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LetsRun.com's 2009 Bank Of America Chicago Marathon Preview
Can Sammy Wanjiru Be Beaten?

by Robert Johnson

October 8, 2009 - Sunday's 2009 Bank of American Chicago Marathon is in many ways all about one thing - the American debut of the greatest marathoner on the planet and arguably in history - Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya. Haile Gebrselassie fans may protest, but Wanjiru made a mockery of the entire Olympic field and Olympic record in winning in Beijing last August. Then he backed that win up with a dominating victory in London this spring. In his short career, the 22-year-old has also made a mockery of the old notion that one should wait to move up to the marathon. Wanjiru has run four marathons in his life and all of them have been successes - three victories and a runner-up 2:05:24 showing in the world's most competitive marathon (London).

The mainstream press is likely to point out that Wanjiru, who is the world record holder in the half marathon at 58:33, only ran 61:08 earlier this month in Rotterdam. All we'll say is that 61:08 is 17 seconds faster than what he ran in Lisbon prior to winning London this year.

2009 Flora London Marathon
Sammy Wanjiru
#1 In The World

We think Wanjiru is plenty fit to run very fast in Chicago and we expect him to get the win. He's proven himself time and time again at the marathon and on Sunday he'll be asked to prove the one thing he hasn't proven - does he run well in cold weather?

The early weather forecast talked about snow flurries, but we've looked at weather.com and the conditions at the start are going to be very good - 43 degrees, 4 mph wind with 89% humidity. 43 may seem cool, but mid 40s is really what you want for a marathon. And you'd rather it be too cold rather than too hot, although a few Kenyans do struggle in the cold. (Note: the hourly weather forecast now looks to be a little colder at 39-40 degrees and windier at 9mph with less humidity)

There has been talk that Wanjiru might go for Geb's world record of 2:03:59 if the weather and pacemaking in Chicago are good enough for it. In general, we think hyping up world record attempts is pointless and only sets fans up for disappointment, but we will say a little about the pacemakers. Two-time World Cross-Country silver medallist Patrick Ivuti, who has twice run 2:07, is one of the lead pacemakers, as is 59:54 half marathon man Mathew Koech. They certainly are capable of getting a fast pace started, but Gebrselassie's performances in Berlin in 2008 and 2009 showed that in a record attempt, one needs to be pushed to near the very end if they want the record (in 2008 Gebrselassie had the competition he needed, but not so in 2009).

If anyone could run 2:03 without being pushed to the tape, it would be Wanjiru, and it appears he may go for it, as the race director Pinkowski told USA Today's Dick Patrick that he'd heard the following about what pace Wanjiru wanted at the start: "I've heard they may want 1:01:40 to 1:02:10 (for the first half). That was just casual conversation."

But instead of talking up a world record attempt that is unlikely to happen, we'd rather focus on Wanjiru's competition.

The Competition
If you are thinking the race on Sunday will be a total cakewalk, you are mistaken. Some major opposition has been lined up to face Wanjiru and it's led by Kenya's Vincent Kipruto. Unlike Wanjiru and a lot of other marathon stars who first made their names at other distances, Kipruto is a marathoner through and through. He won his marathon debut last October in 2:08:16 in Reims and then shocked the world in April by becoming the 13th-fastest marathoner in history with a 2:05:47 win in Paris. In that race, Kipruto went through the half in 62:47 at a time when his half marathon PR was technically just 64:07.

Kipruto doesn't excel at shorter distances and doesn't even really race them - he is a marathoner. He's only raced twice in 2009. After the win in Paris, he won the La Corsa Piu' Antica 11K in July, defeating the second-fastest marathoner in history, Duncan Kibet, in the process, but he will come into Chicago not having run any prep races - just like he did prior to Paris.

Mr. Runner-Up
"Mr. Runner-Up" Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco is also in the field. The former 12:50 5k runner has made a great transition to the marathon since moving up to the distance in 2007. Three times he's been the runner-up in a major marathon (London 2007, New York in 2007 and 2008). His PR of 2:05:30 gives him the 2nd-best PR in the field. Goumri's spring marathon in London was a disappointment as he faded to 8th, so he'll be looking for a big showing in Chicago to make up for that. His DNF at the World Champs shouldn't scare people, as he often DNFs or shows poorly in the WChamps or Olympics before running well in a marathon major, as he was a DNF in Osaka and only 20th in Beijing before getting 2nd in New York.

As anti-doping advocates, it needs to be pointed out that Goumri's Chicago profile states that Goumri "was born in Safi, Morocco and his first organized athletics club was the Olympique de Safi. Other noted runners for that club have included Khalid and Brahim Boulami and Rashid Ramzi." We were stunned to see that in his profile as the thing that the profile doesn't mention is that the former steeplechase world record holder Brahim Boulami as well as the 1,500 Olympic champ Ramzi both were nailed as EPO cheats.

2001 world 5k champ Richard Limo ( 2:06:45 PR in the marathon) is racing Chicago as he did last year when he struggled in the heat and was only 10th. He followed that up with a disappointing 9th place showing in Rotterdam this spring. Limo is only 28, so it's not like he should be past his prime, but it's definitely interesting to note that his first marathon was his fastest.

Two 2:07 Guys
2:07:09 guy Benjamin Maiyo is another guy with a fast PR that we are discounting as having much of a chance, as he hasn't run faster than 2:09:58 since 2006. Maiyo does have a nice pedigree, however, as he twice has been a runner-up at a world marathon major (Chicago 2005 Boston 2006).

