2016 London Marathon Women’s Preview: #1 vs. #2: The Showdown Between The World’s Top Two Marathoners (Mare Dibaba and Mary Keitany) Headlines Totally Loaded Field

By LetsRun.com
April 22, 2016

If you’re a fan of women’s marathoning, then you have to be excited Sunday’s 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon. The withdrawal a few weeks ago of 2015 Berlin champ Gladys Cherono, the 2014 World Half Marathon champ as well, has done nothing to dampen this field. Even with that withdrawal, London still features a ridiculous 5 of the top 7 women’s marathoners in the world from 2015 (LRC rankings). Plus given the fact that it’s 2016, with Olympic berths on the line, London takes on an even greater meaning.

The Ethiopians are led by world #1 and World champ Mare Dibaba and 2010 London champ Aselefech Mergia (world #4). They were the two fastest Ethiopians of 2015 and they’ll both race here alongside countrywoman and defending champ Tigist Tufa (#5).

The Kenyan contingent is led by the brilliant Mary Keitany (#2), coming off a her second straight NYC Marathon victory, and she’ll be joined by Chicago champ/half marathon WR holder Florence Kiplagat (#7), 2013 London champ Priscah Jeptoo and WC 4th placer Jemima Sumgong

For Great Britain, London serves as the official Olympic trials, with the top two finishers (assuming they have the British standard of 2:31:00; note that this is 14 minutes faster than the IAAF standard) earning a spot in Rio.

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Sara Hall is the lone U.S. runner in the field, and she’ll toe the same start line her husband Ryan did when he set the U.S. debut record nine years ago (relive that glorious day here). Now Ryan is coaching his wife as she attempts to bounce back from a disappointing DNF at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

We break down what it all means in our women’s elite preview below.

What: 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon

When: Sunday, April 24, 2016. Women’s elite start at 9:15 a.m. (4:15 a.m. ET); men’s elite start at 10:00 a.m. (5:00 a.m. ET)

Where: London, England

How to watch (U.S. viewers): Live on NBC Sports Network or streaming via NBC Sports Live Extra. Coverage begins at 3:30 a.m. ET.

How to watch (UK viewers): Coverage begins on BBC One at 8:30 a.m. (local time), which will run through the end of the elite races. BBC Two has an additional hour of coverage starting at 1:30 p.m.

Prize money (amount is the same for men’s and women’s races)

1st: $55,000                           6th: $7,500                          11th: $1,500
2nd: $30,000                         7th: $5,000                         12th: $1,000
3rd: $22,500                          8th: $4,000
4th: $15,000                          9th: $3,000
5th: $10,000                          10th: $2,000

Several time bonuses, from $100,000 for sub-2:05 or $75,000 for sub-2:06 down to $1,000 for sub-2:11
Course record (2:04:29): $25,000
World record (2:02:57): $125,000

Abbott World Marathon Majors

London is one of six Abbott World Marathon Majors (AWMM) events (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York). London 2016 is the second race of Series X, which began with Monday’s Boston Marathon and concludes at the 2017 Boston Marathon. At the end of the series, the athlete with the most points wins the $500,000 grand prize. Scoring is 25 points for a win, 16 for 2nd, 9 for 3rd, 4 for 4th and 1 for 5th. Only two races can count in a given series.

