2016 Tokyo Marathon Women’s Preview: Defending Champ Birhane Dibaba, WC Silver Medalist Helah Kiprop & Aberu Kebede Battle for AWMM Title

By LetsRun.com
February 25, 2016

The 2016 Tokyo Marathon is all about beginnings and endings. Though Tokyo, which will take place on Sunday (Saturday night U.S. time) is the first Abbott World Marathon Major (AWMM) of 2016, it also marks the end of Series IX of the AWMM, the first series contested under the new scoring rules established last year. For some of the elites in this year’s field, Tokyo represents their marathon debut; for others, it is their last chance to make their case for a spot at this summer’s Olympics in Rio.

Tokyo is not a selection race for the Japanese women’s Olympic team, so the domestic elite field is almost non-existent — the fastest entrant is 2:32 woman Hiroko Yoshitomi. But several international stars will toe the line in the Japanese capital on Sunday. Two-time world champ Edna Kiplagat is the fastest on paper (2:19:50 pb, though she is now 36 years old) and she’s joined by 2:20 Ethiopians Aberu Kebede (Berlin runner-up) and 20-year-old Shure Demise (Toronto champ). Defending champ Birhane Dibaba and runner-up Helah Kiprop (coming off silver at Worlds) round out the top names.

We preview the women’s elite race below. Our men’s preview is here.

What: 2016 Tokyo Marathon

When: Sunday, February 28, 9:10 a.m. Japan Standard Time (7:10 p.m. Saturday night U.S. Eastern Time)

Where: Tokyo, Japan

Article continues below player.

How to watch: NBC Sports Live Extra will stream the race live on Saturday night starting at 7:00 p.m. ET. NBC Sports Network will also air the race later that night tape-delayed from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m. ET.

All 2016 Tokyo coverage * All 2015 Tokyo coverage

Abbott World Marathon Majors Up For Grabs

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 last year, the AWMM changed its format so that each series lasts a year plus one race. The current series began at the 2015 Tokyo Marathon and concludes on Sunday with the 2016 Tokyo Marathon.

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.

The current standings are as follows:

1. Mare Dibaba, 41 points
1. Mary Keitany, 41 points
3. Tigist Tufa, 34 points
3. Birhane Dibaba, 34 points
5. Helah Kiprop, 32 points
6. Florence Kiplagat, 26 points
7. Gladys Cherono, 25 points
7. Caroline Rotich, 25 points
9. Aselefech Mergia, 20 points
10. Aberu Kebede, 16 points
10. Yebrgual Melese, 16 points

There are five women who could end up at the top of the standings after Sunday’s race. Here’s a look at the scenarios on the table.

Mare Dibaba & Mary Keitany
If Dibaba and Keitany finish as the only two women tied at 41 points, they will likely split the $500,000 prize as neither raced the other during this cycle.

Birhane Dibaba
Dibaba is the only woman who can guarantee herself the entire $500,000 prize. It’s simple: if she wins on Sunday, she goes to 50 points and takes home the AWMM title.
If Dibaba finishes second, she could split the prize with Mare Dibaba and Keitany as none of the three have raced each other during this cycle. However, if Dibaba finishes second and Kebede wins, she might be out of luck as she’d lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to Kebede.

Helah Kiprop
If Kiprop wins, she will bring herself into a tie with Mare Dibaba and Keitany. However, she lost to Dibaba at Worlds in August, which means she might find herself left out of the prize money.

Aberu Kebede
If Kebede wins, she will bring herself into a tie with Mare Dibaba and Keitany. However, she lost to Dibaba in Boston in April, which means she might find herself left out of the prize money.

Elite women’s preview

Note: There may be a scratch or two from the athletes listed below, but unfortunately we can’t tell you who those athletes are at the moment. Here’s what the marathon’s PR office sent us when we requested up-to-date fields:
“Thank you for your question. As you pointed out, some elite athletes have withdrawn. We are remaking list now. New Elite field list will be revealed at the Friday, February 26, 2016 when the Press Conference will be held. After that new list will be update. Sorry I cannot reply your request rapidly.”

Full elite field

Athlete Country PB Comment
Edna Kiplagat Kenya 2:19:50 2-time world champ won London in ’14; 5th at Worlds last year
Aberu Kebede Ethiopia 2:20:30 5th Dubai, 7th Boston, 2nd Berlin in ’15
Shure Demise Ethiopia 2:20:59 20-year-old was 4th in Dubai last year, then won Toronto
Birhane Dibaba Ethiopia 2:22:30 Defending champ took 3rd in Chicago in October
Amane Gobena Ethiopia 2:23:30 2nd in Paris, DNF Chicago, 1st Istanbul in ’15
Isabellah Andersson Sweden 2:23:41 Won Stockholm last year but hasn’t broken 2:30 since Jan. ’13
Ashete Bekele Dido Ethiopia 2:23:43 9th Dubai, 5th Prague in ’15
Helah Kiprop Kenya 2:24:03 Runner-up in Tokyo and at World Champs last year
Maja Neuenschwander Switzerland 2:26:49 Won Vienna, 6th Berlin last year

The Five Women Who Could Win

Birhane Dibaba — Ethiopia, 22 years old, 2:22:30 pb (2014 Tokyo), 69:34 half
Last two marathons: 
3rd 2015 Chicago (2:24:24), 1st 2015 Tokyo (2:23:15)

After two years of second- and third-place finishes, Dibaba took the next step in 2015 and won her first major, claiming Tokyo in 2:23:15. She’s back for the third year in a row on Sunday, and it makes sense: not only is Tokyo the site of her first major win, but it’s the site of her PR (2:22:30), which she ran here in 2014. There’s little to suggest Dibaba won’t be in the thick of things once again this year. Check out her consistency over the past three years:

Date Location Time Place
3/10/2013 Nagoya 2:23:51 2nd
10/27/2013 Frankfurt 2:23:01 3rd
2/23/2014 Tokyo 2:22:30 2nd
10/12/2014 Chicago 2:27:02 3rd
2/22/2015 Tokyo 2:23:15 1st
10/11/2015 Chicago 2:24:24 3rd

The average winning time in Tokyo over the past three years (when it gained AWMM status) is 2:23:44 — right in Dibaba’s wheelhouse. Add in her familiarity with the layout, and she may have the best chance of anyone of winning on Sunday. She certainly has the biggest incentive: a win guarantees her the AWMM Series IX title and a $500,000 check.

