2014 Chicago Marathon Women’s Preview: Rita Jeptoo Attempts to Win Fourth Straight World Marathon Major

By LetsRun.com
October 9, 2014

When Rita Jeptoo takes the start line at the 2014 Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday, she’ll have the chance to accomplish something that no one – man or woman – has been able to do since the start of the World Marathon Majors series in 2006 – cross the finish line first at two majors in two straight years (four races total). Jeptoo won Boston and Chicago in 2013, and after setting a 2:18:57 course record in Boston in April, she’s looking to do the same thing in 2014. A win for Jeptoo in Chicago would reaffirm her status as the World’s #1 women’s marathoner and cap one of the greatest two-year runs ever in the women’s marathon. If she does it, she’ll be well rewarded financially as she’d earn at least $600,000.

Jeptoo won’t have it easy, however, as half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat and 2:19:52 woman Mare Dibaba will both try to beat Jeptoo to the finish line in Grant Park. The American contingent is led by 2012 US Olympian at 10,000 Amy Hastings and Clara Santucci, who won the Pittsburgh Marathon in May and was 9th in Chicago last year.

Just as we did for the men (LRC Men’s Preview: Kenenisa Bekele And Eliud Kipchoge Clash Again – Is It Time To Say Bye-Bye To World Record Holder Dennis Kimetto’s 2:03:45 Course Record?), we break down the women’s field below ahead of Sunday’s race.

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Key facts

Start time: Sunday, 7:30 a.m. CT

TV/streaming: Chicago-area residents can watch it on TV on NBC5 Chicago. NBC5 will also be streaming the race online here.

Prize money: $550,000 total
1st, $100,000
2nd, $50,000
3rd, $25,000
4th, $15,000
5th, $10,000
Top American, $10,000 (down to $1,000 for fifth American)
Time bonuses: $75,000 for a course record (down to $5,000 for sub-2:24); $2,500 for each American sub-2:43

World Marathon Majors: Chicago is one of the six World Marathon Majors and the $500,000 prize for the 2013-14 series could well come down to Sunday’s race.

Here are the current standings in the 2013-14 series (25 points for a win, 15 for 2nd, 10 for 3rd, 5 for 4th, 1 for 5th)

1. Rita Jeptoo, 75 points
2. Edna Kiplagat, 65 points
3. Tirfi Tsegaye, 51 points

Since it’s 25 points for a win, the only woman with a realistic chance to stop Jeptoo is Kiplagat (running New York). Theoretically, Tsegaye could catch her, but it would require the following things to happen: 1) Jeptoo finishes 6th or lower in Chicago; 2) Tsegaye runs New York just five weeks after winning Berlin; 3) Tsegaye somehow wins New York; and 4) Kiplagat finishes 3rd or lower in New York.

Jeptoo guarantees herself the title with a win in Chicago, as she would achieve the maximum 100 points (runners can only score four races). In fact, Jeptoo would still win the title with a second-place finish, as the best Kiplagat could do in that situation is tie her at 90 points. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head record (Jeptoo and Kiplagat haven’t raced a marathon in 2013 or 2014), but the second is the athlete who took the fewest races to achieve her points. Jeptoo will have run four majors in 2013-14, while Kiplagat will have run five (including the 2013 World Championships). Thus, Jeptoo would win the tiebreaker and the $500,000 grand prize.

Bibs: Here’s what the top runners will be wearing on Sunday.

Chasing History

Rita Jeptoo – Kenya, 33 years old, 2:18:57 pb (2014 Boston), 66:27 half

Last two marathons: 1st, 2014 Boston (2:18:57); 1st, 2013 Chicago (2:19:57)

Prep races: Won Bogota Half Marathon on July 27 in 73:39 (8,660 feet of elevation)

Rita Jeptoo smashed the course record in Boston by 1:46 Jeptoo smashed the course record in Boston by 1:46

There’s a lot at stake for Jeptoo in Chicago. Aside from a large amount of cash ($100,000 for winning the race, $500,000 for winning the WMM series title and up to $75,000 in time bonuses), she can put the finishing touches on a two-year run for the ages. Only one other woman has won three or more majors in a two-year span since the WMM series began in 2006: Irina Mikitenko (2008 London, 2008 Berlin, 2009 London).*

*Mikitenko finished second in the 2009 Chicago Marathon, but winner Liliya Shobukhova may be stripped of that Chicago title for doping. Shobukhova is appealing her doping ban but if she’s stripped of her 2009 Chicago win (the Chicago media guide still lists her as the champ) then Mikitenko will have won four straight majors. Shobukhova twice won three majors in a two-year span twice (2009 Chicago, 2010 London, 2010 Chicago, 2011 Chicago), but very likely will be stripped of all those titles.