Official site * 2015 LRC coverage

Full elite women’s field

Name Country PB Comment
Tigist Tufa Ethiopia 2:21:52 Defending champ was 6th at Worlds, 3rd at NYC
Mary Keitany Kenya 2:18:37 Going for 3rd London crown after winning 2nd straight NYC title in Nov.
Aselefech Mergia Ethiopia 2:19:31 ’10 champ was 4th in ’15 (also 1st Dubai, 2nd NYC)
Florence Kiplagat Kenya 2:19:44 5th last year, then won Chicago in October
Mare Dibaba Ethiopia 2:19:52 LRC’s ’15 World #1 won Worlds in August (also 1st Xiamen, 2nd Boston)
Priscah Jeptoo Kenya 2:20:14 London has been kind to her: won in ’13 and Oly. silver in ’12 (though only 7th in ’15)
Feyse Tadese Ethiopia 2:20:27 Has only raced once since start of ’15 (70:29 HM last fall)
Jemima Sumgong Kenya 2:20:48 5 top-4s at majors (including 4th at Worlds in ’15) but no wins
Jessica Augusto Portugal 2:24:25 Euro bronze medallist was 6th in ’14
Volha Mazuronak Belarus 2:25:36 9th last year
Sonia Samuels Great Britain 2:28:04 Last year’s top Brit (15th) coming off 2:52 pb in Berlin
Freya Ross (née Murray) Great Britain 2:28:10 PB is from 2012, no marathon results since 2013.
Rene Kalmer South Africa 2:29:27  Only ran 78:13 for 13.1 in March in Capetown.
Alyson Dixon Great Britain 2:29:30 37-year-old coming off pb in Berlin last fall; 27th at World Half Champs
Katarzyna Kowalska Poland 2:29:41 2-time Olympian coming off 5-min pb in Berlin
Susan Partridge Great Britain 2:30:46  36-year old ran 2:31 last year.
Sara Hall USA 2:31:14 Bounced back from Oly. Trials DNF to take 15th at World Half Champs
Irvette Van Zyl South Africa 2:31:26  Wife of hurdler LJ has raced 9 times in 2016 and won 8 times.
Natalia Romero Chile 2:34:55  2012 Olympian.
Cassie Fien Australia 2:38:53  31-year old was 18th at World Half (3 behind Hall).
Charlotte Purdue Great Britain debut  24-year old was 33rd at World Half. Has run 32:03 for 10,000.

Olympic Possibilities

It’s likely that at least one of the three-person Ethiopian Olympic marathon squad comes from London, perhaps two (with the Ethiopian selectors, maybe even three). Right now there are two main non-London candidates for a spot: Tirfi Tsegaye (won Dubai in a world-leading 2:19:41, then finished 2ndin Boston) and Atsede Baysa (who just beat Tsegaye to win Boston). Baysa also won the smaller Saitama Marathon in Japan in November in 2:25:44, but is that plus Boston enough to put her on the team ahead of Tsegaye? We doubt it as times always impress the Ethiopian selectors and it’s hard to argue with 2:19:41.

The top three Ethiopians entered in London (Tufa, Mergia and Dibaba) are all accomplished and have been in good recent form. If any of them win, they should be a lock for Rio, and if one of them finishes second (even if it’s behind one another Ethiopian), that should be enough to earn an Olympic berth as well. Beyond that, it gets hairy (2:20 woman Feyse Tadese is also entered). Because athletes only run two or three marathons a year, it’s always tough to pick an Olympic marathon squad, but if we were the Ethiopian federation, we’d take Tsegaye and/or Baysa plus one or two of the top finishers in London (depending on how high they finish).

Midway through the 2012 Olympic marathon, the lead pack was an all-East African affair Midway through the 2012 Olympic marathon, the lead pack was an all-East African affair

This one’s a little more complicated. Mary Keitany is the second-fastest woman of all time and has an impeccable track record. She should probably be selected even if she DNFs in London. But that will be a hard pill to swallow for the Kenyans who are not selected, especially if several Kenyan women run well in London.

Helah Kiprop (not running London), who earned silver at Worlds last year and won Tokyo in February, should get one of the spots. If Keitany gets another spot, it’s essentially the other three women in London battling for one spot. Joyce Chepkirui was third in Boston but given the stronger London field, if a Kenyan finishes in the top three on Sunday she’ll probably be preferred to Chepkirui. Edna Kiplagat was third in Tokyo in 2:22:36 but that’s probably not going to be enough for the two-time world champ to make her second Olympics. Gladys Cherono won Berlin in the world’s fastest time last year but after withdrawing from London and last month’s World Half Champs, her injuries may scare Athletics Kenya off.