The other 2:07 guy in the field is Isaac Macharia. The 28-year-old is a recent economics graduate from Nairobi University and quite honestly he seems to understand economics very well. The more you race, the more you are going to get paid. This will be his 4th marathon of 2009 and since he's never finished higher than 9th at a marathon major, we don't think he'll be in the hunt for the win although he is a two-time winner in Nagano.

24th Los Angeles Marathon 2009
Wesley Korir

And before we get to the debutantes (and Americans), we should point out that there are two America-based Kenyans in the field in former Louisville runner Wesley Korir and former Eastern Michigan star Boaz Cheboiywo. Korir is the man who had the 4th best time in 2008 in Chicago (2:13:53) but he ran in the open race and thus created a ton of controversy. Korir showed that his Chicago performance wasn't a fluke as he picked up a cool $160,000 with a shocking victory in LA in 2:08:24 this spring.

Cheboiywo struggled in his marathon debut in New York last Fall (2:21:40), but he has a half marathon PR of  61:35. More importantly, he is a future American, as he's going to get his citizenship soon and therefore he very likely will be a factor for the 2012 US Olymic marathon team. Jim Hage has written a nice profile of Cheboiywo that starts with the classic line from Cheboiywo of "Who wants to read about a Kenyan marathoner who runs 2:21?"

The Talented Debutantes
There are several debut marathoners in Chicago, but the one that certainly can't be ignored is 21-year-old Tadesse Tola of Ethiopia. Tola is a real talent and we knew he was planning on making a much anticipated marathon debut this fall. The only surprise to us is that he is making it in Chicago and not New York. Chicago Race director Carey Pinkowski deserves major props for taking Tola away from the grasps of the NYRR and Mary Wittenberg, as Tola has excelled in New York road races over the last few years.

Most recently, Tola is the man who conquered Ryan Hall, as he absolutely destroyed the field in August's New York Half Marathon, winning in 61:06 in a race where 2nd was 62:32 and Hall was third in 62:35. Prior to that, Tola made a name in New York by setting the course record at the Healthy Kidney 10k and by winning the New York Half in 2008 as well. On a challenging, hilly course, we know Tola is a beast up to the half marathon distance. The question on Sunday is: How will he do on a pancake-flat course and how will he do at the 26.2 distance?

Kenya's Charles Munyeki is also another debutante that can't be ignored. The 22-year-old Kenyan ran 59:48 for the half last year in Rotterdam and has backed that up with a 60:11 and 60:18 this year. And the 60:18 performance came three weeks ago in Rotterdam, which coincidently was Sammy Wanjiru's last prep race for Chicago. In that race, Munyeki finished one spot and 50 seconds ahead of Wanjiru. So he was good enough to beat Wanjiru three weeks ago. The question is: Does he properly know how to prepare for the marathon?

Other debutantes include 2001 World Championships 5k finalist Mohamed Amyn of Morocco, whom we don't expect to be a major factor because he is 33 and if he thought he had a career as a marathoner, he likely would have moved up years ago. Of course, we say that but note if he was an American, we'd be excitingly talking about his debut as his PRs of 13:01, 27:22, and 61:31 are pretty impressive.

The Americans
Most of the Americans are skipping Chicago this year, as the US Champs are being held next month as part of the ING New York marathon. That being said, three Americans are listed as elites according to Chicago. Seth Pilkington will be making his marathon debut in Chicago. There are reasons to think it will be a successful one. For starters, he appears to be in good shape as he recently ran a 60:07 20k in New Haven and that "equates" to 2:13:48 for the marathon. Additionally, he's got good marathon genes, as he father Paul was a 2:11:13 guy who picked up victories in LA and Houston back in the day.

Former Colorado Buff Bret Schoolmeester is America's 2nd best hope, although we aren't certain how well suited for the marathon he is as his 5k PR of 13:39 is a little bit better than his 28:33 PR. Schoolmeester is the brother in law of Kara and Adam Goucher.

Former D3 runner Pat Rizzo, who runs for the Brooks-Hanson Distance Project, has a PR of 2:17:05.

In Summary:
The Contenders (One Of These 5 Guys Will Win It)

Sammy Wanjiru, Vincent Kipruto, Tadesse Tola, Charles Munyeki, Abderrahim Goumri

The Pretenders (Guys That Might Pick Up A Decent Paycheck But Won't Win)
Richard Limo, Benjamin Maiyo, Isaac Macharia, Mohamed Amyn, Wesley Korir, Boaz Cheboiywo

The Americans
Seth Pilkington, Brett Schoolmeester, Pat Rizzo

LRC Predictions: Here we rank our 5 contenders in order or who we like the best. We don't think they'll all finish in the top 5, though.

1) Wanjiru - It would be stupid to bet against him. The question is who is second-favorite.
2) Tola - We're not sure how he'll do in the cool Chicago weather or flat course, but he's in shape. If the weather was hot like last year, we'd be more confident.
3) Munyeki - Interesting debutante.
4) Kipruto - Based on stats, He should be our #2 pick, but his last marathon went perfectly and it's often hard to follow that up with a perfect marathon once again. If you don't believe us, just ask Duncan Kibet.
5) Goumri - Based on stats, we shouldn't pick him as low as 5th, but we are punishing him for training with EPO cheats.

Americans: 1) Pilkington 2) Schoolmeester 3) Rizzo


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