Mikitenko’s run from 2008-2009 was impressive, but a win in Chicago would give Jeptoo a better two-year span as she set the course record in Boston (2:18:57) and would have at least two sub-2:20s versus only one for Mikitenko. Really, a win by Jeptoo would be the best two-year run in the marathon since Paula Radcliffe won three majors and broke the world record twice from 2002-2003.

What’s crazy about Jeptoo isn’t just that she’s winning majors in bunches; it’s that she’s getting better each time out even though her last three marathons were the 16th, 17th and 18th marathons of her career. Jeptoo has PR’d in her last two marathons and three of her last four. Check out her pb progression over the last two years:

2:24:22 (pb as of October 6, 2012)–> 2:22:04 (2012 Chicago) –> 2:19:57 (2013 Chicago) –> 2:18:57 (2014 Boston)

That’s two leaps of 2+ minutes and another leap of a minute from a traditionally fast course (Chicago) to a traditionally slow one (Boston). She may not have someone like Shalane Flanagan pushing the pace for her as she did when Jeptoo ran 2:18:57 in Boston, but another time in the 2:18s isn’t out of the question given Jeptoo’s continued improvement and the fact that Chicago is flatter than Boston. Even if she ran 2:19:xx, she’d still make history — only Radcliffe and Catherine Ndereba have broken 2:20 three or more times (and Jeptoo would have done it in three straight races). Radcliffe’s 2:17:18 course record from 2002 is out of the question, but Jeptoo has the ability to threaten Ndereba’s 2:18:47, the #2 time in course history.

The question is, does Jeptoo even bother to push the pace knowing that the course record is essentially untouchable? We doubt it as she could blow $500,000 if she blows up. If we were her, we’d make sure we got second, then try to win the race, but she has said her focus is on winning, not the $500,000.

The Challengers – Can These Women Finally Beat One of the World’s Best?

To call anyone other than Jeptoo the favorite would be absurd, but with these two women in the field, she’s not a lock for victory.

Florence Kiplagat – Kenya, 27 years old, 2:19:44 pb (2011 Berlin), 65:12 half (WR)

Florence Kiplagat in Delhi last year. Florence Kiplagat in Delhi last year.

Last two marathons: 2nd, 2014 London (2:20:24); 1st, 2013 Berlin (2:21:13)

Prep race: Silver medal at Commonwealth Games 10,000 on July 29 (32:09)

Kiplagat has run five career marathons and done very well in three of them (a win in her debut at 2011 Berlin, another win at 2013 Berlin and a second at 2014 London), with her only real blowup a 2:27:05 performance at 2013 London (she was still sixth overall). The problem is that Kiplagat hasn’t yet been able to beat the very best competition.

She’s never raced Rita Jeptoo, but her record against the other two best marathoners right now — Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo — is just 1-5, with the only win coming when Jeptoo DNF’ed. Rita Jeptoo is better than both of them, so it will be tough for Florence Kiplagat to beat her unless Jeptoo really struggles or Kiplagat is in the form of her life.

Being in the form of her life is a possibility as Kiplagat is still only 27 and she set the world record in the half marathon in Barcelona in February (65:12) (Running the half marathon WR doesn’t guarantee anything, though, as Kiplagat failed to win London two months later and men’s half WR holder Zersenay Tadese has never broken 2:10). Kiplagat recently told Kenya’s CapitalFM that she thinks she can run 2:18 and added that “the world record is way far beyond me for now. But it is something that I plan to attack very soon.” So look for a quick time or a blowup from Kiplagat in Chicago.

Mare Dibaba – Ethiopia, 24 years old, 2:19:52 pb (2012 Dubai), 67:13 half

Last two marathons: 3rd, 2014 Boston (2:20:35); 1st, 2014 Xiamen (2:21:36)

Prep race: 2nd at Bogota Half Marathon on July 27 in 75:34 (8,660 feet of elevation)

It seems like Dibaba’s destiny in 2014 is to lose to Rita Jeptoo. Dibaba has run four races this year, and she’s lost to Jeptoo in three of them (Jeptoo didn’t run in the other, the Xiamen International Marathon in January). Jeptoo beat Dibaba in the RAK Half Marathon in February, beat her again in the Boston Marathon in April, and went to 3-0 at the Bogota Half Marathon in July. This will be Dibaba’s last chance to get revenge in 2014.

Dibaba is a very solid runner — she broke 2:20 in Dubai two years ago and finished third in Boston in April in a time that was under the old course record. The problem with her, as with Kiplagat, is that she hasn’t been quite good enough yet to beat the best in the world. Her time will come, but it’s hard to envision her dethroning Jeptoo given Jeptoo’s form over the past two years.

