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LRC FLORA London Marathon Women's Preview
Mikitenko Returns To London Looking For Her 2nd Win In 2 Tries
Sunday's 2009 FLORA London Marathon has a very strong women's field, but returning champion Irina Mikitenko of Germany will toe the line as the overwhelming favorite. Mikitenko pulled away last year in London before heading to Berlin in the fall, where she smashed the 2:20 barrier, running 2:19:19 and becoming the 4th-fastest women's marathoner of all time.
Behind her there is a small army of elite women who hope to unseat her (well, about 5 or 6 might actually have a shot - albeit a long, long shot - at this). Unlike the men's side of marathoning, which has been ruled almost exclusively by Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans, the women's side is far more international. There are some fantastic Africans in this year's London field, some excellent Japanese and Chinese runners, a strong European contingent and an excellent Russian team. 2:34 marathoner Kate O'Neill leads the American charge.
We'll separate the field based on continents. The African contingent is very strong and features a relative newcomer whom we're very excited about - Kenya's Martha Komu. London will be Komu's first world marathon majors race, but she deserves serious attention. Last year she burst onto the scene with a come-from-behind 2:25 win in Paris, earning her a spot on Kenya's Olympic marathon squad behind 4-time Boston champion Catherine Ndereba and 2009 Boston Champion Salina Kosgei. Komu ran superbly, finishing 5th in the Olympics, only 16 seconds from a medal. We like Komu's inexperience, boldness and ability to finish with speed in a race like this.
Ndereba, 2nd only to Paula Radcliffe on the all-time women's marathoning PR list, will lace them up for the streets of London for just the second time after claiming that Boston ran out of room for her this year. Ndereba hasn't run really fast for a long time but continually places in the top 2-3 in major marathons, including a 2008 Olympic silver medal and a 5th-place finish in the ING NYC Marathon. Her only performance on the streets of London yielded a 2nd-place 2:19:55 in 2003.
Representing Ethiopia again in London are veterans Gete Wami and Berhane Adere. Adere has won Chicago twice, Wami won Berlin twice, and both usually get their names in the top-10 in every major marathon they run. The most interesting thing we've read lately about this duo is from an article mainly focused on 2008 Boston Marathon champion Dire Tune. Tune claims Wami, Adere and the entrenched Ethiopian marathoning crowd weren't too happy with the younger Tune being selected to Ethiopia's Olympic team in 2008, eventually leading to firearms being drawn. That's about as exciting as marathoning can get.
The Europeans will be tough as well. Despite finishing 1st in the 2008 Olympic Marathon, we think the 39-year-old Romanian Constantina Dita is going to have a tough time finishing in the top-5 this year as she appears to be over her peak. But look out for veteran runners from Russia Ludmila Petrova and Svetlana Zakharova. Zakharova came in second to Mikitenko last year and Petrova finished second to Radcliffe in New York in 2008.
Ludmila Petrova is a definite threat for a top 3 finish. She has experience and a track record of consistency on her side, having run London 7 times, and 6 times finishing between 2:21 and 2:26 en route to 6 top-5 finishes. 2007 was her lone blemish as she DNFed. Although she is now a Masters runner (she'll turn 41 in October), Petrova seems to be a fierce competitor and placed 2nd last fall in NYC behind only Paula Radcliffe. She can grind out a fast pace with the best, so look for her in the final stages with her shuffling stride.
Also watch for hometown favorite Mara Yamauchi (GBR). Though Radcliffe is out, Mara has been running superbly, and is definitely Great Britain's best entrant in either field. She clocked an astounding 68:25 for the half-marathon this year and also ran 32:25 on the roads over 10km. Last year she lowered her marathon best to 2:25. She was 6th in London in 2006 and 2007. Yamauchi probably won't be competing for the win, but we expect her to be a top-7 contender.
