2017 NYC Marathon U.S. Men’s Preview: Can Meb Close Out His Career As The Top American? Or Will Jared Ward, Abdi Abdirahman Or Shadrack Biwott Stop Him?

By LetsRun.com
October 31, 2017

Meb Keflezighi will race his final marathon on Sunday morning at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon. No matter what happens, Meb’s legacy as one of America’s all-time distance running legends is secure. Since debuting 15 years ago in New York, he’s gone on to claim Olympic silver (2004), and major marathon victories in New York (2009) and Boston (2014), all achieved with the class, sportsmanship, and joie de vivre that has come to define Meb Keflezighi. The tributes will pour in for Meb this week — as they should — and when he crosses the finish line on Central Park on Sunday, it will undoubtedly be an emotional moment, one more from a man who has produced so many.

But there’s also a race to talk about! And Meb hasn’t been training for the last few months just to make up the numbers.

“Many people think it’s going to just be a show, but I would regret if I didn’t give it everything I had,” Keflezighi said last month.

Meb, 42, finished as the top American the last time he raced in New York (7th in 2015), but he’ll have his hands full if he wants to repeat that feat this weekend. The top two Americans from last year, 40-year-old Abdi Abdirahman (3rd in 2:11:23) and 32-year-old Shadrack Biwott (5th in 2:12:01), are back, while 2016 Olympic sixth-placer Jared Ward is making his NYC debut.

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We run through each man’s chances below.

What: 2017 TCS New York City Marathon

When: Sunday, November 5, 9:20 a.m. ET (elite men start at 9:50 a.m. ET)

Where: New York, New York

How to watch: The race will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2, with coverage beginning at 9 a.m. ET. You can also stream the race online through WatchESPN. Locally, the race will also be shown on ABC7, with coverage beginning at 7 a.m. ET.

Important links: LRC 2016 New York City Marathon coverage * Race website

Men’s U.S. elite field

Name PB Comment
Meb Keflezighi 2:08:37 2009 champ looks to end career on high note at age 42
Abdi Abdirahman 2:08:56 Revived career by placing 3rd last year at 39
Jared Ward 2:11:30 10th in Boston after finishing 6th at ’16 Olympics
Shadrack Biwott 2:12:01 5th NYC, 4th Boston in last 2 marathons
Brendan Martin 2:15:30 14th last year
Michael Wardian 2:17:49 Ultrarunner was 45th last year at age 42

The Rematch

The top four U.S. pros entered in New York all raced April’s Boston Marathon. In case you forgot, here’s how that played out:

4. Shadrack Biwott, 2:12:08
6. Abdi Abdirahman, 2:12:45
10. Jared Ward, 2:15:28
13. Meb Keflezighi, 2:17:00

Boston, like New York, is a championship-style marathon held on a technical course, so these results will certainly have some bearing on our pre-race predictions. But analyzing the marathon is extremely difficult because you only get a couple of data points per year. Just one year earlier, three of the four met at the Olympic Trials (Abdi had to scratch with injury), and the order was the opposite of the one listed above, with Meb taking 2nd in 2:12:20, Ward 3rd in 2:13:00, and Biwott 7th in 2:15:23. Sunday represents a chance to regain bragging rights, and it’s not hard to envision any of those four men finishing as the top American.

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Meb Keflezighi — Skechers, 42 years old, 2:08:37 pb (2014 Boston), 61:00 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
2nd 2016 Olympic Trials (2:12:20), 33rd 2016 Olympics (2:16:46), 13th 2017 Boston (2:17:00)

You never quite know what you’re going to get from Meb. He’s made a career of delivering in unexpected moments. A stress fracture in his pelvis derailed his attempt to make the 2008 Olympic team but he responded by winning New York in 2009. In 2011, at age 35, he was infamously snubbed by John Hancock and the Boston Marathon, only to bounce back the following year and place fourth at the Olympics. No one gave him a chance to win Boston in 2014. So we’re not putting anything past Meb on Sunday.

That said, one needs to be realistic. Neither of Meb’s last two marathons went well. At the Olympics in Rio, he was hampered by stomach issues and wound up finishing in 33rd place. This past spring, he endured ankle and Achilles injuries that led to one of his worst marathon buildups ever and could only manage 13th in Boston in 2:17:00. Meb is 42 years old now. He can’t push his body as hard as he used to in training, and it takes more time and effort (stretching, icing, etc.) for him to recover than it did 10 years ago.

If his body cooperates, Meb will head out with the leaders, run competitively, and probably finish a spot or two higher than you thought he would. If he has a rough day, he’ll still tough it out and find a way to inspire someone along the way.

