2014 LRC Year-End Rankings: Men’s Marathon: Wilson Kipsang and Meb Keflezighi Had Years To Remember

By LetsRun.com
December 31, 2014

*David Graham Column: My Thoughts On The Men’s Marathon For 2014

2014 is almost at an end and with not much going on in the world of running until the New Year, it’s the perfect time to release our end-of-year rankings. Over the final five days of the year, we’ve been ranking the top 10 men and women in the world in every Diamond League event (800, 1500, 3000 steeple, 5000) and the marathon. Don’t worry, American fans: we’ll rank the top five Americans in each event as well.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance in majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York). Those six marathons attract the most talent; sometimes a top-four in a major can be more impressive than winning a smaller marathon.
  • Season-best times were given some consideration, but we didn’t penalize a runner for having a slow sb if they ran tougher courses (such as New York).
  • These rankings reflect only performances in marathons in 2014. In our track rankings, we were interested in trying to find out who would win in a race if every athlete on the list got together. That’s not as simple in marathoning, where the favorites are more dependent on the course and conditions. Thus, these rankings are more a reflection of what an athlete accomplished in 2014 rather than who would win in a race.
  • With that said, head-to-head results will still factor heavily in the ranking criteria if it’s close between two runners.
  • While we strive to be objective with our rankings, with only two (occasionally three) data points for each marathoner, it’s inevitable that some subjectivity comes into play in these rankings, more so in the marathon than any other event. We’ve done our best by asking each member of the LetsRun.com staff for input and creating rankings that reflect the consensus of the staff.

World Rankings: What a Year of Marathoning

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The men’s marathon just keeps getting better. We saw perhaps the greatest field in history in London, a course record in the debut of the world’s greatest-ever track runner, a world record in Berlin (the first-ever sub-2:03 clocking) and an epic final stretch duel in New York.

Meb Wins Boston Marathon 2014 Meb Wins Boston Marathon 2014

Oh yeah, and an American won Boston for the first time since 1983. Yes, it was a pretty good year in the marathon.

Compiling this list was always going to be difficult and readers will be more likely to disagree with these rankings than any of the ones we’ve put forth so far. Because elite marathoners run only two (occasionally three) marathons in a year, it’s hard to definitively say who was better than who as our data points are limited. We doubt many will argue with our choices for #1, #2 and #3 (sorry Dennis Kimetto, a world record and a DNF only gets you third), but after that it’s all about what you value. Unlike the track, which is always flat and round, marathon courses vary and different types of runners succeed on different courses. Throw Meb KeflezighiDickson Chumba and Sammy Kitwara into a paced race in Berlin and you likely get a very different result than you would in an unpaced environment in Boston. We tried our best to sort through those differences and grade runners on what they achieved in 2014.

You might not agree with our rankings, but we think everyone can agree that 2014 was a phenomenal year for marathoning. We can’t wait for 2015 to kick off with the Dubai Marathon on January 23.

1. Wilson Kipsang • Kenya • 32 years old 

2014 results: 1st London (2:04:29 CR), 1st New York (2:10:59)

Win two majors in a year and it’s hard not to end up #1 in the world rankings (unless, as Rita Jeptoo showed, you fail a drug test). Kipsang, who entered 2014 fresh off a world record in Berlin last fall, was spectacular in setting a course record in London in April and followed that up with a thrilling win in New York, busting out a 62-second final 400 (approximate) to pull away from Lelisa Desisa in Central Park. That win in New York silenced critics who claimed that Kipsang could not win on a hilly course and cemented his spot as the world’s top marathoner.

