2015 LRC Year-End Rankings, Women’s Marathon: Mare Dibaba Is World #1 (Barely); Desi Linden Leads Americans

By LetsRun.com
December 30, 2015

2015 is drawing to a close and we’re putting out our annual end-of-year rankings. Over the final days of the year, we’re ranking the top 10 men and women in the world in every distance event (800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeple, 5000, 10,000) as well as the marathon. We’ll also rank the top five Americans in each event.

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

  • An emphasis on performance in World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, World Champs, Berlin, Chicago, New York). Those seven marathons attract the most talent; sometimes a top-four in a major can be more impressive than winning a smaller marathon. For the purposes of these rankings, we’ll also count Dubai as a major (the $200,000 first-place prize always attracts a deep field).
  • 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 2015. 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 2015 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.

World Rankings

There are several ways to judge the world’s best marathoner. Is it the woman who ran the fastest? The woman who ran the best against good competition? The woman who won the most races? All these factors count, but it’s hard to definitively say exactly how to weigh each factor against the others. It’s even more difficult when a marathoner only races twice, perhaps thrice, per year.

Several women had great years in 2015. Mary Keitany was second in London before defending her title in New York in November. Gladys Cherono took to the marathon like a fish to water, posting two of the world’s four fastest times — in her first two career marathons. Aselefech Mergia returned from pregnancy to win her third title in Dubai and post top-four finishes in London and New York.

All three of those women have a case for #1, but we elected to give our top spot to a runner who did it all in 2015. Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba checked all the boxes: she ran fast (2:19:52, #2 time on the year), won twice (in Xiamen and at Worlds) and faced top competition (2nd Boston, 1st Worlds). The world champion doesn’t always end up as the world #1, but in this case, Dibaba’s win in Beijing cemented her case as 2015’s top female marathoner.

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It’s very, very close, though, so please don’t flood our inbox with hate mail if you disagree. Dibaba won Worlds by one second and lost Boston by four. She could have won three marathons this year; she could just have easily won one. Cherono was just one second from winning Dubai, which means Mergia was just one second from losing it. Flip any of those results around and the top of our rankings could easily change with them. All we can do is judge them based on what actually happened in 2015, so without further ado, here we go.

Dibaba en route to a second-place finish in Boston Dibaba en route to a second-place finish in Boston in April

1. Mare Dibaba • Ethiopia • 26 years old 

2015 results: 1st Xiamen (2:19:52), 2nd Boston (2:24:59), 1st World Champs (2:27:35)

Dibaba built on a breakout 2014 (she was #2 in our rankings) with an even better 2015 season. As in 2014, she began this year by posting a dominant victory in Xiamen, running 2:19:52 — at the time, the fastest time in the world since April 2012.* From there, she traveled to Boston, where she lost out to Caroline Rotich by just four seconds. Then in Beijing, Dibaba ran her third great marathon in the span of eight months by outkicking Helah Kiprop and Eunice Kirwa for gold.

Over the past two years, Dibaba’s accomplishments are phenomenal: two wins in Xiamen, two major victories (2014 Chicago, 2015 Worlds), two runner-ups in Boston (we’re throwing Jeptoo out of the 2014 Boston results) and a 2:19:52 pb, the #2 time in the world in that span. Dibaba enters 2016 in terrific form, but there’s still more to accomplish. Can she win Boston? Can she win the Olympics? Will she prioritize one over the other? Wherever Dibaba lines up, she’ll command attention.

*Rita Jeptoo ran 2:18:57 in 2014 but was busted for doping six months later. We’re not counting that time.

2. Mary Keitany • Kenya • 33 years old 

2015 results: 2nd London (2:23:40), 1st New York (2:24:25)

Keitany continued to add to one of the most impressive resumes in the history of women’s marathoning. She hasn’t lost more than one race in a year — over any distance — since 2010, and in the last five years, she’s lost precisely three races total (2011 NYC Marathon, 2012 Olympic Marathon, 2015 London Marathon). 2nd in London (annually one of the world’s strongest marathons) and a win in New York (ditto) would be good enough to earn her the #1 ranking in most years, but considering that Dibaba produced similar results (2nd Boston, 1st World Champs) and ran 2:19:52 in Xiamen, she did just enough to pip Keitany.

