The Inside Scoop From Friday’s Chicago Marathon Press Conference

By Jonathan Gault
October 6, 2017

CHICAGO — had its boots firmly planted on the ground in the Windy City this morning as some of the world’s top marathoners gathered at the Hilton Chicago two days before Sunday’s 2017 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. As usual before a major marathon, I did my best to work the room at the official press conference and gain some insight ahead of the big race. My biggest takeaway was that the top American contenders — Galen Rupp in the men’s race, and Jordan Hasay in the women’s — say they are both in fantastic shape after their best marathon buildups ever. You can read more on what they had to say here: U.S. Fans, Rejoice! Americans Galen Rupp & Jordan Hasay Both Say Their Chicago Marathon Buildups Were Their Best Ever.

Other than that, I had learned three big things from today’s press conference. Let’s run through them one at a time.

The womens elite field at Chicago 2017 The women’s elite field at Chicago 2017 (Dibaba is at the far right)

1) Tirunesh Dibaba is super fit again and the course record watch is officially on

Many regard Dibaba to be the greatest female distance runner of all time, and you’ll find no argument in these parts. And the good news is that, after a year in which Dibaba has already run 2:17:56 for the marathon (#3 all-time) and earned a silver medal in the 10,000 at Worlds (her 12th in an outdoor World Champs or Olympic Games), she is hoping to deliver another spectacular performance on the streets of Chicago. Dibaba’s agent Mark Wetmore told me that she is in similar shape to when she ran her 2:17:56 in London, and that’s something that Dibaba herself believes.

“With God’s help, I’m hoping to improve my own time,” Dibaba said through translator Sabrina Yohannes

The course record watch is officially on. Now the course record in Chicago is one of the hardest in global marathoning. When Paula Radcliffe ran 2:17:18 here in 2002 (with an assist from LRC’s Weldon Johnson), she smashed the world record by over a minute, and in the ensuing 15 years, only Radcliffe and Mary Keitany have ever run faster. And while the odds are against Dibaba breaking that mark on Sunday — in part because the weather looks to be a little warmer and windier than ideal — there are a few reasons for optimism.

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1) Chicago and London are roughly similar in terms of how fast each course is. If Dibaba runs the same effort as she did in London but is fitter this time around, it stands to reason that she could faster.

2) Marginal gains. Dibaba could shave some time from London simply by running more even splits (her first half of 1:07:54 in London was over two minutes faster than her second half of 1:10:02) and not having to stop to dry-heave on the course, something that cost her around 20 seconds.

3) Male racers. Okay, so London has these too. But while men’s races have gone slow in Chicago ever since Carey Pinkowski dropped the rabbits in 2015, Florence Kiplagat‘s winning time last year was the fastest in Chicago in 10 years. Why? Well, Kiplagat ran a great race, but she also had men to chase once she made her break as the men and women start at the same time in Chicago.

4) Could the marathon be Dibaba’s best event? Dibaba is the world record holder in the 5,000 and five global titles in the 10,000 (two Olympic, three World), so picking her best event is already tough. But to hear her tell it, she’s been looking forward to the marathon for a while.

“From here on out, I don’t plan to run on the track,” Dibaba said through Yohannes. “I plan to just focus on the marathon…Even when I was running on the track, what I really loved and looked forward to was the marathon”

For the record, I think Dibaba’s best event was the 10,000, but Almaz Ayana clearly owns that territory now. And Dibaba ranks higher on the all-time marathon list (#3) than she does at 10,000 (#4).

Defending Chicago champs Marcel Hug, Abel Kirui, Florence Kiplagat, and Tatyana McFadden Defending Chicago champs Marcel Hug, Abel Kirui, Florence Kiplagat, and Tatyana McFadden

2) Coach Renato Canova says defending champs Abel Kirui and Florence Kiplagat are both around “90%” of last year’s fitness

Canova’s athletes pulled off an impressive sweep in Chicago last year with Kirui and Kiplagat both earning the titles. Both have had decent buildups this time around, but Canova admitted that in both cases, his athletes were only around “90%” of where they were last year. For Kiplagat, that could spell trouble as she’ll need to be close to 100% to even have a chance against Dibaba.

That being said, Kiplagat, herself, said at the press conference that she is in better shape than last year.

In terms of who is has had the better buildup, Kiplagat or Kirui, I’m more optimistic about Kirui, even if his chances to win are probably slightly lower than Kiplagat’s — Kirui has to beat a lot of quality athletes to win the men’s race, while the women’s race is Kiplagat’s to lose if Dibaba struggles. Kirui moved his training base from Iten to Kaptagat for this buildup, working with Patrick SangEliud Kipchoge, and a large group of marathoners that included 2:06 men Bernard Kipyego and Ezekiel Chebii (both racing Chicago as well). It was a move Canova encouraged. Before his Kirui’s last marathon, in London in April, he had run some workouts with another Canova disciple, Geoffrey Kirui (no relation). But Geoffrey and Abel were on different schedules this summer (Kirui raced — and won — Worlds on August 6, over two months before Abel’s race in Chicago) so Canova was happy for Abel to move to Kaptagat and train with a large group of training partners. In addition, Canova felt the move was beneficial as it introduced some new stimuli into the training of the 35-year-old Kirui.

If you’re to learn about the marathon from anyone, you’d be hard-pressed to find two better people than Sang and Kipchoge (though Kirui, a two-time world champ, and Canova clearly know a thing or two themselves). Kirui has learned at least one new trick. After busting a dance move after winning last in Chicago last year, he promised an even better encore performance should he break the tape on Sunday.

“If I win this time, I will do an amazing dance at the finish,” Kirui said.

Kirui danced last year (Photo via Spikes)

3) Sam Chelanga believes he can be an even better marathoner than his brother, 2:07 man Joshua

This will be marathon #2 for Chelanga after a DNF at the Olympic Trials last year, but he feels better prepared this time around as he’s been running 130+ mile weeks, with a high in the high 140s, and says his body has responded well.

“I felt great,” Chelanga said. “I felt like [that mileage] was optimum for me.”

Chelanga has some good marathon genes as his brother Joshua ran 2:07:05 in Berlin in 2004, and he hopes to one day run faster than that — a time that only two Americans (Khalid Khannouchi and Ryan Hall) have ever run.

“Privately, me and Joshua know that I can beat him,” Chelanga said. “Because I beat him in the 5k  (Sam’s pb is 13:04, Josh’s was 13:16)and 10k (Sam’s pb is 27:08, Josh’s was 27:36). He’s only faster than me in the half marathon and marathon. So this technically is my first marathon so I told him there’s a very high chance that I’ll be better than him in the marathon.”

Chelanga wasn’t the only American shooting high, as fellow Yank Diego Estrada said that in a Breaking2-style attempt, he could run well under 2:10.

“If you put me on Monza, I’ll run 2:07,” Estrada said. For more on Estrada, read this: After Freak Mid-Race Accident Last Year, Diego Estrada Hopes for Chicago Marathon Success.

The last few years have been a bit of a struggle for Chelanga, as he has bounced around training groups and broke metatarsal bones in his foot in 2013, 2014, and 2015. Coming out of Liberty in 2011 as a two-time NCAA XC champ and 27:08 10k guy, expectations for Chelanga were sky high and he has yet to match those accomplishments as a pro. But he has a message to anyone who might doubt him: he’s not done.

“I want something special in the marathon. I want something that can inspire some young guys because I felt like I let a lot of people down from when I was in college. I was like up here and then struggle, struggle. But the thing that I learned was I never gave up. I’m still here. And God has blessed me. No matter what people say, I’m still there and want to do well. And right now, it’s on to the marathon.”

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