“I would like to be an athlete one last time,” Meb recently told SI’s Tim Layden (and if you haven’t read Layden’s piece, definitely check it out it’s a must read for any Meb Keflezighi fan). “Maybe top ten. To be on the podium (top three) would be huge. But if I’m struggling to hang on, or I get dropped… I might do some high-fiving [with the spectators]. I’m a person who likes to stay in the moment when I’m racing. But I know it will be emotional.’’

The hope here is that Meb is competitive enough that he can save those high-fives for after the race. When we checked in with Meb three weeks ago, he was healthy, and if that’s still the case on Sunday, we like him to be in the mix for top American honors. Remember, he’s only 20 months removed from finishing 2nd at the Olympic Trials. He won’t be the favorite for top American; Abdirahman, Ward, and Biwott have all been better than Meb over the past year and a half, and all three of them beat him convincingly in Boston earlier this year. But being counted out is just how Meb Keflezighi likes it.

Abdi surprised everyone by taking 3rd in New York last year Abdi surprised everyone by taking 3rd in New York last year

Abdi Abdirahman — Nike, 40 years old, 2:08:56 pb (2006 Chicago), 60:29 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
3rd 2016 New York (2:11:23), 6th 2017 Boston (2:12:45)
Tuneup race: 65:11 for 5th at the BAA Half on October 8

Abdi deserves credit for running an outstanding race last year — 2:11 in New York is no joke — but his third-place finish is a little misleading when you consider how top-heavy the field was. Aside from Abdi, there were six guys with sub-2:11 pbs entered, and four of them dropped out. The other two went 1-2.

Still, what Abdi did in New York was impressive, particularly since he looked to be done as a competitive marathoner. Abdi made the 2012 Olympic team but DNF’d at the Games in London. He didn’t run another until 2014 Boston (15th in 2:16:06) and then wound up having to scratch from the Olympic Trials last year due to injury. Many athletes in Abdi’s spot — age 39, four Olympic teams in his back pocket — would have hung ’em up, but Abdi stuck with it and has produced back-to-back strong marathons (he followed up New York by taking 6th in Boston in April). And based on his results this summer and fall, he should have another good one in his legs on Sunday.

Abdi only ran 65:11 in his tuneup half marathon a month ago, but that came on a hot, humid, and windy day at the B.A.A. Half. Abdi beat Dathan Ritzenhein — arguably America’s greatest-ever half marathoner — in that race, and the winner, Daniel Salel, only ran 64:31 — almost four minutes slower than the 60:41 he clocked at the same race four years ago. 65:11 for Abdi is fine.

If you compare what Abdi did in his road races this summer to last, there’s really reason to be optimistic. Check it out:

Race 2016 2017
Peachtree (10K) 4th, 29:24 6th, 28:54
Beach to Beacon (10K) 8th, 29:16 6th, 28:46
Falmouth RR (7 miles) 6th, 33:43 4th, 33:04

Abdi ran significantly faster in all three races in 2017. If that trend continues and Abdi runs faster in NYC than he did last year, he’ll have a good shot to get on the podium again as sub-2:11 has made the podium in NYC in each of the last three years.

Ward will look to close 2017 on a high note after a terrific 2016 Ward will look to close 2017 on a high note after a terrific 2016

Jared Ward — Saucony, 29 years old, 2:11:30 pb (2016 Olympics), 61:42 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
3rd 2016 Olympic Trials (2:13:00), 6th 2016 Olympics (2:11:30), 10th 2017 Boston (2:15:28)
Tuneup race: 64:43 for 5th at Rock ‘n’ Roll Philly Half on September 17

Ward put together an outstanding 2016 season, finishing 3rd at the Olympic Trials and 6th at the Olympics themselves in Rio. Few outside of his camp saw the latter result coming (even within his camp, top-six was Ward’s “stretch goal”). But Ward is a tough marathoner and a good decision maker and he used both of those skills to outlast most of the world’s best at the Olympics.

This year has not been as smooth. His Boston buildup was okay, not great, and during the race itself, Ward had to battle an upset stomach as he was dry-heaving well before the halfway mark. He still ground out a 10th-place finish, and will be hoping to better that result significantly in New York.

Ward’s coach, Ed Eyestone, admitted that, like Boston, Ward’s NYC buildup has not been perfect, noting there were a few hiccups (he would not elaborate) early on. Ward’s tuneup race, 64:43 on a muggy day at the Philly Half (Galen Rupp won the race in 62:18) wasn’t anything special. Eyestone said that if the early stages of Ward’s buildup had gone better, Ward likely would have run faster on that day. But he felt that the race still served the purpose of running marathon pace and that it allowed Ward to recover and get back to heavy training more quickly than a faster effort would have.