From Asia we'll see 4 top runners. The runner who we thought had perhaps the best odds at challenging Mikitenko is 2007 FLORA London Champion Zhou Chunxui of China. She will wear the red and yellow Chinese jersey with ZHOU on the front. And the front is where we expected to see her. She overcame enormous hometown pressure to nab 3rd in the Olympic Marathon last year, ran 68:59 for the half marathon, and looks to be one of the most talented athletes in the field with a sub-2:20 clocking to her name in recent years. But then we found this article which reveals an ankle injury forced Zhou to ease off her normal winter training plan (just your average 180 miles per week) and also that she is sick and hooked up to an IV in her London hotel room!
Japan's Yuri Kano is a top entrant. This will be Kano's first marathon outside of Japan, though in Japan she has run 2:24:27 in the Tokyo Marathon.
Japan's Tomo Morimoto (25) and Mika Okunaga (26) will be battling for the last spot on Japan's World Championships marathon team. Morimoto has the faster personal record by almost 3 minutes, but both of these women are young and inexperienced in major marathons. For Okunaga this will be her first international marathon, and she ran well in 2008 and has run well in 2009. Morimoto has not been performing at a high level thus far in 2009 as she only ran 1:15:00 for a half marathon on March 15th, placing 34th.
More On The Returning Champion From Germany
Mikitenko, who returns to London as the 4th-fastest women's marathoner of all time, stepped up to the marathon distance in 2007 and immediately made a big splash. Last year she won Berlin and London (both World Marathon Majors), lowering her personal best from 2:24 to 2:19:19. Two of the women she trails on the all-time list - Paula Radcliffe (GBR) and Catherine Ndereba (KEN) - were expected to be in the London field this year, though Radcliffe had to pull out to get surgery on her foot.
Mikitenko got the win last year by pushing between 35k and 40k to open up about a 60m gap between herself and eventual 2nd place-winner (and 2009 contestant) Svetlana Zakharova of Russia. The German powerfully closed the race, pushing the gap further between 40k and the finish, where she ultimately won by almost 30 seconds. We remember being amazed at Mikitenko's vitality in the latter stages of the race.
Looking at the 35km splits below, one can see that Salina Kosgei (KEN) - now commonly known as the 2009 John Hancock Boston Marathon Women's Champion - sat in 6th at 35k. Kosgei displayed some of the same finishing spirit she displayed in Boston to move up to 4th by the finish. Also, who would have guessed Constantina Dita would be receiving the Olympic gold medal in 2008 after getting dropped by 7 women in London?
Of Mikitenko's principal competitors from 2008, several will return for another shot at the new champion in 2009. 2nd-Placer Zakharova will be back, so are Ethiopians Gete Wami and Berhane Adere, Russian Ludmila Petrova, and Romanian Constantina Dita.
Wild Card Entrants
America's Kate O'Neill got an elite bib this year. Given her 2:34 marathon PR, we wonder whether O'Neill plans to run with the rabbits and what she hopes to run. There are about 5 or 6 women who have run almost 15 minutes faster than the Yale alum, but we hope to see the number one American entrant have a good experience.
1. Irina Mikitenko (GER)
*We doubt hardly anyone is reading by this point, but if you a) happen to be reading and b) want to put money on the race, we would say put your money on Martha Komu and Mikitenko. You'll get huge odds on Komu, but she is the only runner who we think has a really good chance of beating Mikitenko. The reason? Komu is young, isn't used to getting beaten in marathons, and has finishing speed. Wami, Petrova, Zakharova, Adere, Ndereba and Dita are all getting to the tail end of their careers. They have much better shots at winning hilly or hot weather marathons, not time-trial type marathons such as London.
**We said to put your money on Deriba Merga at 9-1 going in to Boston and we wish we had taken our own advice as he won by almost a minute (of course, we picked him 3rd in our predictions).
1. No Paula. Paula vs. Mikitenko would have been mouth-watering.
Elite Women: Entries
Name Nation PR Bib no. Bib name
36, Irina Mikitenko GER 2:19:19 101 IRINA
Awards and Bonuses for Elite Races
Additional Cash Prizes [LRC Note: This is another reason why fast runners love running London]
2:28:00 $ 1,000
Any runner achieving the following will receive, in addition to the above:
First in race and mens course record (2:05:15) - $25,000
Much of the information gleaned for this preview came from the fantastic FLORA London Marathon Press Guide.