Of the three non-Keitany Kenyans in London, Florence Kiplagat (who won Chicago in October) has the most margin for error. But Jemima Sumgong ran well enough last year (sixth London, fourth World Champs) that she could also be selected should she beat Kiplagat. Priscah Jeptoo is the longest shot to make the team. Though she earned Olympic silver in 2012, her last three marathons (6th ’15 NYC, 7th ’15 London, DNF ’14 London) have not gone well. She pretty much needs to win on Sunday or come very close in order to make the team. So we’d guess the team is Kiprop, Keitany and one of Florence Kiplagat or Sumgong, provided one of them finishes in the top three.

Great Britain
As in the men’s race, two Brits currently have the 2:31 British Athletics standard (Sonia Samuels and Alyson Dixon) but they’re only guaranteed selection if they finish among the top two Brits on Sunday. Several other women will be looking to deny them a spot — if 2012 Olympian Freya Ross (2:28 pb), Susan Partridge (2:30 pb) or Charlotte Purdue (debut) finish as one of the top two Brits and break 2:31, they will go to Rio instead.

Ok, now let’s break down the field.

The Favorite

Keitany claimed her second NYC title last fall and will look for London win #3 on Sunday Keitany claimed her second NYC title last fall and will look for London win #3 on Sunday

Mary Keitany — Kenya, 34 years old, 2:18:37 pb (2012 London), 65:50 half
2015 marathons: 2nd, London (2:23:40); 1st, New York (2:24:25). No prep race.

In our NYC Marathon preview last fall, we praised Keitany for her ridiculous winning percentage (she’s won 78% of her starts at any distance since 2009) before saying,

the most likely outcome is that she does not win on Sunday. That’s not a knock on Keitany, but rather a reflection of the field she faces — there are simply so many strong athletes that betting any one of them against the field is not logical.

Of course, Keitany went out and cruised to victory in the Big Apple. Given the stars lined up against her in London (in all, five of LRC’s top seven in our 2015 world rankings are entered — it would have been six had Gladys Cherono not pulled out) the smart pick might still be to pick the field. After all, Keitany entered London last year in a similar position and wound up second to Tigist Tufa (though Keitany did beat Tufa in New York last fall).

But it never feels good to bet against Mary Keitany — just look at the stat below.

Mary Keitany’s Losses by Year
2014: 0
2013: 0 (did not race due to pregnancy)
2012: 1
2011: 1

Is that really someone you want to bet against?

There is one difference between Keitany this year and her three previous London appearances (wins in 2011 and 2012 and a second in 2015): she did not run February’s RAK Half Marathon as a prep race. In each of those years, Keitany displayed her form by winning RAK in quick times (65:50, 66:49, 66:02). This year we don’t have any recent result to go on (she hasn’t raced since NYC) but given Keitany’s dominant 2015 form (five wins in six starts), she should be ready to roll again in London.

One thing to watch with Keitany is whether she elects to push the pace early — or at least follow the rabbits. Last year, only Aselefech Mergia tried to run with the rabbits and even she backed off after 10k. That meant that the lead women hit halfway in 71:42 — or 2:23:24 pace. At 22 miles, eight women were still in contention. The result was a 2:23:21 winning time, the event’s slowest since 2008. On Thursday, Keitany told race organizers how she hopes the race goes faster this year.

“Last year we ran slowly – 2:23 in London is not good – so I think I will be OK and run better this time,” Keitany said. “My body did not react the way I wanted it to, so I was going too slowly. But I think my body will go the way I am expecting this year. For me, to run faster is good.”

If Keitany wins on Sunday, she will join Ingrid Kristiansen, Katrin Dorre-Heinig and Paula Radcliffe as the only women to win London three times.

Should She Be the Co-Favorite?