Has anyone ever been as good over a three-race period as Kipsang? The answer is probably no. Here’s how Kipsang’s last three races stack up against the other best three-race periods of the World Marathon Majors era:

Athlete Race 1 Race 2 Race 3
Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot 1st, 2006 Boston (2:07:14 CR) 1st, 2006 Chicago (2:07:35) 1st, 2007 Boston (2:14:13)
Sammy Wanjiru 1st, 2008 Olympics (2:06:32 OR) 1st, 2009 London (2:05:10 CR) 1st, 2009 Chicago (2:05:41 CR)
Geoffrey Mutai 2nd, 2010 Berlin (2:05:10) 1st, 2011 Boston (2:03:02 CR) 1st, 2011 New York (2:05:05 CR)
Wilson Kipsang 1st, 2013 Berlin (2:03:23 WR) 1st, 2014 London (2:04:29 CR) 1st, 2014 New York (2:10:59)

As good as some of those other performances were (it’s scary to think what Wanjiru, born four years after Kipsang, would be capable of if he were alive today), Kipsang’s has to be the best when you factor in the world record and how deep the field he beat in London was (seven guys sub-2:05, plus the Olympic champ and Mo Farah).

How long can it last? Can Kipsang win four in a row? Can he reclaim the world record? The sky is the limit for Kipsang in 2015.

2. Eliud Kipchoge • Kenya • 30 years old

2014 results: 1st Rotterdam (2:05:00), 1st Chicago (2:04:11)

Kipchoge won both of his marathons, both in 2:05:00 or better, and has now won three of his four career marathons (the only loss: his 2:04:05 for second in Berlin last year, when Kipsang set the world record). Kipchoge’s 2:04:11 in Chicago was the third-fastest time on the year (Kimetto and Mutai ran faster in Berlin) while his 2:05:00 in Rotterdam was the ninth-fastest (he was the only man to have two performances in the top 10).

Kipchoge, the 2003 World champion at 5000 meters, has taken to the marathon better than anyone else in history, as in addition to his three victories, his average time across those four marathons is 2:04:42 — a time that only 14 other men have ever run. Looking ahead to 2015, it would be nice to see Kipchoge run Boston or London in the spring after winning smaller marathons in each of the past two years (Hamburg in 2013 and Rotterdam in 2014).

asdf The 2:03 barrier is history

3. Dennis Kimetto • Kenya • 30 years old

2014 results: DNF Boston, 1st Berlin (2:02:57 WR)

Despite Kimetto’s mesmerizing 2:02:57 world record on September 28 in Berlin, we can’t rank him higher than third because of his DNF in Boston in April. Kimetto’s world record was the single best performance of the year, but Kipsang’s 2:04:29 in London and Kipchoge’s 2:04:11 in Chicago were probably #2 and #3 and each of them won an additional marathon in 2014. Kimetto still ranks third because, again, 2:02:57 is ridiculous.

Kimetto still faces the question that dogged Wilson Kipsang prior to his NYC victory — can he win on a more technical course such as NYC or Boston? Kimetto has run great in the four marathons he has finished (2nd 2012 Berlin, 1st 2013 Tokyo, 1st 2013 Chicago, 1st 2014 Berlin) but DNF’ed in his Boston debut in April.

Will Kimetto return to Boston in April? Perhaps, though recent history suggests that Kimetto will end up in Dubai or London. Check out the next marathons for the last four men to set the marathon world record (all four did it in Berlin the fall before their next marathon):

Athlete Next race Result
Haile Gebrselassie 2008 Dubai 1st, 2:04:53 CR
Haile Gebrselassie 2009 Dubai 1st, 2:05:29
Patrick Makau 2012 London DNF
Wilson Kipsang 2014 London 1st, 2:04:29 CR

Kimetto could go after the riches of Dubai ($200,000 for first, the largest prize in marathoning), but they just shelled out for Kenenisa Bekele and running in Dubai would all but kill any chance Kimetto has at winning the 2014-15 WMM jackpot (again, why isn’t Dubai a major?). Tokyo in February is also an option (Kimetto won there in 2014) but the best option would be London or Boston, traditionally the two best spring marathons.

