2014 LRC Year-End Rankings: Women’s Marathon: Tirfi Tsegaye and Shalane Flanagan are Our World and US #1s

By LetsRun.com
December 31, 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. 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

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NOTE: For the purposes of these rankings, we have excluded Rita Jeptoo, who tested positive for EPO in an out-of-competition drug test in September. Jeptoo set the course record in Boston in April (2:18:57) and won Chicago in October and as impressive as those performances were, we can’t lend them any legitimacy if they were achieved with the use of performance-enhancing drugs. So we’ve removed Jeptoo from both the Boston and Chicago results and will treat the runner-ups in those races (Buzunesh Deba and Mare Dibaba, respectively) as the rightful champions.

If ranking the top men’s marathoners in 2014 was difficult, ranking the top women was nearly impossible. Rita Jeptoo was the obvious #1 until October 31, when RunBlogRun reported that she failed an out-of-competition drug test in September. With her out of the running, the picture at the top became a lot more muddled. Tirfi Tsegaye won two majors (Tokyo and Berlin) but those marathons aren’t traditionally as strong as Boston, London or New York. Still, she won both races — does that mean she had a better year than Mare Dibaba, who was second in Boston and won Chicago (both results sans Jeptoo)? Or Mulu Seboka, who won three races (none of which were majors)? The winners of arguably the year’s three biggest marathons — Boston, London and New York — all failed to accomplish anything of note in another race (the best other performance was Boston champ Buzunesh Deba’s ninth in New York) but just how far do you drop a major champion?

We’ve tried our best to answer those questions with the rankings below, but it’s impossible to create a definitive list. That’s just the nature of the marathon.

Tsegaye_TirfiFH-Berlin14 Tsegaye won in Berlin on September 28

1. Tirfi Tsegaye • Ethiopia • 30 years old

2014 results: 1st Tokyo (2:22:23), 4th Milan (2:36:23), 1st Berlin (2:20:18)

Yes, the world’s best female marathoner in 2014 finished fourth in the Milan Marathon. But that race came only six weeks after the first of her two major victories this year. Winning two majors (even if they were Tokyo and Berlin, two of the weaker events of the six World Marathon Major events) is something no one else can claim this year (save for the busted Jeptoo) and Tsegaye’s 2:20:18 in Berlin was the world’s second-fastest time (behind Jemima Sumgong‘s 2:19:59 on Boston).

Would Tsegaye have won London, New York or Boston? Maybe, maybe not. The runner-up in Berlin, Boru Tadese, was a solid fourth in London. The runner-up in Tokyo, Birhane Dibaba, was third in Chicago. Tokyo and Berlin could have been stronger, but Tsegaye wasn’t exactly facing chopped liver, either. Going purely by what she accomplished this year, it’s tough to argue against Tsegaye.

2. Mare Dibaba • Ethiopia • 25 years old

2014 results: 1st Xiamen (2:21:36), 2nd Boston (2:20:35), 1st Chicago (2:25:37)

Dibaba enjoyed a fine year and if it weren’t for Rita Jeptoo stealing the spotlight in Boston and Chicago, she would have earned a lot more praise in the aftermath of those performances. Remove Jeptoo from the results and Dibaba is left with two wins (Xiamen and Chicago) and one second (Boston, in a time eight seconds under the existing course record). While it’s debatable exactly how high Dibaba should rank on this list (she has a strong case for #1 given the strength of the Boston and Chicago fields), this was certainly a breakthrough year for the 25-year-old (no relation to the Dibaba sisters — Tirunesh, Genzebe, etc). Dibaba didn’t race at all last year and was just 23rd at the 2012 Olympics (though she was second in Dubai in 2012). She started 2014 by winning her first marathon in Xiamen in January, followed it up with that outstanding 2:20:35 in Boston and closed it out with her “win” in Chicago which should eventually become her first career major victory. At 25, Dibaba is just getting started; if she continues on this track, she has a chance to own the second half of this decade.

3. Mulu Seboka • Ethiopia • 30 years old 

2014 results: 1st Dubai (2:25:01), 1st Daegu (2:25:23), 1st Toronto (2:23:13)

Seboka presents an interesting case. On one hand, her best time of 2:23:13 was only the 22nd-fastest marathon of 2014. On the other, she won all three marathons she entered, including an impressive win in Dubai. She didn’t win a major (she didn’t even run one), so the only way we’d put her above Tsegaye or Dibaba is if she ran a ridiculous time, say 2:18 or 2:19-low. That didn’t happen.

