2015 Bank Of America Chicago Marathon Women’s Preview: Who Wins & Will A 40+ Woman Be The Top American?

By LetsRun.com
October 8, 2015

If you log onto the official website for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and click your way over to the “2015 Elite athlete field” link, you’re met with a surprise. The elite women are listed in descending order by pb, and two of the top three entrants on the list are Americans; no American woman has won in Chicago (or at either of the U.S.’s other major marathons, Boston and New York) since Deena Kastor broke the tape in the Windy City 10 years ago. The problem is that one of those entrants is the 42-year-old Kastor and the other is 58-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson. It’s great that Kastor and Samuelson — both Olympic medallists and icons of American women’s distance running — will be running Chicago on Sunday, but neither of them are a threat to win the race.

Instead, the favorite is Kenya’s Florence Kiplagat, who broke the half marathon world record for the second consecutive year by running 65:09 in Barcelona in February. Kiplagat was the runner-up here last fall and owns the second-fastest personal best (it’s the fastest if you don’t count Kastor) by virtue of her 2:19:44 at the 2011 Berlin Marathon. She’ll be the favorite to cross the finish line first on Columbus Drive, but she’ll have competition in Tokyo Marathon champ Birhane Dibaba and Mulu Seboka, LetsRun’s #3 ranked women’s marathoner of 2014. Like the men’s race, there won’t be rabbits in Chicago this year, but considering both races start simultaneously, the elite women will at least have some men to chase.

The American field includes Kastor (shooting for Colleen De Reuck‘s U.S. masters record of 2:28:40), US marathon champ Blake Russell (who may also have her eye on that mark) and Sara Hall, who will run her second career marathon after a disappointing 2:48:02 in her debut at the US Champs in March. Samuelson won this race 30 years ago, running 2:21:21 to set the American record; on Sunday, she’ll try to run faster 2:51:21 — giving herself one minute for every year that’s passed.

We give you the need-to-know details for Sunday’s race below followed by a preview of the women’s race.

What: 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon

When: Sunday, October 11, 8:30 a.m. ET (7:30 a.m. CT)

Where: Chicago, Illinois

How to watch: NBC5 Chicago will air the race live on television. NBC5 will also stream the race online starting at 8 a.m. ET and once again thanks to NBC5’s support you’ll be able to watch the stream on LetsRun.com. Click here for details on how to watch.

Prize money: $100,000 for the winner down to $10,000 for fifth. American prize money ranges from $10,000 for the first American down to $1,000 for the fifth American. Time bonuses range from $75,000 for a course record (2:17:18) down to $5,000 for sub-2:24. For a full breakdown, go to page 14 here.

Abbott World Marathon Majors

The Abbott World Marathon Majors consists of eight major marathons — Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York, the World Championships and the Olympics — with the winner of each series taking home $500,000. Starting this year, the AWMM changed its format so that each series lasts a year plus one race. So the current series began at the 2015 Tokyo Marathon and will conclude at the 2016 Tokyo Marathon.

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The scoring is as follows:
1st: 25 points
2nd: 16 points
3rd: 9 points
4th: 4 points
5th: 1 point

Athletes can only score in two events per cycle. If there’s a tie for first, the tiebreakers are, in order: 1) Head-to-head record in AWMM events; 2) Most wins. If they’re still tied after that, the race directors of the AWMM will vote for the champion, though they can choose to split the title if they feel that’s fair (we assume that’s what they’ll do if two athletes finish with the same total).

The current standings are as follows:
1. Mare Dibaba, Ethiopia, 41 poins
2. Helah Kiprop, Kenya, 32 points
3. Tigist Tufa, Ethiopia, 25 points
3. Gladys Cherono, Kenya, 25 points
3. Birhane Dibaba, Ethiopia, 25 points
3. Caroline Rotich, Kenya, 25 points

Birhane Dibaba can clinch at least a share of the title by winning in Chicago on Sunday, but if she does, Tufa and Rotich can still tie her by winning in New York next month. If Birhane Dibaba finishes second in Chicago, she’ll move into a tie with Mare Dibaba at the top.