4. Tsegaye Mekonnen • Ethiopia • 19 years old

2014 results: 1st Dubai (2:04:32), 5th London (2:08:06), DNF Frankfurt

Mekonnen didn’t win a major in 2014, but he defeated a strong field (11 men broke 2:10) in Dubai to win his debut in January in 2:04:32. Mekonnen DNF’ed Frankfurt in October, which hurts his candidacy. But his fifth in London compares favorably to the second-best performances by the men below him on this list (Emmanuel Mutai was seventh in the same race; Meb Keflezighi was fourth in New York, Dickson Chumba was third in Chicago and Sammy Kitwara was third in Tokyo but none of those fields was as strong as London, especially Tokyo). Running three high-quality marathons in a year is a big ask of anyone, especially a guy who didn’t turn 19 until the middle of June and hadn’t run a marathon before January. Even if he’s a year or two older than his listed age (could an 18-year-old really run 2:04?), he’s still a monster talent and will be fun to watch in the coming years.

Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai in Berlin (Full photo gallery coming) Mutai broke the existing world record with his 2:03:13 in Berlin on September 28 but that was still only good enough for second

5. Emmanuel Mutai • Kenya • 30 years old

2014 results: 7th London (2:08:19), 2nd Berlin (2:03:13)

David Graham put it best about Mutai:

Mutai has the odd distinction of being able to claim that when he toed the line at the start of the 2014 Berlin Marathon, the world record was 2:03:23, yet after crossing the finish line two hours, three minutes, and thirteen seconds later, his time was not a world record, not a national record, not even a course record, nor the world’s fastest time for 2014.

Mutai has developed a reputation as the bridesmaid of elite marathoning, and despite a 2:03:13 clocking in Berlin, he retains that reputation heading into 2015. Mutai has now finished second seven times at major marathons (2009 Worlds, 2010 London, 2010 New York, 2011 New York, 2013 London, 2013 Chicago, 2014 Berlin) with a lone victory (2011 London). If not for Dennis Kimetto, Mutai would own the world record as well as course records on two of the six major marathons (Berlin and Chicago). Instead, he’s the only guy to have broken 2:04 (twice) more times than he’s won a major marathon (once).

You can make an argument for two major winners, Meb Keflezighi (Boston) and Dickson Chumba (Tokyo) in this spot, but we feel it would be unfair to punish Mutai just because he happened to be in the same race as an all-time great performance (Kimetto’s 2:02:57). There’s no guarantee Mutai would have won in a race between him, Keflezighi and Chumba this year, but he would probably be our favorite.

6. Dickson Chumba • Kenya • 28 years old

2014 results: 1st Tokyo (2:05:42 CR), 3rd Chicago (2:04:32)

Chumba (#6) and Keflezighi (#7) posted similar resumes in 2014 – both had a major win and a top 4 at another major – but Chumba’s win in Tokyo was a course record (2:05:42) and he broke 2:05 in Chicago (2:04:32).

What American Men Have Been Dreaming of Doing for 31 Years Yes, an American really did win Boston in 2014

7. Meb Keflezighi • USA • 39 years old 

2014 results: 1st Boston (2:08:37), 4th New York (2:13:18)

Our #6 (Chumba), #7 (Keflezighi) and #8 (Sammy Kitwara) rankers all have multiple top-fours at majors this year, but only Chumba (Tokyo) and Meb (Boston) won a major. A win in Boston usually gets more credit than a win in Tokyo and Keflezighi’s fourth in New York came against a slightly better field than Chicago.

The next two guys behind Keflezighi in New York were defending World/Olympic champ Stephen Kiprotich and two-time defending NYC champ Geoffrey Mutai. Chumba and Kitwara did defeat Kenenisa Bekele in Chicago, but he is not as proven at the marathon as Kiprotich or Mutai.

But the added prestige of Boston versus Tokyo is offset by the fact that Chumba set a course record in Tokyo and also ran 2:04:32 in Chicago and was only 20 seconds behind the winner there. In both of Chumba’s marathons, he ran faster than Meb did and for the year he was more than four minutes faster than Meb. Looking at placings on the year, one could argue Meb could be as high as #4 in the world, but our big debate was whether he should be #6. There was even the argument made for ranking Meb below Bekele, but winning a major is a big deal.