Keitany’s run in New York was spectacular to watch. She ran with the lead pack of nine women for 18 miles before she decided she’d had enough. After gradually applying pressure during mile 19, she threw down a 5:22 20th mile to reduce the lead pack to four women. As Keitany headed back into Manhattan toward Central Park, she really hit the gas, going 5:14-5:13-5:15 for miles 21 through 23. At the end of that stretch, Keitany’s lead had ballooned to 45 seconds and the race was, for all intents and purposes, over. It was one woman telling the rest of the field: you can’t run with me, so don’t even bother.

2016 will be a hugely important year for Keitany. She has accomplished almost everything there is to do as a marathoner. She’s won New York and London twice each and has run the fourth- and tenth-fastest marathons in history. Only one woman has a better PB than Keitany’s 2:18:37 — Paula Radcliffe. And while it’s unlikely that Keitany will ever surpass Radcliffe as the greatest female marathoner of all time, she can still do the one thing Radcliffe never could: win Olympic gold.

Keitany turns 34 on January 18, making Rio her last realistic shot for gold. She may not be capable of 2:18 as she was in 2012, but she remains one of the very best marathoners in the world who has proven her mastery in races both fast and slow, even after giving birth to two children.

Eliud Kichoge and Glady Cherono 2015 BMW Berlin Marathon Champions Cherono celebrated with Eliud Kipchoge after her victory in Berlin

3. Gladys Cherono • Kenya • 32 years old 

2015 results: 2nd Dubai (2:20:03), 1st Berlin (2:19:25)

Cherono’s credentials (10,000 silver at Worlds in ’13; World Half Marathon champ in ’14) suggested she had the potential to be a great marathoner, but the transition to 26.2 miles is different for every runner. Cherono made the switch look easy in 2015, taking a narrow second in her debut in Dubai in 2:20:03 (that one second cost her $120,000 — the difference between the first- and second-place prizes) before blitzing a 2:19:25 in Berlin, the world’s fastest time (non-Jeptoo division) in over three years.

Indeed, it’s fair to wonder why a woman who registered two of the world’s four fastest this year can only come in third in our rankings, but such was the quality at the top of women’s marathoning in 2015. Dubai boasted a solid field, but Cherono didn’t win there; Berlin was a terrific time, but only one other woman broke 2:24 in that race. Normally a large margin of victory is a sign of dominance, and while that was true to a degree in Cherono’s Berlin victory, it was also evidence that most of the world’s top women were competing elsewhere that fall.

So in 2015 Dibaba and Keitany both had wins over better fields (Worlds, New York) than Cherono (Berlin) and their second-place finishes (Boston for Dibaba, London for Keitany and Dubai for Cherono) were relatively even. That gives Dibaba and Keitany the narrow edge. Throw Cherono in a race against Dibaba and Keitany and she might win; she might also get third. It’s impossible to say definitively. Luckily, our sport has something called the Olympic Games to figures stuff like this out; hopefully, all three women get a chance to represent their countries in Rio.

4. Aselefech Mergia • Ethiopia • 30 years old 

2015 results: 1st Dubai (2:20:02), 4th London (2:23:53), 2nd New York (2:25:32)

At the start of the year, Mergia had not run a marathon since August 2012. She missed 2013 after giving birth and took longer to recover than anticipated in 2014, racing just two times. But when she returned to Dubai, it was as if she had never left as she won the race for the third time, edging Cherono in an intense kick to the finish. Mergia added top-fours in London (4th) and New York (2nd). Considering that those three races, along with Worlds, are the deepest on the planet, to have gone 1-2-4 in three of them is quite an accomplishment — one worthy of the #4 spot.

In another hyper-competitive London Marathon, Tufa broke the tape first In another hyper-competitive London Marathon, Tufa broke the tape first

5. Tigist Tufa • Ethiopia • 28 years old 

2015 results: DNF Dubai, 1st London (2:23:22), 6th World Champs (2:29:12), 3rd New York (2:25:50)

Tufa almost began 2015 with a bang. Halfway through January’s Dubai Marathon, Tufa had dropped the male pacers and was on 2:18:00 pace — only Paula Radcliffe has ever run faster. Dubai is a famously fast course and though Tufa’s PR was just 2:21:52, she had accomplished that in a race that she won by 3:30.

Tufa cratered in Dubai — she wound up a DNF — but she came back a wiser runner in three months’ time in London. With the rabbits opening up a 10+ meter lead on the field due to the slow early pace, Tufa could have elected to go with them. But instead of repeating the strategy that failed her in Dubai and New York in 2013 (she and Buzunesh Deba put over three minutes on the field at one point but Tufa wound up eighth), Tufa remained patient, waiting, waiting, waiting before finally moving after mile 22. It proved to be a wise decision as Tufa wound up dropping the field and earning her first major victory over one of the year’s best fields.

