This was a tactical a marathon as you will see. Through 35k (~21.7 miles), the lead pack was on 2:29 pace and still contained 14 women. Though Cragg wound up slamming it home (she ran 2:17 pace from 35k to the finish) to run 2:27:18, she still came up short of her PR.

Any of those performances is worth several is worth several minutes faster than Cragg’s 2:27:03 PR. Just consider the women she finished around at Worlds. Edna Kiplagat, who finished with the same time as Cragg, has run 2:19 and has won five majors, including Boston last year. Flomena Daniel, whom Cragg beat out for the bronze, ran 2:21 last year. Eunice Kirwa, who finished 6th, is the Olympic silver medalist (behind only doper Jemima Sumgong) and ran 2:21 last year. In fact, there were only two women in the top eight who had never run under 2:22: Cragg and world champion Rose Chelimo of Bahrain (who has only run four career marathons).

Cragg’s training also appears to have gone well. Here’s what she told Track & Field News about her Tokyo buildup:

”It’s based off my training block before Worlds. However last time for the first time I hit a certain mileage and I couldn’t max out. I did it for four weeks and after four weeks it kind of killed me and my workouts started suffering so we cut back.

“But this time I was able to do six weeks at that high mileage I was still able to hit better workouts and was feeling better on a daily basis, and my runs on a daily basis weren’t suffering from it. So I think it was just being able to hold that longer. My body had adjusted from the previous buildup to be able to just do a little bit more. Every time it’s just building on the last one.”

All of this doesn’t necessarily mean that Cragg will run 2:20 or 2:21 in Tokyo — remember, only four Americans ever have broken 2:22, and only Deena Kastor has managed it more than once. It’s really hard to run that fast. But given Cragg’s ability to beat a bunch of 2:20/2:21 women at Worlds, a fairly fast course (with pacemakers) in Tokyo, it’s fair to say that 2:20 represents her ceiling if everything goes perfectly. Of course, this is the marathon, which means chances are everything won’t go perfectly. But the weather looks okay (the high in Tokyo on Sunday is just 47, which means that it will be a little chilly, but chilly is better than hot). Even if she can’t break 2:22, something in the 2:23-2:24 range is very doable.

So yes, Amy Cragg should run pretty fast in Tokyo. And if that’s the case, can she win the race?

For the last several years, the idea of an American woman winning a major marathon has been bandied around, but it was mostly a fantasy. There was simply too much African talent at the top of majors. And when American women have contended for the win, it has come as a huge surprise. When Desi Linden came two seconds shy of winning Boston in 2011, we explicitly wrote in our pre-race preview that Linden had “zero chance of winning. (editor’s note: she sure proved us wrong)” Very few outside of the Bowerman Track Club expected Flanagan to beat Mary Keitany in New York last year.

That doesn’t mean we expect American women to start winning majors in bunches. But the success of Flanagan, Cragg, and Jordan Hasay in 2017 showed that the best Americans can compete with the best in the world in the marathon. And if that’s the case, you may be able to win a marathon every so often.

Remember, 29 of the last 30 World Marathon Major winners have entered the race with either a sub-2:24 PR or a World Championship medal (the lone exception was last year in Tokyo when Sarah Chepchirchir — training partner of doper Jemima Sumgong — “amazingly” went from 2:24 to 2:19 at age 32). Using those criteria, there are six potential winners on Sunday. Cragg is one of them, and she managed to beat three of the others (Shure DemiseBirhane DibabaHelah Kiprop) at Worlds last year.

Cragg probably won’t win Tokyo. Unless you’re someone like Keitany or Tirunesh Dibaba, runners whose talent levels are much higher than the rest of the field, winning a major marathon requires an incredible race and some good fortune. Cragg is facing five sub-2:22 women, and chances are at least one of them will be close to PR shape. Beating this field will take some doing. And running fast for a full marathon is different than hammering home after a slow opening pace which Cragg did in London. But if Cragg does win, it should not be viewed as a massive shock: it would just be a great runner running a great race.

The Favorite

Ruti Aga — Ethiopia, 24 years old, 2:20:41 pb (2017 Berlin), 66:39 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 2nd 2016 Vienna (2:25:27), 3rd 2016 Berlin (2:24:41), 13th 2017 Dubai (2:46:16), 10th 2017 Boston (2:33:26), 2nd 2017 Berlin (2:20:41)
Tuneup race: 66:39 for 1st at Houston Half Marathon on January 14

The first half of Aga’s 2017 season was pretty rough as she struggled in two high-profile marathons, running 2:46 in Dubai and 2:33 in Boston. But she bounced back after Boston by finishing second in two U.S. road races (the Bolder Boulder and Utica’s Boilermaker Road Race) and capped the year off with a four-minute marathon PR to finish second in Berlin. Aga kept the momentum rolling in January by winning the Houston Half Marathon in 66:39. Not only is that a very fast time, but she beat a very strong field to run it — six other women ran under 67:30 in the race.