Two Others Who Could Contend

After the top three, the quality of the field drops off quickly (only one other woman has broken 2:26). These two women are long shots for the win, but they could finish in the top two or three on a good day.

Birhane Dibaba – Ethiopia, 21 years old, 2:22:30 pb (2014 Tokyo), 69:34 half

Last two marathons: 2nd, 2014 Tokyo (2:22:30); 3rd, 2013 Frankfurt (2:23:01)

Prep race: none

If you want proof of how runners are turning to the marathon earlier and earlier, look at Dibaba. She turned 21 last month and Chicago will be her seventh marathon. She’s definitely someone to watch as she has PR’d in her last four marathons, most recently running 2:22:30 for second in her major debut in Tokyo in February. While she’s never faced a field as strong as the one in Chicago, given her steady improvement and nice run in Tokyo, it’s a good bet Dibaba will set another pb on Sunday.

Gelete Burka – Ethiopia, 28 years old, 2:26:03 pb (2013 Houston), 75:38 half, 14:31 5k

Last two marathons: 3rd, 2014 Houston (2:26:03); 12th, 2013 Frankfurt (2:30:40)

Prep race: 3rd at Bogota Half Marathon on July 27 in 75:38 (8,660 feet of elevation)

Burka’s 2:26 pb isn’t great for an elite women’s marathoner, but marathoner is a word that, until recently, you wouldn’t use to describe Burka who is after all a former world indoor champion at 1500. Her 1500 pb of is 3:58.79 and she also has a 14:31.20 5000 pb and was 5th in the Olympic 5,000 in 2012.

Check out what she did in the span of four months last year – ran 14:42 for 5,000; ran the 1500 at Worlds; ran 2:30:40 at the Frankfurt Marathon. Even though that 14:42 put her eighth on the world list last year, Burka decided to run Frankfurt and followed that up with a much better showing at Houston in January, running 2:26:03. Chicago will be her third marathon (and first major), though it’s possible that Burka could return to the track when the World Championships return next year.

Burka is a fine track runner, but it’s unlikely that she has the endurance to be super successful over the 26.2 distance. Can anyone imagine Jenny Simpson battling for the win in a marathon?

The list of elite 1500 runners who went on to become elite marathoners is very short (yes, we know Haile Gebrselassie was world indoor champ at 1500, but he was also an all-time great at 5,000 and 10,000; Burka can’t say the same). Burka may be able to PR in Chicago, but she has to know her limits. Before her debut in Frankfurt last year, she said her goal was 2:20 and she ended up struggling home in 2:30:40. If she tries to run 2:20 in Chicago, she’s likely going to blow up again.

That being said, we could easily see her running low 2:20s and finishing top three and that’s likely far more lucrative for her than is running in the 14:40s and finishing 5th at Worlds in the 5000.

The Americans

Amy Hastings with Christo Landry after they won July's Peachtree Road Race Hastings with Christo Landry after they won July’s Peachtree Road Race (Photo by Chris Lotsbom, Race Results Weekly)

Amy Hastings – 30 years old, 2:27:03 pb (2011 Los Angeles), 71:19 half

Last two marathons: 20th, 2013 New York (2:42:50); DNF, 2012 Yokohama

Prep races: 2nd at U.S. 20K Champs on September 1 in 68:54; won Peachtree Road Race on July 4 in 32:16

Hastings has run well in 2014 and looks set for a pb in Chicago on Sunday. She was second at the U.S. 20K Champs on September 1, won the U.S. 10K Champs at the Peachtree Road Race on July 4 and was third behind Kim Conley and Jordan Hasay at USAs in the 10,000. It seems clear that Hastings has benefited from training with Molly Huddle, who has put together a career year on the track and roads in 2014.

The hope is that Hastings’ success translates to the marathon, but she’s had a troubled history over the 26.2-mile distance since placing fourth at the Olympic Trials in 2012. She DNF’ed the Yokohama Marathon in November 2012 (she switched into that race when New York was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy), ran just 2:42 in New York last fall and withdrew from Boston in April because she felt her training wasn’t progressing enough.

The being said, Hastings is a really good bet to be the top American as long as she doesn’t get too excited and try and run 2:20 pace with the likes of Jeptoo and Kiplagat. With her 2:27:03 pb, she is the 8th fastest American ever on a record-eligible course and she’s in great form. She’s got a good shot at being the first American to crack the top-five at Chicago since Desi Linden in 2010.