We hope that those three wins would give Seboka the motivation necessary to take a shot at a major next year. Unfortunately, that’s not likely to happen. Some runners want to test themselves in smaller marathons before trying Boston or London or New York. Well guess how many marathons Seboka has run?

34. And none of them were majors.

Of those 34 races, she’s won 11 (32%). At this point, it’s odd that Seboka, aged 30, has never run a major marathon. Perhaps she’s happy picking up wins (and checks — she made $217,000 in prize money alone from Dubai and Toronto) at non-majors, but she’ll never find out how good she truly is unless she faces the very best. And you’re only going to find the very best in majors.

4. Florence Kiplagat • Kenya • 27 years old

2014 results: 2nd London (2:20:24), 2nd Chicago (2:25:57)

If these rankings took into account all distances, Kiplagat would likely be #1 in 2014. She set the world record with a 65:12 half marathon in Barcelona in February, took silver in the Commonwealth Games 10,000 and capped off her season with a win at the Delhi Half Marathon on November 23. But these are strictly marathon rankings and though Kiplagat ran very well at both London and Chicago, her lack of a victory pushed her down to the fourth spot. Kiplagat’s 2:20:24 from London was fourth on the 2014 list and only Kiplagat, Tsegaye and Dibaba put together two top-twos at majors this year. That’s enough to put her ahead of women like Mary Keitany, Buzunesh Deba and Edna Kiplagat, who ran one great marathon, but she remains below Tsegaye, Dibaba and Seboka, all of whom won multiple marathons this year.

KeitanyLedsSumgong-NYC14 Sumgong (left) and Keitany battled for five boroughs and 26 miles in New York on November 2.

5. Jemima Sumgong • Kenya • 30 years old

2014 results: 3rd Boston (2:20:41), 2nd New York (2:25:10)

Sumgong placed highly in two competitive marathons and battled Mary Keitany into Central Park in New York before Keitany finally dropped her shortly after 26 miles. Sumgong has now finished second in a major three consecutive years but has yet to win one. Perhaps she should stay away from the American races as she was second in Boston in 2012, Chicago in 2013 and New York in 2014. Of the other three major winners besides Tsegaye, Sumgong beat Buzunesh Deba and Edna Kiplagat in New York, and only lost to Mary Keitany by three seconds. The narrow margin coupled with Sumgong’s third in Boston (Keitany ran only NYC this year) makes her the pick for #5.

6. Buzunesh Deba • Ethiopia • 27 years old

2014 results: 1st Boston (2:19:59 CR), 9th New York (2:31:40)

Initially, Deba was #9 when on our list when we were compiling it internally. But if we ignore the doper Rita Jeptoo, then Buzunesh did something historic. She ran the first sub-2:20 performance in Boston. Couple that with a top 10 in New York, and #6 is a good sport for her.

Jeptoo has taken much of the joy out of these rankings and forever denied Deba the memory of crossing the finish line first in Boston 2014. (We even think there is the possibility that Mare Dibaba might have been ranked #1 in the world in our rankings if she had actually crossed the finishline first in Chicago this year and been second across the line in Boston. Instead we’re elevating her to those positions because of Jeptoo’s drug bust and wondering in our head if we would rank Dibaba #1 instead of #2 if we had actually seen her cross the line first in Chicago).

7. Edna Kiplagat • Kenya • 35 years old

2014 results: 1st London (2:20:21), 13th New York (2:36:24)

Deba and Kiplagat occupy similar spots: both impressively won major marathons (Deba was second in Boston behind Jeptoo, but we count that as a win) before struggling in New York. Deba’s course record in Boston (again, removing Jeptoo) plus ninth in New York comes out ahead of Kiplagat’s win in London plus 13th in New York. Kiplagat won the most difficult marathon in the world to win – London – and for that deserves a spot at #7 – ahead of people below here who had two quality marathons on the year.

One thing to wonder about Kiplagat: was her 13th in New York the beginning of the end or just a bad marathon? She won Worlds in 2013 and London in April and has had success in New York before (she won in 2010). Marathoners are allowed mulligans now and then — Meb Keflezighi was 23rd in New York last year before winning his next marathon in Boston; Kiplagat was 20th at the 2012 Olympics and followed that up with second and firsts at London and Worlds. At 35, she’s getting up there in age, but we won’t write her off yet based on one race. If Kiplagat struggles in 2015, then we’ll start to get worried.

asdfas Keitany added her 2014 New York crown to victories in London in 2011 & 2012.