Since Aga is both the fastest and hottest runner in the field — her HM and marathon PRs are the best in the field, and both were set in her last two races — she has to go off as the favorite in Tokyo.

Other Potential Winners

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Purity Rionoripo — Ethiopia, 24 years old, 2:20:55 pb (2017 Paris), 68:29 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 2nd 2016 Prague (2:25:00), 4th 2016 Chicago (2:24:47), 1st 2017 Paris (2:20:55)

On April 7, 2017, Olympic marathon champion Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO. Two days later, Purity Rionoripo won the Paris Marathon, setting a course record (and almost four-minute PR) of 2:20:57. Why is the first sentence relevant? Because Rionoripo trained for Paris with Sumgong in Kenya’s Nandi District. That’s the same camp where Sarah Chepchirchir was based when she went from 2:30 to 2:19 in less than a year at age 32 to win last year’s Tokyo Marathon.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Rionoripo is dirty herself. Her progression is actually very similar to that of the women we just called the favorite in Tokyo — Ruti Aga. Both women are 24 years old. Both women came to the marathon fairly recently (Rionoripo debuted in October 2015, Aga in April 2016). And both women have followed a similar pattern the last two years. Both ran 2:25 to finish second in a second-tier European marathon in spring 2016 (Vienna for Aga, Prague for Rionoripo) before running 2:24 at a major that fall (Berlin for Aga, Chicago for Rionoripo). Last year, both women PR’d by about four minutes (Aga in Berlin, Rionoripo in Paris).

Rionoripo hasn’t failed a test, and as a result, she is running Tokyo and will be among the favorites based on her recent form. She did not run a fall marathon last year but did run 31:01 at the Beach to Beacon 10k. But if she wins, expect the questions about her association to Sumgong to grow louder. Sumgong’s husband, Noah Talam, was the coach of the entire group.

When LetsRun.com visited Rionoripo’s training group last April, Rionoripo was quick to credit her training group for her success, “We train so hard. We do long runs, some speed work… We do it as teamwork. Our coach is very fantastic, very nice, very wonderful coach. He treats us as brothers and sisters.”

Shure Demise — Ethiopia, 22 years old, 2:20:59 pb (2015 Dubai), 68:53 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 6th 2016 Tokyo (2:25:04), 1st 2016 Toronto (2:25:18), 2nd 2017 Dubai (2:22:57), 5th 2017 Worlds (2:27:58)

Demise has been fairly consistent in her career but has yet to win fully realize the talent she flashed by running a world junior record of 2:20:59 as an 18-year-old in Dubai three years ago. Since then, she has made three WMM appearances, finishing 8th at 2015 Boston, 6th at 2016 Tokyo and 5th at Worlds last year. The result at Worlds was the most impressive of the three, though she was gapped significantly by the top four in the final miles.

Birhane Dibaba — Ethiopia, 24 years old, 2:21:19 pb (2017 Tokyo), 67:47 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 5th 2016 Tokyo (2:23:16), 2nd 2016 Berlin (2:23:58), 2nd 2017 Tokyo (2:21:19), 10th 2017 Worlds (2:29:01)

Dibaba has run Tokyo in each of the past four years and she has never run slower than 2:23:16. In 2014, she ran a PR of 2:22:30 to finish second. She followed up with a win in 2:23:15 in 2015 and ran one second slower to finish 5th in 2016. Last year, she clocked another personal best of 2:21:19 but that was only good enough for second (though she was almost two minutes up on third place, and the winner, Sarah Chepchirchir, is not returning in 2018).

Dibaba did struggle at Worlds, finishing in 10th place, but that came against a very strong field. Prior to that, she had finished in the top three of 10 of her previous 11 marathons, including six majors. She will be in the hunt on Sunday.

Helah Kiprop — Kenya, 32 years old, 2:21:27 pb (2016 Tokyo), 67:39 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 1st 2016 Tokyo (2:21:27), DNF 2016 Olympics, 7th 2017 London (2:25:39), 7th 2017 Worlds (2:28:19)
Tuneup race: 69:38 for 10th at Houston Half Marathon on January 14

Kiprop finished 7th in perhaps the two deepest marathons in the world last year — London in April and the World Champs in August. Neither was an incredible performance, but neither was awful, either.

As a major champion, Kiprop needs to be taken seriously, and outside of last year, her track record in majors is pretty impressive — 4th in her debut in Berlin in 2013, then 2nd at 2015 Tokyo, 2nd at the 2015 Worlds (by one second), 1st at 2016 Tokyo and a DNF at the 2016 Olympics. Kiprop may not be in the very top tier of global marathoners, but the same can be said for everyone else in this field. She has a solid chance to contend, though her tuneup race — just 69:38 in Houston last month — leaves something to be desired.

LRC prediction: While it would be incredible to see American women win two straight majors after being shut out from April 2006 to November 2017, the odds are against Amy Cragg winning Tokyo. We predict Cragg runs a nice PR (2:23) but the win goes to Ruti Aga.