2017 Tokyo Marathon Women’s Preview: Betsy Saina Debuts Against a Trio of Sub-2:23 Ethiopians

By LetsRun.com
February 24, 2017

The men’s race in at the 2017 Tokyo Marathon, featuring stud Wilson Kipsang, is the one to watch Saturday night but there are a few storylines worth monitoring in the women’s race. Betsy Saina of the Bowerman Track Club and Kenya, who finished 5th in the Olympic 10,000 in 30:07 (#13 all-time) is making her debut, and she’ll take on 2015 champ Birhane Dibaba and 2016 runner-up Amane Gobena. Those two Ethiopians are co-favorites on paper, though 2:20 Ethiopian Amane Beriso and rising Kenyan Sarah Chepchirchir (2016 Lisbon champ) should also be in the mix. Sara Hall is the lone American entered.

We run through the top contenders and what to watch for in the women’s race in Tokyo.

What: 2017 Tokyo Marathon

When: Sunday, February 26, 9:10 a.m. Japan Standard Time (7:10 p.m. Saturday night U.S. Eastern Time)

Where: Tokyo, Japan

How to watch: The race will be shown live in U.S. primetime on NBC Sports Network beginning at 7:00 p.m. ET. You can also stream the race live through the NBC Sports website.

Article continues below player.

All 2017 Tokyo coverage * All 2016 Tokyo coverage

Abbott World Marathon Majors

2017 Tokyo is the penultimate race in Series X of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, but the women’s title is all but decided and nothing that happens in Tokyo can impact the outcome. Jemima Sumgong, on the strength of wins in London and the Olympics, leads the series with the maximum 50 points, and the only way anyone can even tie her is by winning two races during this cycle, which ends with Boston in April. But none of the entrants in Tokyo have won even one major during Series X, which means that no one here can catch Sumgong, who is all but assured of the $500,000 series prize.

Elite women’s preview

Full elite field

Athlete Country PB Comment
Lucy Kabuu Kenya 2:19:34 Stellar PR, but this is her first marathon in over 2 years
Amane Beriso Ethiopia 2:20:48 Runner-up in Dubai last year but only 13th in Boston
Amane Gobena Ethiopia 2:21:51 Ran PR to take 2nd last year. Top returner
Birhane Dibaba Ethiopia 2:22:30 Tokyo has been good to her: PR in ’14, win in ’15
Sarah Chepchirchir Kenya 2:24:13 Coming off PR win in Lisbon in October
Marta Lema Ethiopia 2:24:32 Late add making major debut after PR in Xiamen in ’16
Kaori Yoshida Japan 2:28:43 Ran PR in Saitama two years ago
Sara Hall USA 2:30:06 12th London, 9th NYC last year
Betsy Saina Kenya debut Ran 30:07 to take 5th in Olympic 10k

The Big Three Ethiopians — One of These Women Will Probably Win It

Amane Beriso — Ethiopia, 25 years old, 2:20:48 pb (2016 Dubai), 68:43 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd 2016 Dubai (2:20:48), 13th 2016 Boston (2:39:38)

Beriso made a terrific debut last year in Dubai, finishing second in 2:20:48, but marathon #2 in Boston did not go well: she wound up 13th in 2:39:38. She hasn’t raced since, but we’re more inclined to think Beriso in Tokyo will be more like the runner we saw in Dubai than the one we saw in Boston. Consider: when she ran Boston, she was running just the second marathon of her career, on short rest (less than three months) and 2016 Boston was a tough race in warm conditions. When you realize only one woman in the field broke 2:30, 2:39 doesn’t look quite as bad. She’s not the favorite here (that’s either Gobena or Dibaba) but she should contend for the win.