8. Mary Keitany • Kenya • 32 years old 

2014 results: 1st New York (2:25:07)

Keitany isn’t the eighth-best marathoner in the world right now (she ran 65:39 at the Great North Run on September 7, the world’s second-fastest time ever for the half marathon), but judging solely by 2014 performances, it’s hard to argue for her much higher given she raced just one marathon. Her win in New York came over a quality field, but it’s tough to judge just how impressive it was given the windy conditions. With just one marathon on her resume, she can’t be much higher.

9. Boru Tadese • Ethiopia • 26 years old

2014 results: 4th London (2:21:42), 2nd Berlin (2:20:27)

Tadese’s 2:20:27 in Berlin was the fifth-fastest time on the year and she was just nine seconds from winning that race against Tirfi Tsegaye.

10. Flomena Cheyech Daniel • Kenya • 32 years old

2014 results: 1st Paris (2:22:44), 1st Commonwealth Games (2:26:45)

Originally, we had 21-year old Ethiopian Birhane Dibaba in this spot as she was top three at two majors (2nd in Tokyo in 2:22:30, 3rd in Chicago in 2:27:02) but two wins and a seasonal best just 14-seconds slower for Daniel earned her the nod even if the Commonwealth Games didn’t feature a super quality field.

The fact that someone who was top 3 at two majors didn’t make the top 10 shows you how difficult it is to come up with these rankings.

Honorable mention: Birhane Dibaba, Aberu Kebede, Shalane Flanagan, Firehiwot Dado, Meselech Melkamu

U.S. Rankings 

As we did with the men, we’ll once again look ahead 14 months to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Los Angeles. Right now, Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden have a firm grip on the top two places. The final spot is somewhat up in the air, though Amy Hastings‘ 2:27:03 for fifth in Chicago made a convincing case that she is the woman to beat for third. Behind them, Annie Bersagel (who ran 2:28:59 to win Dusseldorf this year and was 10th in New York), Clara Grandt (sixth in Chicago) and veterans Deena Kastor (masters WR of 69:36 in half marathon; 11th in NYC) and Kara Goucher (14th in NYC in her first marathon in 15 months) will all be looking to secure a berth on Team USA. For Bersagel, Grandt and others like Lauren Kleppin and Esther Erb, it’s about continuing to make progress and reaching a new level by February 2016. Kastor (41) and Goucher (36) aren’t likely to PR again; for them, it’s about coming as close to their old selves as possible over the next 14 months. It should be great to watch as each contender’s stock rises and falls over the course of 2015.

Flanagan was our clear choice for #1 this year, but she came away unfulfilled from both her marathons this year. She desperately wanted to win Boston but faded to seventh after boldly leading the first 21 miles (she still PR’d by over three minutes). In Berlin, she managed another pb but was only third and missed Kastor’s American record. We hope that, with some time to reflect, Flanagan realizes how special her 2014 season really was. Only one other time in history has an American woman run two sub-2:26 marathons in the same year: Flanagan herself, in 2012. And Flanagan’s two marathon’s this year weren’t just under 2:26; they were way under, as she ran 2:22:02 in Boston and 2:21:14 in Berlin. Credit to Flanagan for aiming high, but it’s tough to be disappointed when you lower your PR from 2:25 (which still put her fifth on the all-time U.S. list) to 2:21 in a single year.

Flanagan_ShalaneBeer-Berlin14 Flanagan didn’t get the American record in Berlin but still earned her post-race beer with a 2:21:14, the second-fastest time ever run by an American.