As has happened multiple times in the past, everyone counted out Keflezighi to begin 2014. He was 38 and coming off his worst marathon finish ever (2:23:47 for 23rd in New York). His 61:23 to win the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Houston in January was a good sign, but facing a Boston Marathon field that included Kimetto, defending champ Lelisa Desisa and nine other guys who had broken 2:09 (Meb’s pb coming in was 2:09:08) we calculated his odds of winning as somewhere between 27-1 and 19,813-1.

Of course, Meb beat them all to secure an emotional win one year after the bombs went off on Boylston Street. Keflezighi followed that up with a solid fourth in New York and is now favored to make his fourth Olympic Games at the U.S. Marathon Trials in 2016, even though he will be 40 years old at the time of the race. It’s unlikely Meb will be favored in any major marathon from this point forward — not with 2:05 guys seemingly growing on trees — but it would be foolish to count him out. Meb’s may be only #7 in our rankings, but if we were ranking based on emotion we’d put him #1.

8. Sammy Kitwara • Kenya • 28 years old 

2014 results: 3rd Tokyo (2:06:30), 2nd Chicago (2:04:28)

Kitwara and Chumba posted similar resumes in 2014, with the huge difference being that Chumba won a race and Kitwara didn’t. Head to head, Chumba beat Kitwara at Tokyo and Kitwara returend the favor in Chicago but just by four seconds. Both beat Bekele in Chicago, elevating them above him (despite his course record in Paris) and no one else below Chumba or Kitwara strung together two high-quality marathons in majors this year (few managed to put together two high-quality marathons, period). Both runners are good enough to win a race like Chicago, Boston or New York, but with studs like Kipsang, Kimetto and Kipchoge, it’s never been harder to win a major.

Kenenisa Bekele in Chicago Bekele, shown here prior to Chicago, had a decent debut season in the marathon.

9. Kenenisa Bekele • Ethiopia • 32 years old

2014 results: 1st Paris (2:05:03 CR), 4th Chicago (2:05:51)

The move to the marathon by arguably the world’s greatest track distance runner produced two 2:05 clockings in 2014 that amazing were viewed as a little disappointing.

Consider, for a moment, that, instead of becoming the greatest track runner of all-time, Kenenisa Bekele decided to become a marathoner 10 years ago. And, just for fun, say that he ran the same times he did this year (remember that Bekele ran 12:37 and 26:20 in 2004). His debut of 2:05:03 in Paris would have been the third-fastest marathon ever run, eight seconds off the world record. His 2:05:51 in Chicago would be #7 all-time and would have given him two victories in two marathons.

But 10 years later, in 2014, running the #3 and #7 times ever in Bekele’s first two marathons would have required a 2:03:23 and 2:03:52. In 2014, running a couple of 2:05s doesn’t resonate the same way it would in 2004. Bekele’s first two marathons put him 44th and 97th on the all-time list (and this is only record-eligible courses), not quite what people hoped after Bekele’s track accomplishments. His 2:05:03 in Paris was fine; a course record and a victory — a great debut marathon. That led many to believe (including some on the LRC staff) that Bekele wouldn’t require long to “figure out” the marathon and that a victory in his next race in Chicago was assured.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Perhaps in a show of inexperience, Bekele arrived in Chicago on Thursday for a Sunday-morning race and fell off around the 20-mile mark as Eliud Kipchoge ripped a 2:04:11. Bekele isn’t Dennis Kimetto, a guy plucked from obscurity who becomes a natural at the marathon. Until recently, he spent his entire career training for track races of 10k and below and cross country (max distance: 12k). Kimetto didn’t have anything to unlearn, any favorite training or system he had to part with to race a distance over four times as long as his specialty.