Dibaba en route to a second-place finish in Boston last year Dibaba en route to a second-place finish in Boston last year

Mare Dibaba — Ethiopia, 26 years old, 2:19:52 pb (2012 Dubai/2015 Xiamen), 67:13 half
2015 marathons: 1st, Xiamen (2:19:52); 2nd, Boston (2:24:59); 1st, World Championships (2:27:35)
Prep race: 3rd at Houston Half Marathon on January 17 in 67:55.

We like Keitany as the favorite because of her blazing PR (#2 in history), success on the London course (two wins and a second) and her terrific 2015 form. But this race is loaded with talent, and you could make a case that even the great Keitany should not be favored (we actually ranked Dibaba #1 in the world last year, though she did not face Keitany head-to-head).

Dibaba had a great 2014 season, winning Xiamen and Chicago and finishing third in Boston, and she was even better last year, winning Xiamen again (in 2:19:52, which tied her PR held up as the #2 time in the world in ’15), moving up to second in Boston (losing by an agonizing four seconds) and capping it off with a gold medal at Worlds.

As great as that sounds, though, a win in Xiamen and 2nd in Boston and heck, maybe even a win at Worlds, isn’t as hard to accomplish as a win in London.

There’s very little to complain about Dibaba, and she enters in good shape. In January, she ran 67:55 (her fastest time since 2012) for third at the Houston Half Marathon, losing only to Cynthia Jerotich and Mary Wacera  — who would go on to claim silver and bronze at the World Half Champs two months later. And she should be in even better shape on Sunday.

“I actually didn’t prepare very well for Houston, but I was happy because the time was good,” Dibaba told race organizers on Thursday. “But I’ve prepared very well for this race so I’m ready for London.”

It should be a tremendous battle between Dibaba and Keitany. The two have squared off four times in their career (the 2012 Olympics, where Keitany was 4th to Dibaba’s 22nd, plus three half marathons) and Keitany has won all four. But they haven’t met since Dibaba began her current hot streak in 2014. Something will have to give. Keitany has the experience in London (this is Dibaba’s London debut), but that didn’t matter when Tufa beat Keitany last year in her first London appearance.

The Challengers

Tufa surprised last year, but can she rebound from a heavy 2015 workload? Tufa surprised last year, but can she rebound from a heavy 2015 workload?

Tigist Tufa — Ethiopia, 29 years old, 2:21:52 pb (2014 Shanghai), 70:03 half
2015 marathons: DNF, Dubai; 1st, London (2:23:22); 6th, World Championships (2:29:12); 3rd, New York (2:25:50). No prep races.

Tufa pulled off the upset to win London last year and acquitted herself well in her two subsequent races, taking sixth at Worlds and third in New York. Obviously Tufa cannot be taken lightly as the defending champ, but unless the race goes slow again, we expect someone else to take her crown in 2016. Consider that in nine career marathons, Tufa has a PR of 2:21:52 (#8 in the field) and has broken 2:23 once. Winning London almost always requires faster than that — from 2002 to 2015, the average winning time has been 2:20:25. Paula Radcliffe‘s three victories skew the stat a bit, but the median winning time in that span is actually even faster — 2:20:18 — and only twice since 2002 has the winner failed to break 2:23. She’s also coming off three marathons in 2015 (plus a DNF in a fourth), a heavy workload for any runner.

Tufa is a fine marathoner, but she lost to Keitany and Mergia in New York and Dibaba and Sumgong at Worlds. Chances are she loses to at least one of them again on Sunday.

Kiplagat, shown here in 2013, will try to win London in her fourth attempt Kiplagat, shown here in 2013, has finished in the top six in London in each of the past four years but has yet to win

Florence Kiplagat — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:19:44 pb (2011 Berlin), 65:09 half
2015 marathons: 5th, London (2:24:15); 1st, Chicago (2:23:33)
Prep race: 1st at Barcelona Half on February 14 in 69:19.