1. Shalane Flanagan • Bowerman Track Club/Nike • 33 years old

2014 results: 7th Boston (2:22:02), 3rd Berlin (2:21:14)

Flanagan was unquestionably the U.S.’s top female marathoner this year, finishing as the top American at Boston for the second year in a row and running the fastest time ever by an American woman on the course. That 2:22:02 in Boston represented a pb of 3:36 for Flanagan, and though she fell short of Deena Kastor‘s 2:19:36 American record in Berlin on September 28, Flanagan came away from that race with another pb (2:21:14). The all-time list for U.S. female marathoners now reads as follows:

1. Deena Kastor, 2:19:36 (2006 London)
2. Shalane Flanagan, 2:21:14 (2014 Berlin)
3. Joan Benoit-Samuelson, 2:21:21 (1985 Chicago)
4. Desiree Davila (now Linden), 2:22:38 (2011 Boston)
5. Kara Goucher, 2:24:52 (2011 Boston)

Flanagan has been in contention in majors before (she was second in New York in 2010 and fourth in Boston in 2013 and led through 21 miles of Boston this year) but if she doesn’t win one in 2015, she may never do it (with the Olympic Trials and Olympics in 2016, she’s not going to run a major that year, and she’ll turn 36 in 2017). Of course, a medal at the Olympics could soothe the blow of not winning a major.

Linden en route to a top-10 finish in Boston Linden en route to a top-10 finish in Boston on April 21

2. Desiree Linden • Hansons-Brooks Distance Project • 31 years old 

2014 results: 10th Boston (2:23:54), 5th New York (2:28:11)

Linden is easy to overlook. Her 5’2″, 100-lb. frame hardly stands out in the pack at a major marathon, and because she tends to run consistent races and work her way up the field rather than lead the pack, she doesn’t receive a lot of airtime on marathon TV coverage. But her results demand respect. Take her fifth-place finish in New York this year. Linden fell off the lead pack during miles 10 and 17 but battled back both times to rejoin the leaders. Once she was dropped for good at mile 19, Linden still managed to work her way up from eighth to fifth over the final seven miles, holding off Morocco’s Rkia El Moukim by just two seconds. That race didn’t earn Linden much coverage on TV, but it was the perfect example of her smarts and toughness.

Linden has racked up five top-fives in majors (she was fifth in New York this year, the top American by almost five minutes, and 10th — second American — in Boston) and is a strong favorite to make her second Olympic team in 2016. She may never run a time like Flanagan’s 2:21 (Linden’s best is a wind-aided 2:22:38 from 2011 Boston; after that, it’s 2:23:54 from Boston this year) but she is always a threat to run well on technical courses like New York and Boston.

3. Amy Hastings • Brooks • 30 years old

2014 results: 5th Chicago (2:27:03)

Hastings finished fourth at the 2012 Olympic Trials but struggled to put together a good marathon after that, DNF’ing Yokohama in 2012 (after New York was canceled) and running just 2:42:50 for 20th in New York last year. After some strong tuneup races (third in the 10,000 at USAs, second behind training partner Molly Huddle at the U.S. 20k Championships), Hastings put together a successful marathon in Chicago, tying her pb of 2:27:03 and finishing fifth overall. The odds of Hastings making the 2016 team aren’t as strong as Flanagan’s or Linden’s (two women who will almost certainly make the team if healthy), but Hastings remains a good bet for the 2016 squad barring a Kara Goucher revival (Hastings was 5:18 ahead of the next-closest American in Chicago).

4. Annie Bersagel • 31 years old

2014 results: 1st Dusseldorf (2:28:59), 10th New York (2:33:02)

Bersagel certainly has the most interesting background of any woman on this list. Bersagel has no sponsor and instead works as full-time a lawyer in Oslo. Yet she still finds the time to train as a world-class marathoner and she ran two good ones in 2014. Bersagel followed up her win at the 2013 U.S. Marathon Championships in St. Paul with a 2:28:59 victory in Dusseldorf on April 27 (she PR’ed by 1:54) and took 10th in New York in November (second American) in 2:33:02, a solid time given the weather. Bersagel, who until October 2013 had run just one career marathon, has made some nice progress in the event over the past year. If she keeps improving, she’ll be dangerous at the Trials in LA.

5. Clara Santucci• Saucony • 27 years old

2014 results: 1st Pittsburgh (2:32:25), 6th Chicago (2:32:21)

Though she didn’t break 2:30, Santucci had two of the top 10 times by a U.S. marathoner this year, with her win in Pittsburgh and sixth in Chicago. It’s the latter result that’s more impressive, as a top-six in a major counts for a lot, even if she was over five minutes back of fifth place. That’s enough to put her at #5 ahead of U.S. champ Esther Erb (20th in Boston), Lauren Kleppin (2:28:48 in LA but 15th in New York) and Adriana Nelson (15th in Boston), women who ran similar times but didn’t place as well in their major marathon.

Honorable mention: Esther Erb, Lauren Kleppin

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