If Dibaba wins the AWMM title, she’ll have done it the smart way. Tokyo is one of the least competitive majors, but because of how the system is structured, two wins in Tokyo are worth more than a 2nd at Boston and 1st at Worlds (Mare Dibaba) or 2nd in London and 1st in New York (Mary Keitany). Keitany certainly made up some of the difference in appearance fees (and could still win the AWMM title) but Birhane Dibaba could wind up winning the AWMM without facing anyone in the top five of LRC’s 2015 marathon rankings.

Helah Kiprop — Kenya, 30 years old, 2:24:03 pb (2015 Tokyo), 67:39 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd 2015 World Championships (2:27:36), 2nd 2015 Tokyo (2:24:03)

Since returning to the marathon (she ran one in both 2006 and 2007 but didn’t run another until 2013), Kiprop has steadily improved each time out, going from 2:28:02 in Berlin in 2013 to 2:27:14 in Frankfurt the next year to 2:24:03 in Tokyo and a World Championship silver medal (by an agonizing one second) in Beijing last year. She’s raced once more since then, clocking a solid 68:35 for second at the New Delhi Half Marathon on November 29.

Kiprop has figured out what it takes to succeed in the marathon, but there are two things missing from her resume: 1) a truly fast time (her pb is 2:24:03) and 2) a major marathon victory. She came very close to the latter at Worlds, and given her trajectory, the former seems attainable soon enough. Kiprop won’t need to do anything crazy to win on Sunday; she just needs to keep following the path she’s on.

Shure Demise — Ethiopia, 20 years old, 2:20:59 pb (2015 Dubai), 68:53 half
Last two marathons:
1st 2015 Toronto (2:23:37), 8th 2015 Boston (2:27:14)

Demise burst onto the scene in 2015, establishing herself as one of the marathoners to watch for the rest of the decade. Just two days after celebrating her 19th birthday, Demise blasted a 2:20:59 in her debut in Dubai, and followed that up with a respectable 8th in Boston (one place ahead of Shalane Flanagan) and a win in Toronto in October. It took Birhane Dibaba (another precocious Ethiopian) until age 21 to win Tokyo, so Demise may have to wait another year, but 2:20 at age 19 means that Demise has a very bright future ahead of her.

Edna Kiplagat After Winning NYC in 2010 Edna Kiplagat After Winning NYC in 2010

Edna Kiplagat — Kenya, 36 years old, 2:19:50 pb (2012 London), 67:41 half
Last two marathons: 
5th 2015 World Championships (2:28:18), 11th 2015 London (2:27:16)

On the other end of the age spectrum is Kiplagat, who’s over 16 years older than Demise. Kiplagat didn’t turn to the marathon seriously until age 30 (she ran one in 2005 but ran just 2:50) but from 2010 to 2014 she but together a terrific run, winning New York, London and two world titles while adding two runner-up showings in London. After winning London two years ago at age 34, it looked like Kiplagat was slowing down (13th in NYC in ’14, 11th in London in ’15) but a fifth-place finish in last year’s World Championships demonstrated that the veteran still has some run in her.

Kiplagat will have her hands full here against a much younger field, but her past accomplishments speak for themselves. She ran well enough in Beijing and October’s Great Scottish Run (68:21 victory) that we’re not writing her off just yet.

Aberu Kebede — Ethiopia, 26 years old, 2:20:30 pb (2012 Berlin), 67:39 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd 2015 Berlin (2:20:48), 7th 2015 Boston (2:26:52)

Kebede won this race three years ago (her third major victory after wins in Berlin in 2010 and 2012) and has continued to run solidly in her ensuing marathons. Last year, she was 5th in Dubai (2:21:17), 7th in Boston (2:26:52) and 2nd in Berlin (2:20:48), the latter good for the #5 time of 2015. She’s an established marathoner who has proven she will always be in the hunt in big races and she ran fast in her last marathon.

The Two Women With an Outside Shot

Amane Gobena — Ethiopia, 33 years old, 2:23:30 pb (2015 Paris), 68:16 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2015 Istanbul (2:31:58), DNF 2015 Chicago

Tokyo will be just Gobena’s second major marathon, though she has plenty of experience at the 26.2-mile distance. She’s coming off her second straight victory in Istanbul in November (though she only ran 2:31:58 in a race in which second place was 2:40:53) and set a PR last spring in Paris (2:23:30 for 2nd). In between, Gobena DNF’d Chicago (her major debut). She’s not totally inexperienced in big races (she’s finished top-six in Dubai twice) but has one of the lower ceilings in the elite field and would need to catch a few breaks to win in Tokyo.

Ashete Bekele Dido — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:23:43 pb (2015 Dubai), 71:18 half
Last two marathons: 
5th 2015 Prague (2:26:55), 9th 2015 Dubai (2:23:43)

Dido has broken 2:26 just twice in 11 career marathons and is a fringe contender at best, though she did run her PR (2:23:43) last year in Dubai.

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