Kiplagat has come close in London in the past but has yet to win in the English capital. She was in terrific shape last spring but mistimed her peak; after breaking the half marathon world record in Barcelona in February, she could only manage 5th in London two months later. Kiplagat’s training was interrupted by a stress reaction this winter, but that could prove to be a blessing in surprise: instead of peaking in Barcelona (she also set the WR there in February 2014 before finishing 2nd in London), she’ll be in her best shape for the marathon in London. Kiplagat, who won her last marathon in Chicago last fall, thinks she’ll be more prepared for 26.2 miles this time, and the recent workout LRC sat in on with her (2 x 3k, 3 x 2k, 5 x 1k) suggested she’s on track to run well in London.

But perhaps not well enough. Even if Kiplagat times her peak correctly this year, she’s not as fit as she was in 2015. Though she still won the Barcelona Half Marathon in February, her winning time of 69:19 was over four minutes slower than what she ran to win in 2014 and 2015. And after the workout we reported on last month, Kiplagat admitted that “I am not where I was last year.” Kiplagat at less than her best is still a formidable athlete, but against a field this good, she has to be on the top of her game to prevail.

Aselefech Mergia — Ethiopia, 31 years old, 2:19:31 pb (2012 Dubai), 67:21 half
2015 marathons: 1st, Dubai (2:20:02); 4th, London (2:23:53); 2nd, New York (2:25:32). No prep races.

Mergia put together a very solid year in 2015, enough to land her in the fourth spot in LRC’s marathon rankings. And though she avenged her loss to Tufa in London by defeating her in New York, she was 0-2 against Keitany (and is 0-5 in her career in races longer than 10k). The 2010 London champ, Mergia has the talent to win again, but faces the same problem as Tufa and Kiplagat: she’s good but Keitany and Dibaba have been even better recently.

Jemima Sumgong — Kenya, 31 years old, 2:20:41 pb (2014 Boston), 66:58 half
2015 marathons: 6th, London (2:24:23); 4th, World Championships (2:27:42)
Prep race: 6th at RAK Half on February 12 in 66:58

Sumgong has come frustratingly close to winning a major but has yet to do so, collecting five top-four finishes over the past four years. Her 2:20:41 in Boston was faster than anyone had ever run on the course to that point, but she was beaten to the victory by doper Rita Jeptoo and Buzunesh Deba. Later that year, she was edged out by Keitany by three seconds in New York. In Sumgong’s most recent marathon, at last year’s World Champs, she was just seven seconds behind champ Mare Dibaba but didn’t even claim a medal in a furious finish.

Why could London be different? Sumgong enters off a big pb in the half two months ago, running 66:58 in Dubai (previous pb: 68:32). Though Sumgong was only sixth in that race, four of the five women who beat her wound up in the top six at last month’s World Half Champs (the other was ’14 World Half champ Gladys Cherono, who didn’t run the World Half Champs this year due to injury). If, as her HM suggests, Sumgong is fitter than in previous years, she could end her drought at the majors on Sunday.

Jeptoo en route to victory in 2013 Jeptoo en route to victory in 2013

Priscah Jeptoo — Kenya, 31 years old, 2:20:14 pb (2012 London), 64:45 half
2015 marathons: 7th, London (2:25:01); 6th, New York (2:27:03)
Prep race: 8th at RAK Half on February 12 in 68:04

Jeptoo has had success in London before, winning in 2013 and taking Olympic silver in 2012, but she struggled with injuries after her ridiculous 2013 season (wins in London and New York and a 65:45 HM win at the Great North Run). In 2014, she dropped out in her title defense in London due to a calf injury, and the injury took a long time to heal, forcing her to pull out of New York that fall. When she did return to marathoning last year, she could only manage 7th and 6th in London and New York. Those two marathons attract the best fields in the world, so 7th and 6th aren’t disastrous results, but for Jeptoo, they marked a serious decline: in her first nine career marathons from 2009 to 2013, which included several biggies (’11 Worlds, ’12 London, ’12 Olympics, ’13 London, ’13 NYC), she had never finished lower than third.

