by Mike Knapp, for LetsRun.com
October 7, 2016
CHICAGO — With perfect conditions in the forecast Sunday for the Bank of American Chicago Marathon, the weather, the pedigree of the field and the event’s history would make one think that fast times might be in the books for the 39th run through the streets of Chicago.
Going back almost to the beginning of its existence, Chicago has almost always equaled fast times. In 1984, Steve Jones set the world record (2:08:05). In 2013, Dennis Kimetto set the course record of 2:03:45, and Eliud Kipchoge followed the next year with a 2:04:11.
But the game changed in 2015 when Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski removed pacers from the mix, and last year’s race was won by Dickson Chumba in a rather pedestrian – at least by modern Chicago standards – 2:09:25, which was the slowest winning time since 2007 when Patrick Ivuti ran 2:11:11 on a day where the temperature reached 88 degrees.
Before that, the last time the race had a slower winning time was in 1995.
So was 2015 an anomaly or is it Chicago’s future? Pinkowski seems to think the Chicago Marathon of old can come back, and that could happen as early as Sunday.
“A few years ago, it seemed like what we focused on and the crux of what we were doing was chasing time,” Pinkowski said. “We got away from how records were set, which was by head-to-head competition between good athletes. It seemed like we were missing something, and something wasn’t part of the tradition of the event.
“I thought we had some spirited competition last year, I still believe fast times can be born out of good competition, so we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
But for the pace to be fast, someone has to make it happen and the question of the weekend is, ‘Who’s willing to make it happen?’ Perhaps no one as Pinkowski’s confidence in a fast time didn’t resonate among the men gathered for the Elite Athlete press conference today.
While it’s possible that a potential front-runner doesn’t want to make their intentions known, most of the men felt that staying packed up until the late stages, which was how last year’s race went down, will be the order of the day, and if that leads to a fast time, that’s great, but if it doesn’t, that works too. Unless someone is feeling really strong, no one plans on taking the chance of going to the front and pushing the pace alone.
Elkanah Kibet tried that tactic early on last year, and won’t be doing the same thing again.“Last year we were running, and I thought ‘nobody’s going’, and I thought it was going too slow,” he said. “I decided to go and not wait for anyone. I thought if I got to halfway and there was nobody coming, I was going to go (pick up the tempo) again. By about 10 miles they caught me, and then they mixed surges. I tried to hold on, but my training is based on making one big move and I couldn’t hold on. I learned from that.”
So Kibet won’t be going; will there be any other takers? According to a poll of many of the men, probably not.
Luke Puskedra, who finished fifth in 2015 in 2:10:24: “I think last year it was good for me to go out slower. Having no pacers is what gives me the opportunity to go out and compete.”
Micah Kogo, who has run 62 minutes and 2:08 this year: “This race is like running a championship, and it is anybody’s race.”
Stephen Sambu, running his debut: “I came to Chicago (as opposed to Berlin) because I want to start slowly and run faster at the end.”
Abayneh Ayele, who ran 59:59 at the World Half Marathon Championships in March (same time as Mo Farah): “I’m planning on going for the win because my confidence is really good, but I don’t want to make any mistakes. I want to run behind the leaders until 35K, then I will push.”
About the only elite who took an aggressive stance was Diego Estrada, but he was speaking about those with lots of experience and not himself. The 26-year-old from Flagstaff, Ariz., dropped out of the Olympic Marathon Trials in his debut at the distance, and while finishing the race and establishing a baseline moving forward in the marathon is his goal, he finds it a waste that the veterans in the field don’t go out and race harder.
“I don’t know their deal, but if I were a more seasoned marathoner with a few marathons under my belt, I wouldn’t mind pushing it,” Estrada said. “I’m being conservative because I took an attempt and failed, and we need to get something decent out of the way before we can look at a 2:06-2:07 marathon. I don’t see why running fast isn’t a bad thing.
“If I was a 2:06 marathoner, I wouldn’t think about taking it easy. I would just go and whoever wanted to come would come. I’m not there this year, I can understand why they would want to waste a good opportunity on this course.”
Of course, as Pinkowski says, things may change once the runners are getting it on in the competition, as Chicago is also known for some great head-to-head battles down the stretch, but it also wouldn’t be a reach to say that we could be in for a surprise winner on Sunday.
Chumba, by the way, was unavailable for the press conference as visa issues kept him from arriving in Chicago until late Friday afternoon. How that affects his race preparation is unknown, but it certainly adds another variable to the weekend’s drama.
(For more on the Americans Puskedra and Estrada, read this: Luke Puskedra and Diego Estrada Both Say They Are Ready – Could A Sub-2:10 Be In The Cards?)
The Women Aren’t Hesitant To Go For It
While the men were hesitant to say they’d be going for a fast one, the women were more forthcoming, saying that if conditions are right they are going for it. With several women who can run in the 2:20-2:25 range, the lack of official pacers doesn’t affect the women the same way. Plus Chicago doesn’t feature a separate women’s start so the elite women get to run with unofficial pacers – the men running in the low 2:20s.
As mentioned in LRC’s preview defending champion Florence Kiplagat – who won last year in 2:23:33 – and 37-year-old veteran Edna Kiplagat look to be the class of the field, and they both sound like they plan on running that way.
Florence Kiplagat, who finished third in London this year in 2:23:39, is an extremely consistent racer, has three Abbott World Marathon Majors wins in her career and has finished sixth or better in her last nine major races.
Florence raised some eyebrows last month when she only ran 32:27 at the Tillburg Ladies Run 10K in the Netherlands last month, a pace slower than what she ran in setting half marathon world records in 2014-15. However, Kiplagat said that race came at the end of a very intense week of training and that she has been injury-free for all of 2016, so she has no worries for race day.
She feels that if there are a group of men that want to run sub-2:22, or even faster, she will be ready to go.
“[A fast race] is still possible,” she said. “There are guys that want to run with the elite group, and maybe someone wants to run under 2:22. We don’t miss pacers as much since the race is mixed up with us.”
She will be going head-to-head with the ageless Edna Kiplagat for the fifth time (Edna Kiplagat owns a 3-1 advantage). Edna Kiplagat has a great resume herself as a two-time World Marathon Majors winner and a two-time world champion. She admitted Friday that if all goes to plan she wants to “improve her time” of 2:19:50.
Add to the mix that both Kiplagats have something to prove after being left off the Kenyan Olympic team, and there is the possibility they could put on a good show Sunday.
“I want to run a great race,” Edna Kiplagat said. “I didn’t get to go to the Olympics, so I came here. If the conditions are good, [2:20] isn’t out of the question if we start with a good pace, I will try to run my best and improve my time.”
Speaking of conditions, as of Friday afternoon the forecast is for 49 degrees at 7 a.m., 54 degrees at 9 a.m. and about 60 degrees at 11 a.m. with the winds blowing about 7-10 mph. The race starts at 7:30 a.m local time.