Many runners have made the transition Bekele is still undergoing — Kipchoge is an example of one that’s handled it extremely well — and many (but perhaps, not as many, as more and more runners eschew the track for the roads) will continue to make it in the coming years. What is clear is that the marathon is unlike any other event in running. The world record holder for the half-marathon, Zersenay Tadese (58:23 pb), has famously never broken 2:10 in the marathon. Mo Farah, the world’s best track runner over the past four years, was only eighth in the London Marathon.  Bekele’s two 2:05s clearly could have been much worse.

It’s too early to judge Bekele — Haile Gebrselassie set a world record at age 35 — and we can’t say for sure whether he’ll turn out like Geb or Paul Tergat as a multi-time major winner, but we do know two things 1) it’s much harder for Bekele now than it was for Geb or Tergat a decade ago and 2) we can’t wait to find out.

10. Markos Geneti • Ethiopia • 30 years old

2014 results: 2nd Dubai (2:05:13), 5th Boston (2:09:50), 1st Hengshui (2:07:38)

Geneti ran three high-quality races this year, an extremely impressive accomplishment in marathoning. There’s a reason that eight of the nine guys ahead of him only attempted two marathons this year (and that the only one who did DNF’ed his third one): it’s really, really difficult to run three good marathons in 12 months. For that reason, Geneti is our choice for the 10th spot ahead of Stanley Biwott (second in London in 2:04:55, the best race of the year) and Wilson Chebet (2nd Boston, DNF Amsterdam, 1st Honolulu). Chebet beat Geneti head to head, but Chebet’s DNF hurts his case and Geneti’s second in Dubai is arguably as impressive as Chebet’s win in Honolulu given Dubai’s depth. Biwott was spectacular in his lone marathon of the year. Getting second at London is the equivalent of winning just about any other race out there but couldn’t manage to get to the start line in New York. A 2nd in London is way better than anything Geneti did this year, but that alone doesn’t outweigh three good marathons.

Honorable mention: Stanley Biwott, Wilson Chebet, Tadese Tola, Yemane Tsegay

U.S. Rankings

Fourteen months out and the talk about U.S. men’s marathoning revolves around who will earn the three spots on the U.S. Olympic team at the Trials in Los Angeles on February 13, 2016. At the start of the year, it seemed impossible that Meb Keflezighi — who will be 40 at the Trials — would be in contention, but his win in Boston and subsequent fourth in New York now makes him the prohibitive favorite. The two other Americans on the 2012 team, Abdi Abdirahman and Ryan Hall both only raced one marathon this year, finishing as the sixth and ninth Americans, respectively, at Boston.

Neither Abdirahman nor Hall made the cut for our 2014 rankings; instead, the men behind Meb — none of whom have made an Olympic squad — are the ones that did the most to improve their stock this year for the 2016 Trials. Ryan Vail and Nick Arciniaga both captured two top-10s at majors (Vail PR’d in London, Arciniaga just missed his PR in Boston), while Jeffrey Eggleston (8th Boston) and Bobby Curtis (9th Chicago) both PR’d en route to top-10s in majors. And while he didn’t make our top five, we’ll give a shoutout to Tyler Pennel, who claimed the U.S. Championship in October in his debut in St. Paul, running 2:13:32.

Perhaps 2015 will offer some clarity as to who will make the Olympic squad in 2016. Or perhaps we’ll be even less sure of that than we are now. In true marathon fashion, we’ll have to be patient and watch how it unfolds.

1. Meb Keflezighi (see above)

asdf Vail was a solid ninth in his NYC debut

2. Ryan Vail • Brooks • 28 years old 

2014 results: 10th London (2:10:57), 9th New York (2:15:08)

With two top-10s at major marathons, and the third-fastest time by an American on the year (his 2:10:57 in London was just five seconds off Jeffrey Eggleston’s 2:10:52 at the Gold Coast Marathon), Vail is our pick for #2 behind Meb. Nick Arciniaga also finished top 10 at two majors, but he lost head-to-head to Vail in New York.