Her other two results (6th Worlds, 3rd New York) were also very solid and helped make up for the ugly DNF in Dubai.

6. Birhane Dibaba • Ethiopia • 22 years old 

2015 results: 1st Tokyo (2:23:15), 3rd Chicago (2:24:24)

The young Dibaba (no relation to Mare or the Genzebe/Tirunesh Dibabas) claimed her first major title this year in Tokyo and added a third place in Chicago. Neither of her times were amazing but consistency counts for something and going 1-3 in majors (even if they are two of the weaker ones) is a good year any way you slice it.

7. Florence Kiplagat • Kenya • 28 years old 

2015 results: 5th London (2:24:15), 1st Chicago (2:23:33)

The 2015 Chicago Marathon may not have been as strong as usual, but you can only beat the runners on the line and Kiplagat did that in October to claim her third major victory — and first outside of Berlin. Kiplagat also added a 5th in London — nothing to be embarrassed about considering three of the four women who beat her have already been named on this list.

Kiplagat is not a pure marathoner — her best distance is and will always be the half marathon, an event in which she set the world record (65:09) this year for the second time in her career — but she’s a good enough all-around runner that she will win her share of 26.2-mile races.

8. Eunice Kirwa • Bahrain • 31 years old 

2015 results: 1st Nagoya (2:22:08), 3rd World Champs (2:27:39)

Nagoya isn’t a World Marathon Major event, but the field Kirwa beat there in March was no joke. Kirwa ran the world’s 10th-fastest time this year (2:22:08) to win that event and it was a good thing she went fast as two other women broke 2:23 on the day.

The Kenyan-born Bahrain athlete followed that performance up five months later with a bronze medal in the marathon in Beijing — just the country’s third women’s medal at Worlds, after Maryam Yusuf Jamal‘s 1500 golds in 2007 and 2009.

9. Helah Kiprop • Kenya • 30 years old 

2015 results: 2nd Tokyo (2:24:03), 2nd World Champs (2:27:36)

Kiprop was just one second away from becoming world champion; for better or worse, we’re sure she’ll remember the final 100 meters in the Bird’s Nest for the rest of her life. Kiprop came up short in her other 2015 marathon — she finished 48 seconds behind Birhane Dibaba in Tokyo in February — but overall this was still easily the best season of her marathon career. Entering the year, she had broken 2:27 just once in her career (2:26:27 at 2007 Berlin) so for her to run 2:27:36 in the heat and humidity of Beijing in August was quite an accomplishment. And her 2:24:03 in Tokyo was obviously a massive PR, as she slashed 2:24 from her best in that race. She’s on the brink of winning a major, but with so many talented female marathoners right now, it won’t be easy for her to break through.

Rotich prevailed in a thrilling Boston Marathon in April Rotich prevailed in a thrilling Boston Marathon in April

10. Caroline Rotich • Kenya • 31 years old 

2015 results: 1st Boston (2:24:55), 10th New York (2:33:19)

We can’t have a top-10 list without including the Boston champ, and even if Rotich hadn’t run another race this year, it would still be enough to earn her a ranking. She was the only woman to defeat our world #1, Mare Dibaba, on the year, and she did so in memorable fashion: with an epic stretch-run duel down Boylston Street that Rotich eventually won in the final meters.

Rotich came to New York in November in better shape than Boston, according to her coach Ryan Bolton, but an off day in the Big Apple meant that Rotich was just 10th overall.

Still, Rotich’s win in Boston was a great achievement and a testament to the work the Santa Fe-based athlete has done with Bolton over the past seven years. For the full story on how coach and athlete reached the winner’s stand in Boston, check out this story from May: LRC From Santa Fe To Boylston Street: How American Coach Ryan Bolton, An Olympic Triathlete, Helped Caroline Rotich Win The 2015 Boston Marathon

Honorable Mention 

Aberu Kebede • Ethiopia • 26 years old 

2015 results: 5th Dubai (2:21:17), 7th Boston (2:26:52), 2nd Berlin (2:20:48)

Kebede produced two of the world’s eight fastest marathons this year, but that still wasn’t enough to earn a spot in our top 10 (though she was very close). Though the clock doesn’t lie, Kebede was certainly helped in that she ran the two fastest major marathon courses in Dubai (2:21:17) and Berlin (2:20:48).