Amane Gobena — Ethiopia, 34 years old, 2:21:51 pb (2016 Tokyo), 68:16 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd 2016 Tokyo (2:21:51), 2nd 2016 Saitama (2:25:58)

Gobena had run well in smaller marathons for years before stepping up to a major for the first time in 2015 in Chicago. Though that effort in Chicago did not go according to plan (she eventually dropped out), she rebounded by winning in Istanbul a month later and major #2, in Tokyo last year, went much better: a runner-up finish and a personal best by 1:39. Gobena followed that up by taking second in Saitama in November and, with defending champ Helah Kiprop running London instead, Gobena is the top returner in this year’s Tokyo field. With a relatively weak women’s elite field (no one in LRC’s 2016 world top 10), this is Gobena’s best chance yet to win a major. And at 34, she may not get many more.

Birhane Dibaba — Ethiopia, 23 years old, 2:22:30 pb (2014 Tokyo), 67:47 half
Last two marathons: 
5th 2016 Tokyo (2:23:16), 2nd 2016 Berlin (2:23:58)

Dibaba ran her first marathon at age 18 in 2012, and after learning the event in her first year, she’s been remarkably consistent ever since. Check out her marathons since the start of 2013:

Date Race 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
2/28/2016 Tokyo 2:23:16 5th
9/25/2016 Berlin 2:23:58 2nd

Barring a major breakthrough (which can’t totally be discounted considering she’s still only 23), we know what we’re getting from Dibaba on Sunday: something around 2:23. In general, that hasn’t been good enough to win the kinds of races Dibaba enters but her one big win did come in Tokyo and this year’s field isn’t particularly strong. If nobody knocks it out of the park, Dibaba is the best bet to win.

Return of the Stud

UPDATE: Kabuu has scratched from the race due to injury.

Lucy Kabuu wins the 2013 RAK Half (photo by Victor Sailer, courtesy of RAK Half-Marathon; used with permission) Lucy Kabuu wins the 2013 RAK Half
(photo by Victor Sailer, courtesy of RAK Half-Marathon; used with permission)

Lucy Kabuu — Kenya, 32 years old, 2:19:34 pb (2012 Dubai), 66:09 half
Last two marathons: 
3rd 2014 Tokyo (2:24:16), 3rd 2015 Dubai (2:20:21)

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: marathoner runs fast in Dubai but fails to reproduce the time on a different course. That’s the short version of Kabuu’s career, but to distill it down to that would be a disservice. Though Kabuu’s two best times by far came in Dubai (2:19:34 in 2012, 2:20:21 in 2015), she’s finished in the top five at three majors, all in 2:24:16 or better — 2:23:12 in London in 2012, 2:22:41 in Chicago in 2012 and 2:24:16 in Tokyo in 2014. Throw in her crazy fast 66:09 half marathon PR from 2013 and Kabuu is a major talent.

The problem is, she hasn’t run a marathon since January 2015 and has raced just once, period, since September 2015. And that race went very poorly — she ran 76:30, over 10 minutes off her PR, at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Lisbon Half Marathon last October. Kabuu said that her long layoff was due to stomach problems, which we hope are now behind her. If she’s close to the Kabuu of 2012-2015, she’s a serious contender, perhaps the favorite, in Tokyo. But because she’s barely raced the last two years, it’s impossible to know what to expect from her on Sunday.

The Big Debut

Betsy Saina — Kenya, 28 years old, debut, 69:27 half (*67:50 Projected)

We spoke to Saina this week and discussed her preparation in a separate article here. She should do well in Tokyo. Saina didn’t want to get caught up having to race against women like Sumgong and Mary Keitany in her first marathon, and though there are four women in the field who have broken 2:23, there are questions about a couple of them (as noted above). Saina should be well-prepared as she’s been able to draw advice from teammates Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg and her coach, Jerry Schumacher, has a proven record of success with female marathoners.