Slowly but surely, Vail continues to make progress over 26.2 miles. His London performance — his fourth career marathon — was his best yet, as he posted his first top-10 in a major and a 48-second pb. The wind in New York wreaked havoc with any pre-race time goals (2:03 man Wilson Kipsang, who set the CR in London that spring, ran just 2:10:59), but Vail produced another solid performance for ninth, though he would have liked to be a few spots higher.

For more about Vail, be sure to check out his blog. Vail documented his entire buildup to NYC and generally updates once a week.

3. Nick Arciniaga • Team Run Flagstaff Pro/Under Armour • 31 years old

2014 results: 7th Boston (2:11:47), 9th Grandma’s (2:14:31), 10th New York (2:15:39)

Arciniaga loses out to Vail based on their head-to-head matchup in New York, but his seventh in Boston was the best non-Meb performance by an American in a major this year and earned him the #3 spot. Eggleston had a case for this spot as well, but Arciniaga beat Eggleston head-to-head in Boston and it wouldn’t be fair to penalize Arciniaga for running tough courses like New York and Boston.

Arciniaga didn’t PR (he ran a third marathon this year, Grandma’s in Duluth, but that came just nine weeks after Boston) but his 2:11:47 was just 17 seconds off his best mark (2011 Houston). With two top-10s in majors, Arciniaga doubled his total entering the year; he’ll shoot even higher in 2015, and a top-five in Boston (should he return) is attainable on the right day.

asdf Eggleston was eighth at Boston in April

4. Jeffrey Eggleston • adidas • 30 years old

2014 results: 8th Boston (2:11:57), 2nd Gold Coast (2:10:52), DNF Fukuoka

Eggleston wound up as the second-fastest American on the year at 2:10:52 and his eighth in Boston was his best marathon ever considering that it was a pb and his first top-10 at a major. The 30-year-old tried to pull off three marathons this year, searching for a fast time in Fukuoka earlier this month, but he wound up a DNF after going out in 63:38 for the first half (read our Q&A with Eggleston about Fukuoka and his 2014 season here).

If the Olympic Trials were held in February 2015 instead of February 2016, Vail, Arciniaga and Eggleston would likely be the guys battling it out for the final two spots on Team USA behind Meb (with Bobby Curtis perhaps challenging them). 2015 will be a key year for the U.S. in the men’s marathon. It’s essentially a battle between guys like Vail, Arciniaga and Eggleston — runners who have moderate success in the marathon but have yet to make an Olympic team — against the old guard of Dathan RitzenheinRyan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman, Olympic veterans trying to summon one more good performance at the Trials (Ritz, who turns 32 on December 30, isn’t exactly old but with just one race in 2014, we don’t know what kind of shape he’ll be in by the Trials). How each guy fares next year will give us a better read on the favorites heading into the ’16 Trials.

5. Bobby Curtis • Hansons-Brooks Distance Project • 30 years old

2014 results: 9th Chicago (2:11:20)

Of the remaining Americans that went sub-2:14 in 2014, only two — Ian Burrell (7th Houston, 4th Twin Cities) and Gabriel Proctor (6th Los Angeles, 12th Chicago) finished two marathons this year. Curtis was #4 on the U.S. list this year by sb (16 seconds ahead of Fernando Cabada‘s 2:11:36 in Berlin) and he beat Proctor by 2:25 in Chicago. Though both were solid, neither of Burrell’s performances was outstanding (2:13:26 in Houston, 2:15:08 in Twin Cities) and neither was close to Curtis’ 2:11:20 for ninth in Chicago. It’s hard to argue against Curtis for this spot considering the time and the fact that he finished top 10 in a major, so we feel good about putting him at #5 even if this was his only marathon on the year. With a 27:24 10k pb, Curtis certainly has the potential to lop a few more minutes off his marathon pb (Chicago was his third career marathon); the question is, can he get there by February 2016? He’d likely have to be in around 2:09-high shape to make the team, which is possible with a strong year in 2015. Remember, he has track credentials that many of the other guys don’t have (13:18 5000 pb).

More: LRC David Graham Column: My Thoughts On The Men’s Marathon For 2014

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