Important links: LRC 2014 Chicago Marathon coverage * Race website

Women’s elite field

Name Country PB
Deena Kastor USA 2:19:36
Florence Kiplagat KEN 2:19:44
Joan Samuelson USA 2:21:21
Mulu Seboka ETH 2:21:56
Birhane Dibaba ETH 2:22:30
Yebrgual Melese ETH 2:23:23
Amane Gobena ETH 2:23:30
Meskerem Assefa ETH 2:24:21
Kayoko Fukushi JPN 2:25:17
Diane Nukuri BDI 2:27:50
Blake Russell USA 2:29:10
Susan Partridge GBR 2:30:46
Jessica Draskau Petersson DEN 2:30:53
Tera Moody USA 2:30:53
Fionnuala Britton IRL 2:31:46
Lindsey Scherf USA 2:32:19
Sarah Crouch USA 2:32:44
Alvina Begay USA 2:37:14
Taylor Ward USA 2:38:32
Sara Hall USA 2:48:02
Dawn Grunnagle USA 2:56:38
Monika Juodeskaite LTU Debut
Allison Mendez USA Debut

The Big Three

Florence Kiplagat — Kenya, 28 years old, 2:19:44 pb (2011 Berlin), 65:09 half
Last two marathons:
 5th, 2015 London (2:24:15); 2nd, 2014 Chicago (2:25:57)
Prep race: 69:20 for 5th at Luanda Half Marathon on September 6

Kiplagat at the 2013 London Marathon Kiplagat at the 2013 London Marathon

Kiplagat’s best distance is the half marathon, but unlike fellow world record holder Zersenay Tadese, she’s proven to be a more than capable marathoner as well. Since debuting at the 26.2-mile distance in 2011, Kiplagat has claimed two major victories (both in Berlin) and two more runner-up finishes (2014 London and 2014 Chicago). She’s the top returner from last year’s race (she finished 1:05 ahead of Birhane Dibaba, who was third in 2014) and has already demonstrated great form in 2015, lowering her own half marathon world record to 65:09 in February.

Kiplagat may have only finished 5th in her last marathon in London, but the names in front of her represent some of the top women in the sport. The four women who beat her — Tigist Tufa, Mary Keitany, Tirfi Tsegaye, Aselefech Mergia — all have won major marathons in the last 13 months (we’re counting Mergia’s win in Dubai in January as a major). None of them will be in Chicago, paving the way for Kiplagat.

Kiplagat should contend for the win, but there are two reasons to be concerned.

1) This is her first non-rabbitted marathon

Of Kiplagat’s seven career marathons, four have come in London, two in Berlin and one in Chicago. All have had rabbits. As we mentioned in the intro, the men’s and women’s races go off at the same time, so she’ll still have people to chase if she wants to take it out hard. But it’s something to be cognizant of.

2) Her tuneup race didn’t go very well

Kiplagat ran the Luanda Half Marathon in Angola on September 6 and finished fourth in 69:20 (winner was 68:18). None of the women who beat her will be in Chicago, and there are too many instances to count of an athlete running a subpar prep race only to knock the marathon out of the park. But in the past, Kiplagat’s best marathons have come after strong half marathons in her buildup, and losing by over a minute at her specialty distance isn’t a great sign.

Mulu Seboka — Ethiopia, 31 years old, 2:21:56 pb (2015 Dubai), 69:11 half
Last two marathons:
 6th, 2015 Dubai (2:21:56); 1st, 2014 Toronto (2:23:15)

Seboka winning Dubai last year (photo by Giancarlo Colombo/photorun.net) Seboka winning Dubai last year (photo by Giancarlo Colombo/photorun.net)

Mulu Seboka has run 34 career marathons (plus one DNF) but her 35th in Chicago represents a first: until now, Seboka has never competed in an Abbott World Marathon Majors event. Seboka did run the London Marathon and the World Championships back in 2005, but that was so long ago that the World Marathon Majors did not yet exist (the series was founded the following year).