Predicting a time for Saina is difficult, but she might just be best suited to not worry about time and run to win. Contending for the win in your first marathon can be difficult, but Sally Kipyego and Molly Huddle went 2-3 in New York in their debuts last fall and Shalane Flanagan, who has similar track pbs to Saina (14:39 for Saina vs 14:44 for Flanagan, 30:07 Saina vs. 30:22 Flanagan), was 2nd in NY in her debut in NY in 2010, so it certainly does happen. Plus Saina has run faster over 10,000 meters than both Kipyego, Huddle and Flanagan — her 30:07 PR is #13 all-time. Here’s a look at what the women directly ahead of and behind Saina on the all-time 10k list ran in their marathon debuts:

Runner 10k pb Debut marathon
Paula Radcliffe, GBR 30:01.09 2:18:56 (2002 London)
Berhane Adere, ETH 30:04.18 2:41:50 (2001 Rotterdam)
Werknesh Kidane, ETH 30:07.15 2:27:15 (2011 Dubai)
Yingjie Sun, CHN 30:07.20 2:32:43 (1997 Beijing)
Betsy Saina, KEN 30:07.78 ??? (2017 Tokyo)
Florence Kiplagat, KEN 30:11.53 2:19:44 (2011 Berlin)
Wude Ayalew, ETH 30:11.87 2:57:47 (2014 Dubai)
Lornah Kiplagat, NED 30:12.53 2:33:50 (1997 Los Angeles)
Molly Huddle, USA 30:13.17 2:28:13 (2016 New York)

Holy crap.

So two women broke 2:20 and won majors, and two women failed to break 2:40. History doesn’t tell us much other than there’s a large range of outcomes for Saina on Sunday. But Saina enters Tokyo in great form: she ran her 30:07 only six months ago and followed that up with a half marathon victory at the Great Scottish Run in October (she ran 67:22, or about *67:50 adjusting for the short course) — a race that, by Saina’s own admission, she did “for fun.”

She’s not going to break 2:20 like Radcliffe and Kiplagat, but a time under 2:25 would not surprise us. Actually, anything over 2:25 would be a disappointment. Tokyo seems like the ideal place for her to debut as it generally seems to be a 2:22-2:23 race (the winning times the last three years – 2:21:27, 2:23:15, 2:22:23). If we were coaching her, we’d say run with the rabbits assuming they don’t go out faster than 71:00. If they’re going 2:22 pace or slower, it makes sense for Saina to run with them — otherwise she’s going to be in no-man’s-land for much of the race as the women’s elite field is very shallow. Things only get difficult if the pacemakers are supposed to be going faster than that then she’s got a difficult decision to make.

Other Names to Watch

The Tokyo field is shallow, so we’ve highlighted the three other women on the start list you should pay attention to.

  • Sarah Chepchirchir, Kenya, 32 years old (2:24:13 pb): Chepchirchir ran a big PR of almost six minutes to win her second career marathon in Lisbon last fall and she followed that up in December with a half marathon PR and victory in Xiamen, running 67:52. If she can keep that momentum rolling into Tokyo, she could find herself contending late in the race.
  • Sara Hall, USA, 33 years old (2:30:06 pb): Hall enjoys trekking the globe, and after running majors in Chicago, London and New York over the past two years, she’s running Tokyo for the first time. She’s spent this buildup training at home in California and at altitude in Ethiopia, and her 71:19 tuneup half marathon in Barcelona was a solid effort, though it’s not as quick as she ran in preparation for her PR in London last year (70:07 in Houston and 70:58 in horrible conditions at the World Half Champs). Hall’s coach Steve Magness is optimistic, saying that Hall has nailed her big workouts, and adds that a PR could be in the cards, though that depends on the conditions and how fast the redesigned course runs. While breaking 2:30 would be a great race, more than anything Magness expects Hall to just be competitive. Last fall, before Hall took ninth against a good field in New York, “she said, ‘I just like racing, so I think I’m just gonna race it,'” Magness recalls. “If I could sum Sara up in any way, that’s what I would say, that she’s a racer.”
  • Kaori Yoshida, Japan, 35 years old (2:28:43 pb): With most of Japan’s top women running next month’s Nagoya Marathon, the domestic field isn’t particularly strong in Tokyo, but Yoshida is the top entrant by PR by virtue of the 2:28 she ran in Saitama two years ago. She didn’t run faster than 2:32 last year (though that 2:32 did come in a win in Sapporo) and she dropped out of Osaka last month.
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