The issue with ranking Kebede in the top 10 is that she wasn’t in contention to win any of those races. 5th in Dubai is still a solid finish considering 2015 Dubai was one of the deepest marathons ever, but the fact is she still lost to four people on that day. She wasn’t close to the win in Boston, and didn’t beat anyone in Berlin — she was 1:23 back of winner Gladys Cherono and it was a shallow field, with third place running just 2:24:33. Kebede ran fast this year, but this is a list of the best marathoners in 2015, not necessarily the fastest, and for that reason Kebede just misses out.

U.S. Rankings

The U.S. rankings in the marathon this year were basically a one-shot deal. With the Olympic Trials set to take place on February 13, many top Americans shied away from a fall marathon. And the women who excelled most in the fall — Deena Kastor (7th Chicago) and Laura Thweatt (7th New York) — didn’t run a spring marathon. In all, the six fastest Americans of 2015 ran just one marathon on the year, making the data set extremely small. With that said, here are LRC’s 2015 U.S. women’s marathon rankings.

Desi Linden in 2015. Photo courtesy of Brooks. Desi Linden in 2015. Photo courtesy of Brooks.

1. Desi Linden • Hansons-Brooks Distance Project • 32 years old 

2015 results: 4th Boston (2:25:39)

Linden ran the fastest marathon by an American in 2015 by over two minutes, defeating her top domestic competitor (Shalane Flanagan) in the process. The fact that she ran the country’s fastest marathon on the Boston course, and not a traditionally faster layout such as Chicago, was also a nice feather in Linden’s cap, though Linden has an affinity for Beantown — her three fastest marathons have come there (she also ran 2:22:38 in 2011 and 2:23:54 in 2014).

Linden’s climb back from the stress fracture that caused her to DNF the 2012 Olympic marathon has been a long one, but in true marathon fashion, Linden has remained patient and her results have kept improving. After the 2012 Olympics, she took a 10-month break from racing and her marathon that fall — 2:29:15 — was her slowest since 2008 despite coming on the fast Berlin layout. From that point, however, every marathon has been better than her last, as she was 10th in Boston, then 5th in New York and most recently 4th in Boston in April, in a race she was leading as late as mile 21.

Linden is as consistent as they come in the marathon, and she’s a lock for the U.S. team for Rio. Indeed, the more interesting question at the U.S. Trials isn’t whether Linden will make the team, but if she will win the race. 2015 Boston was the first time Linden had ever beaten Flanagan, and Linden would like to end another skid in Los Angeles: she’s never won a U.S. title at any distance.

“I would love to get that [win in LA] and check it off my list [of things] that I’ve accomplished but ultimately the goal is to be on the team,” Linden told us in November. “If it’s something late in the race and I feel I’m sacrificing a top-three finish for the win, I’m going to be cautious.”

Flanagan struggled over the final miles in Boston -- but still recorded the #2 time by an American in 2015 Flanagan struggled over the final miles in Boston — but still recorded the #2 time by an American in 2015

2. Shalane Flanagan • Bowerman Track Club/Nike • 34 years old

2015 results: 9th Boston (2:27:47)

By Flanagan’s high standards, her 2:27:47 ninth-place finish in Boston was a letdown, especially coming as it did on the heels of her most successful year as a marathon (she PR’d twice in 2014, going from 2:25:38 all the way down to 2:21:14). But any other U.S. marathoner (save Linden) would be happy with a 2:27 and a top-10 showing in Boston.

Flanagan will be 35 by the 2016 Olympics and they likely will be her last where she’s a medal contender. She’s by no means a favorite, but she’s one of about 15 women in the world who could absolutely medal on a great day. Though her one marathon did not go well this year, Flanagan remained solid at shorter distances — she was 6th at Worlds in the 10k (her best-ever finish at Worlds) and set the U.S. 10k road record of 31:03 in September. That bodes well for her return to the marathon in February, and Flanagan won’t have to take any crazy risks in training to make the team.

The key in 2016 will be recovering and staying healthy between February and August, especially considering Flanagan’s advancing age. Flanagan will know this is her last shot at Olympic marathon glory, and it will be tempting to push the envelope in her training. But with an Olympic medal already in her pocket, she may not feel the same desperation to take big risks in workouts as someone who has never earned one. Plus, injuries have rarely been a problem for Flanagan in her career; she knows what her body can handle. Expect her to manage her buildup smartly and repeat her top-10 performance from London 2012.