Seboka has taken a long road to reach this point, both literally — 34 marathons at 26.2 miles a pop is 890.8 (!) miles of racing — and figuratively. From 2003 to 2011, she ran 24 marathons (2.7 per year) and never ran faster than 2:29:06. She was racing frequently enough (and placing highly enough) to keep her career alive, but after almost a decade of marathoning, it seemed as if Seboka had plateaued.

Then she PR’d by 3:21 at the 2012 Dubai Marathon to run 2:25:45 and followed that up with a 2:27:38 in Daegu and a 2:26:46 win in Hangzhou. After failing to break 2:29 in nine years of racing, she had smashed that mark three times in 10 months. Since then, Seboka has only improved, PR’ing in 2013 (2:23:43 in Daegu), 2014 (2:23:15 in Toronto) and 2015 (2:21:56). Now she’ll try to take the next step forward in an amazing career by winning her first major marathon.

Seboka couldn’t come into the race much hotter. She won all three marathons she entered in 2014 (Dubai, Daegu and Toronto), PR’d in Dubai in January and then set a half marathon PR in the Czech Republic in May, winning the Karlovy Vary Half Marathon in 69:11. With the second-best PR in the field (excluding Kastor and Samuelson), Seboka is a legit contender to claim the title on Sunday. If she does, it will be the latest chapter in what has been a remarkable marathon journey.

Birhane Dibaba — Ethiopia, 22 years old, 2:22:30 pb (2014 Tokyo), 69:34 half
Last two marathons: 1st, 2015 Tokyo (2:23:15); 3rd, 2014 Chicago (2:27:02)

Dibaba has made nice progress since debuting in the marathon at age 18 in 2012. She’s never finished lower than fourth in any of her eight career marathons and she’s PR’d every year save this one — where her only marathon so far was a 2:23:15 victory in Tokyo in February, her first major win. She also ran a solid 69:34 in her debut half at the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in June, though that course is a net downhill and not eligible for record purposes.

Dibaba’s race selection (she’s run both Tokyo and Chicago in each of the past two years) is smart for someone of her ability and could allow her to take home $500,000 once this WMM cycle concludes in February. Still only 22 years old, Dibaba’s potential is vast, but it would be extremely tough for her to win against a bunch of 2:19/2:20 women in New York or London. Instead, Dibaba chose to run two of the weaker World Marathon Majors — Tokyo and Chicago — and if she can win in Chicago on Sunday (or in Tokyo next year), she’ll finish with the maximum 50 points in the WMM standings. That’s a much easier way to win $500,000 than winning in New York and London. Of course, Dibaba wouldn’t be guaranteed the prize if another athlete finishes tied with her as the race directors can decide to split the money or declare an outright winner.

First, Dibaba has to win in Chicago. She’ll be riding high after her first major victory in February, and given the progress she’s made over the past two years, she has a good shot to win or at least place in the top three.

Outside Chances

Yebrgual Melese — Ethiopia, 25 years old, 2:23:23 pb (2015 Houston), 68:21 half
Last two marathons: 1st, 2015 Prague (2:23:49); 1st, 2015 Houston (2:23:23)
Prep race: 72:42 for 3rd in the All-Africa Games half marathon on September 17

Melese debuted in the marathon in Dubai since then and she’s made a huge leap forward in 2015, winning Houston in January and Prague in May. The 25-year-old has also PR’d at 13.1 this year (68:21 in Prague in March). This is Melese’s first major and third marathon of the year; if she can overcome those concerns, she should run well in Chicago.

Amane Gobena — Ethiopia, 33 years old, 2:23:30 pb (2015 Paris), 68:16 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd, 2015 Paris (2:23:30); 1st, 2014 Istanbul (2:28:46)

The 33-year-old veteran won in Los Angeles and Istanbul last year and PR’d for the first time in two years in Paris in April. Like several other women in this field, this will be her first WMM event.

Meskerem Assefa — Ethiopia, 30 years old, 2:25:17 pb (2013 Houston)
Last two marathons: 4th, 2015 Paris (2:25:58); 2nd, 2015 Hong Kong (2:33:57)

A 1500 runner as recently as three years ago (she ran the event at the 2012 Olympics, 4:02.12 pb), Assefa won the Bolder Boulder in May, defeating Gobena, among others.