Clara Santucci – 27 years old, 2:29:54 pb (2011 Boston), 72:21 half

Last two marathons: 1st, 2014 Pittsburgh (2:32:25); 9th, 2013 Chicago (2:31:39)

Prep race: 6th at U.S. 20K Champs on September 1 in 72:34

Santucci is the only other U.S. entrant who has broken 2:30, though it should be noted that she accomplished that in the 2011 Boston Marathon, when the times were super-fast due to a strong tailwind. Santucci is the top American finisher from Chicago last year (she was 9th) and is coming off her first career marathon victory in Pittsburgh in May. Compared to Chicago last year, Santucci is in better shape as she placed higher (6th vs. 12th) and ran a faster time (72:34 vs. 72:40) at the U.S. 20K Champs in 2014 than she did in 2013. That performance suggests that she could run something in the 2:30 range if she has a good day on Sunday.

Lisa Uhl – 27 years old, debut, 73:28 half

Last marathon: debut

Prep race: 77:12 half marathon in Minneapolis on September 7 (she won the race by almost 3 minutes)

uhl Uhl, Janet Cherobon-Bawcom and Hastings at the 2012 Olympic Trials

Uhl (then Lisa Koll) was a hot prospect coming out of Iowa State in 2010, when she pulled off the 5k/10k double at NCAAs. Two years later, she delivered on that promise, making the Olympic team at 10,000 and finishing 13th in the final in London in a pb of 31:12. Since then, Uhl has struggled, something she wrote about on her website two weeks ago. She left coach Jerry Schumacher after the 2012 Olympics to move back home to Des Moines, Iowa, and train with her college coach, Corey Ihmels, at nearby Iowa State. Then Ihmels took the Boise State job in June 2013 (he still coaches her from afar).

Uhl said that after the Olympics, her goals for 2013 were to make Worlds on the track and set the American debut record (2:25:53) in the marathon that fall, but she felt fatigued during spring workouts. She remained inconsistent for a year and ultimately decided to take an extended break this spring to rest up and reassess her career. On her website, Uhl wrote:

This gave me time to think about what I really wanted from my running career. What made me excited about training and competing again after feeling like I had been banging my head against the wall for a year? I kept coming back to the marathon- the spirit of it, the community surrounding it, and my naivety to it. I knew I couldn’t expect to be breaking records in 4 months, but I realized I had to start somewhere with something that had exciting potential. That’s when I made the decision to do the marathon.

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Uhl literally almost started from scratch as in July she ran 41:37 for 7 miles at Bix.

Uhl is the biggest question mark in the Chicago field. She’s still only 27 and has long been a strong 10,000 runner, but with no good races in well over a year, it’s difficult to know what to expect from her without talking to her (which we hope to do in the next day or so). She won her tune-up half marathon race in Minneapolis on September 7, but only ran 77:12, which tells us very little. Uhl seems to be in a good place mentally, and judging by her blog post, she doesn’t have incredibly high expectations (perhaps 2:34, since that’s the pace she ran at her tune-up race?). Uhl’s not looking for a breakthrough, just a positive sign to let her know her career is back on track.

We’ll let you know what she says when we talk to her soon.

Full women’s elite field

Name Country PB Comment
Rita Jeptoo Kenya 2:18:57 WMM leader has won 3 straight marathons: ’14 Boston (CR), ’13 Chicago, ’13 Boston
Florence Kiplagat Kenya 2:19:44 2nd in London in April; won Berlin last year; set HM WR of 65:12 in February
Mare Dibaba Ethiopia 2:19:52 Won Xiamen International Marathon in Jan.; 3rd in Boston in April
Birhane Dibaba Ethiopia 2:22:30 21-year-old is running 7th career marathon; 2nd in Tokyo in Ferbruary
Gelete Burka Ethiopia 2:26:03 5th in 5k at ’12 OG; 1st major marathon (3rd in Houston in January)
Amy Hastings USA 2:27:03 Olympic Trials 4th-placer ran just 2:42:50 in last marathon in NYC
Clara Santucci USA 2:29:54 Won Pittsburgh Marathon in May
Melissa White USA 2:32:37 Chicago has been good to her: she’s run her top 2 times here, including pb in ’13
Wendy Thomas USA 2:32:49 4th at U.S. Half Champs in Jan.; 19th in Boston
Laura Portis USA 2:33:46 2nd at Twin Cities last year
Sarah Cummings USA 2:34:57
Lauren Jimison USA 2:35:17 4th at Grandma’s Marathon in June
Yuri Yoshizumi Japan 2:37:54
Devon Yanko USA 2:39:37
Whitney Bevins-Lazzara USA 2:41:19
Heidi Greenwood USA 2:42:08
Sarah Crouch USA 2:44:25
Lindsey Scherf USA Debut 71:45 half pb
Lisa Uhl USA Debut 2012 US 10k Olympian has struggled last two years

Editor’s Note: An earlier addition of this story incorrectly said that Jeptoo didn’t win a major until the age of 32. She won her first major (Boston) in 2006 at age 25 and then didn’t win another won until age 32..

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