First time's the charm: Thweatt shined in her marathon debut in NYC First time’s the charm: Thweatt shined in her marathon debut in NYC

3. Laura Thweatt • Boulder Track Club/Saucony • 27 years old

2015 results: 7th New York (2:28:23)

Foot and knee injuries couldn’t keep Thweatt down in 2015. After opening the year with a dominant win at the U.S. Cross Country Championships and a runner-up showing at the U.S. 15K Champs, Thweatt missed the entire track season with those ailments. But the disappointment of the summer gave way to another breakthrough in the fall as Thweatt tested herself at the 26.2-mile distance for the first time. She passed with flying colors, posting a very respectable 2:28:23 on the up-and-down New York course to finish as the top American in 7th overall.

Thweatt will return to the track in 2016 in an effort to make her first Olympic team, but as her debut in New York proved, she has a bright future in the marathon if and when she decides to return.

4. Deena Kastor • Asics • 42 years old

2015 results: 7th Chicago (2:27:47)

That Kastor, who turns 43 the day after the Olympic Trials, has a legitimate shot to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team is nothing short of amazing. Kastor’s performances over shorter distances the past two years had shown that she had the fitness, but it wasn’t until Kastor clocked 2:27:47 in Chicago in October — the third-fastest marathon by an American this year, and Kastor’s fastest in nine years — that she proved she could do it over the full 26.2-mile distance.

The notion of Kastor having to prove anything at this point is rather silly — she’s the American record holder, an Olympic bronze medalist and either the best or second-best female marathoner in U.S. history, depending on how you value Joan Benoit Samuelson‘s Olympic gold medal. Indeed, she won’t have any pressure when she steps on the line in LA.

“My focus isn’t on age-group winning or even winning itself, but in embracing the challenge every day,” she told Competitor.com in August. “There is such a thrill to pursue unending improvement and even greater value in sharing it within the running community I cherish. In the height of my career, I was very goal-oriented and focused on that goal to bring out the best in my training. Now, I focus on making the most of each day and the lessons a good long run can teach us about ourselves.”

5. Serena Burla • Mizuno • 33 years old

2015 results: 7th Houston (2:31:46), 10th World Champs (2:31:06)

There’s a case to be made for Burla over Kastor as the World Champs was deeper than Chicago, but we’re going with Kastor as she had the #3 time on the year, much faster than what Burla ran at her non-championship marathon (2:31:46 in Houston). That’s not to detract what Burla accomplished, however. She may not have beaten any of the big names in Beijing (she finished behind all three Ethiopians and three of the four Kenyans), but 10th in the world is still mighty impressive.

Honorable mention: Annie Bersagel. Bersagel repeated as champion at the Dusseldorf Marathon in 2:28:29, and while the time was solid (a PR for Bersagel and the #5 time by an American on the year), the competition was not: Bersagel won by almost 27 minutes.

LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings LRC David Graham: My Thoughts On The Men’s Marathon For 2015

LRC 2014 women’s marathon rankings * LRC All 2014 Year-End Rankings

LRC WMM Coverage (plus Dubai) 2015 Dubai: Aselefech Mergia Edges Gladys Cherono in an Epic Stretch Run To Win a Cool $200,000 in Dubai * 2015 Tokyo: Negesse and Dibaba Get First Major Marathon Wins, Stephen Kiprotich Shows Olympic Spirit in Second * 2015 Boston: Caroline Rotich Outkicks Mare Dibaba To Pull Upset At 2015 Boston Marathon *2015 London: Forget About The Kenyan “Fantastic Four,” Ethiopia And Tigist Tufa Reign Supreme In London *2015 Worlds: Mare Dibaba Wins 100m Sprint for World Title, Serena Burla 10th, Reaction From Her and Esther Erb*2015 Berlin: Four Quick Takes on the 2015 BMW Berlin Marathon and Eliud Kipchoge’s Amazing 2:04:00 Win With His Shoe Insoles Falling Out * 2015 Chicago: Dickson Chumba and Florence Kiplagat Win, Americans Luke Puskedra and Elkanah Kibet Impress, Deena Kastor Gets American Master’s Record *LRC 2015 WC marathon recap Mare Dibaba Wins 100m Sprint for World Title, Selena Burla 10th, Reaction From Her and Esther Erb *2015 New York: Mary Keitany Repeats as 2015 TCS NYC Marathon Champion as Laura Thweatt Runs 2:28:23 Debut

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