Diane Nukuri — Burundi, 30 years old, 2:27:50 pb (2015 London)
Last two marathons: 13th, 2015 London (2:27:50); 7th, 2014 Honolulu (2:37:11)
Prep races: 32:00 for 2nd at Beach to Beacon 10K on August 1; 36:47 (7 miles) for 1st at Falmouth Road Race on August 16

Nukuri likely won’t win, but the Flagstaff-based athlete enjoyed a successful summer on the roads (2nd at Beach to Beacon, 1st at Falmouth Road Race) and has PR’d in two of her last three marathons, most recently running 2:27:50 for 13th in London in April.

The Americans

The U.S.’s top two marathoners, Shalane Flanagan and Desi Linden, are sitting this one out — neither will race another marathon until the Olympic Trials in February — which means that no American is going to be close to the lead in Chicago. Still, there are several storylines worth watching. Can Kastor get the masters record? Can Samuelson run 2:51:21 at age 58 (she ran 2:54:03 in Boston in April)? But the hardest question to answer is this one…

Who will finish as the top American?

Kastor ran 71:38 to set the US Masters half marathon in April 2014, a mark she lowered to 69:37 five months later. Photo by Jane Monti for RRW. Kastor ran 71:38 to set the US masters half marathon in April 2014, a mark she lowered to 69:37 five months later. Photo by Jane Monti for RRW.

This is a tough one.

The safest way to answer this might be to say, “A 40+ year old.” Let us explain.

If Kastor can break the U.S. masters record of 2:28:40, she’ll certainly put herself in contention, but that’s no guarantee. She hasn’t run that fast since 2006, and though she’s displayed good recent fitness (15:48 5k on the roads on September 26), 2:28 is a lot to ask from a 42-year-old, even one as good as Kastor. Her 72:51 half marathon in New York in April was also 1:13 slower than what she ran in the same race the year before, not a terrific sign. Still, she’s tough and experienced and should run somewhere around 2:30, which could be all she needs to earn top American honors.

Blake Russell, who turned 40 in July, won the USA Marathon Champs in March at the LA Marathon (2:34:57) and was 5th at the US 20k Champs last month in New Haven. She will like her chances to finish as top American. While Russell shined in LA, Sara Hall struggled (she ran 2:48:02 in her marathon debut) but she responded by finishing 20th at World XC (top American) two weeks later.

Hall has been hit or miss since then. After taking 12th at USAs in the 10,000 on the track, she set a pb of 70:49 at the Oceania Half Marathon Championships in July (one second faster than she ran in Houston in January) but ran just 75:45 in her most recent race at the Great North Run on September 13. At her best, Hall is the class of this field at shorter distances, but she still has to prove she can do it at the marathon distance.

Then there are Lindsey Scherf and Sarah Crouch, two lesser-known athletes who could find themselves on top with a big race or a slip-up by the bigger names. Scherf was 11th in Chicago last year in her debut (2:37:26, seventh American) but sliced over five minutes off that time by running 2:32:19 for second at Grandma’s Marathon in June. Crouch was sixth in Chicago last year (third American) in 2:32:44 and with Amy Cragg and Clara Santucci not running this year, she is the top returning American.

Uncertainty surrounds every one of these women, making the race for top American an intriguing one in Chicago. And there’s more on the line than just the $10,000 prize for the first American across the line. Chicago will be the last marathon any of these athletes run before the Olympic Trials in February. If one of them can emerge from the pack and beat the other Americans convincingly, that athlete will stamp herself as a serious contender for one of those coveted tickets to Rio next year.

LRC Prediction: Come back later in the week as we’ll make it after getting the scoop in Chicago.

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More: LRC 2015 Bank of America Chicago Marathon Men’s Preview: Will Sammy Kitwara Arrive As An Abbott World Marathon Major Winner?
*LRC How Many Women Have A Realistic Shot At The Olympic Marathon Trials


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