Jeptoo is feeling better heading into London. Regarding her calf, she told race organizers “now I’m much better. I’m trying to come back and run close to my PB on Sunday.” And though her 68:04 HM at the RAK Half was not close to her best — and over a minute behind Sumgong — it was a 1:17 improvement on her last half in Lisbon last year. If Jeptoo truly is in PR shape, she should contend for the win but given her recent marathon struggles, she still needs to prove herself.

Feyse Tadese — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:20:27 pb (2014 Berlin), 68:35 half
Last two marathons: 2nd, 2014 Berlin (2:20:27); 4th, 2014 London (2:21:42). No prep races.

Tadese was fourth her two years ago but has raced just twice since, running 2:20:27 in Berlin in September 2014 and 70:29 for 4th at the Lisbon Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in October 2015. So we have no idea what kind of shape Tadese is in. If she’s close to her 2014 form, she’ll be a factor here but she is the biggest unknown in the women’s elite field.

The American

Hall will run her first marathon outside the U.S. on Sunday (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly) Hall will run her first marathon outside the U.S. on Sunday (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Sara Hall — USA, 33 years old, 2:31:14 pb (2015 Chicago), 70:07 half
Last three marathons: 22nd, 2015 Los Angeles (2:48:02); 10th, 2015 Chicago (2:31:14); DNF, 2016 Olympic Trials
Prep races: 15th at World Half Champs on March 26 in 70:58; 2nd at SacTown 10-Miler on April 3 in 53:35

Hall doesn’t have a shot at winning on Sunday, but as a notable American, she’s worth mentioning. London will be her fourth career marathon, and so far Hall is 1-for-3: she ran a nice 2:31:14 for 10th in Chicago last fall but ran poorly in the 2015 LA Marathon and the 2016 Olympic Trials in hot conditions. Hall told Race Results Weekly that she’s struggled with the heat even in training, so she’s happy that the conditions will be mild in London.

Hall looked good early at the Trials (she was with the leaders through 10 miles but dropped out at 17) and bouncing back to run another marathon just 10 weeks later shouldn’t be a problem; last year, she was 20th at World XC (top American) after her poor showing in LA, and she followed up her Trials DNF with a 15th-place finish at the World Half Champs last month.

Husband Ryan, who twice ran really well in London (in ’07, he ran an American debut record of 2:08:24; the next year he ran what was then the fastest marathon ever by an American-born runner, 2:06:17) has been overseeing Sara’s marathon training and says that it’s been going well (coach Steve Magness has still been in contact and will resume primary coaching duties after London).

“The training has looked pretty similar [to her Trials buildup],” Ryan told us last week in Boston. “I feel like at the Trials, we just didn’t get a good read of where she was at. It was such a warm day and she cramped up and she didn’t have a great day that day. We kind of just want to keep things the same and then re-test, see where we’re at in London…we didn’t feel like we needed to adjust anything because her training had gone so well. She was in really great shape, just missed the day.”

Ryan believes his wife is in shape to run under 2:30 and there should be other women running around that pace in London (the race doubles as the British Olympic trials and the British standard is 2:31:00). But more than anything, Sara is racing on Sunday to replace the rough memories of LA with some better ones in London.

“I feel like I have no expectations of myself of the things I would like to accomplish, but I think it’s more like just focusing on that joy of just running with reckless abandon, without anything really on the line,” she told RRW. “It’s more for the joy of it that I’m here.”

More on the Halls
LRC: Catching Up With Olympians Amy Cragg, Desi Linden and Ryan Hall in Boston
RRW Q&A: Sara Hall Is Lone American In London Marathon Elite Field

LRC Prediction: We like Keitany for the win. At 34, she may not have much longer at the top, but she has been brilliant in London in the past and will have extra motivation to make her case to be on the Kenyan Olympic team.

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