And Eyestone is optimistic about Ward’s chances in New York.

“365 days a year, he’s at a very high fitness level, but when he can get in a couple months of uninterrupted, solid training, then he can get back into his Olympic-type shape,” Eyestone said. “I think for the last six, seven weeks, it’s been pretty seamless. And I think I’d rather be going into a race like that then having had a seamless buildup and then have a hiccup three weeks out and then be back at it. With a lot of things in life, and with the marathon, it’s not necessarily what you’ve done, it’s what you’ve done lately. And what he’s done lately has been spot-on.”

The challenging NYC layout should also help Ward, but it may not do much to separate him from the other Americans. Meb is one of the best championship-style marathoners ever, and Abdi and Biwott were both top-five here a year ago. But assuming no stomach issues this time around, we expect Ward to make the right decisions on race day and get the most out of his fitness in his NYC debut.

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Shadrack Biwott — Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, 32 years old, 2:12:01 pb (2016 New York), 61:25 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
7th 2016 Olympic Trials (2:15:23), 5th 2016 New York (2:12:01), 4th 2017 Boston (2:12:08)
Tuneup race: 64:24 for 5th at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half on October 8

Biwott beat all of these guys in Boston in April, and the former Oregon star has been steadily improving ever since his 2:20 debut in Los Angeles in 2011. Though he entered Boston without a shoe contract, his fourth-place finish their earned him a deal with Brooks, and as a result, he has a new coach in Kevin Hanson. Biwott splits time between the Hansons-Brooks team’s base in Michigan and his home in Folsom, California, but Hanson has overseen most of the hard portion of the buildup as Biwott spent the last three weeks in Michigan, as well as the entire month of September.

There are always question marks when a marathoner switches coaches, and Hanson has been careful not to change too much to what was working for Biwott recently, mainly adding structure and bumping up his weekly mileage a bit to the 120-130 range. Hanson acknowledged that it is likely that he may have to tweak a few things in future buildups, but he can’t know what those are until after Biwott races on Sunday.

My only concern is that it’s the first time he’s done this type of segment so we’ll see how well he adapts,” Hanson said. 

With that caveat, Hanson said that Biwott has looked great in all of his workouts, and Biwott has told Hanson that he believes he’s fitter now than he was when he ran a pb to finish 5th in New York last year. More than anything, though, Hanson has been impressed by Biwott’s relentlessly positive attitude and his willingness to buy into the Hansons system.

“We do a core 2 x 6-mile workout,” Hanson said. “And when we did it, winds were howling, it was probably 20-mile-per-hour winds. And normally it’s one of those where I’m trying to brace the athlete, and saying all those things like, You never know, it could be windy out on race day, you gotta be prepared for anything and put the best spin on it you can because you’ve gotta get the work in either way.

“And he runs the first one without saying a thing. And then after [the first rep], I go, ‘That was real solid. I’m impressed with how well you’re handling the wind.’ He goes, ‘Oh, I love the wind! It could be just like this on Verrazano Bridge!'”

Like Abdi and Ward, Biwott’s time in his tuneup half marathon (64:24 in San Jose on Oct. 8th) wasn’t anything to write home about, but like Eyestone, Hanson just wanted his pupil to run marathon pace (with a 5k pickup at the end). Including warmup and cooldown, Biwott wound up logging 21 miles on the day but was still able to get back to training fairly quickly rather than spending a few extra days recovering during the final month of the segment.

LRC prediction: All four of these guys are very good and have arguments that can be made on their side for top American honors. You could throw darts and put them in any order and we wouldn’t argue.

Abdi was the top American last year and looks to be even fitter in 2017. If that’s the case, and he can run 2:10 on New York, that will make him very tough to beat, and he’s 40!! If that blows your mind, realize that Meb’s training has gone well and we know he wants to go out with a fine showing, but he’s 42.

The 29-year-old Ward had a tough start to his buildup but has been nearly flawless lately which reminds us of Meb in Boston in 2014. That leaves Biwott. He’s been top 5 in his last two majors.

We’ll pick **** for top American and top 5. Actually, the staff is split so you’ll have to wait until later in the week when we do our pre-race podcast and unveil our picks. If this was 2016 when the depth of the international feed was lacking, we’d pick two of them for top 5.

Who do you think will be the top American? Vote in the poll below and then explain the logic behind your vote in our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Who will be the top American man at 2017 NYC Marathon? Meb, Abdi, Jared and Shadrack?

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