2017 NYC Marathon International Men’s Preview: Ghebreslassie Guns for Repeat, Kipsang Tries to Bounce Back, & Kamworor Returns to the Marathon

By LetsRun.com
November 1, 2017

The biggest mainstream storyline for Sunday’s 2017 TCS New York City Marathon is Meb Keflezighi‘s farewell race. And while that’s as good a reason as any to tune in to ESPN2 on Sunday morning, there should also be a terrific race for the win in New York. Lining up at the start on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge will be three NYC champs (Meb, Wilson Kipsang, and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie), two Boston champs (Lelisa DesisaLemi Berhanu), and one of the world’s most exciting distance runners in Geoffrey Kamworor, the two-time defending World Half/World XC champ.

We can’t wait to watch the drama unfold and run through the top international contenders below.

We already took a look at Meb and the other Americans in a separate article: LRC 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?

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. That 30-minute time gap is NOT enough. Remember, US clocks have to be moved back one hour on Saturday night).

Where: New York, New York

Article continues below player.

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 international elite field

Name Country PB Comment
Wilson Kipsang KEN 2:03:13 Ran 2:03:58 CR in Tokyo in Feb but DNF’d Berlin just 6 weeks ago
Lemi Berhanu ETH 2:04:33 2016 Boston champ won Xiamen in Jan.
Lelisa Desisa ETH 2:04:45 2-time Boston champ was 2nd here in ’14 but DNF last yr + struggled at Breaking2
Geoffrey Kamworor KEN 2:06:12 2-time World Half champ was 2nd in ’15 but hasn’t run a marathon since
Tadesse Abraham SUI 2:06:40 PR in Seoul last year, then 7th at Olympics
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie ERI 2:07:46 His 2:07:46 last year was just the 3rd time NYC winner broke 2:08
Michel Butter NED 2:09:58 13th in Rotterdam in April
Koen Naert BEL 2:10:16 Coming off PR in Rotterdam in April
Musa Babo ETH 2:10:28 5th in Pittsburgh in May
Byron Piedra ECU 2:14:12 18th at Olympics; 21st at Worlds in 10k
Harbert Okuti UGA 2:17:30 Former Iona star was 15th at Grandma’s Marathon in June
Fredrik Uhrbom SWE 2:21:44 40-year-old is almost 6 years removed from PR
Francesco Puppi ITA Debut 69:05 HM pb

As we pointed out in our Berlin and Chicago Marathon previews, there’s an easy way to identify potential winners at Abbott World Marathon Majors events. Since the start of 2013, every single WMM men’s race has been won by someone with a PR under 2:08 or someone with a global medal. Based on that criteria, there are seven guys who fit the bill in New York — the top six guys on the list above, and Meb Keflezighi. Now Meb has accomplished a ton in his career, but if he were to win NYC on Sunday at age 42, it would be the most unlikely achievement of his career by far. It’s not happening.

And with apologies to Eritrean-born Tadesse Abraham of Switzerland, it’s unlikely that he wins either. Since the start of 2013, 26 of the last 29 major champs (89.7%) have had either a PR faster than 2:06 or a global medal. Abraham has neither. Abraham is a very good marathoner — he was 7th at the Olympics — but against this field, “very good” is not going to cut it. He’s out too.

That leaves five men: the two former NYC champs in Kipsang and Ghebreslassie, the two former Boston champs in Berhanu and Desisa, and Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya. We’re aware that Kamworor’s PR is only 2:06 but when a guy has won World XC and the World Half Champs twice each and finished 2nd in New York two years ago, he’s a major contender to win the race.

The NYC Champs

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Ghirmay Ghebreslassie — Eritrea, 21 years old, 2:07:46 pb (2016 London), 60:01 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
4th 2016 London (2:07:46), 4th 2016 Olympics (2:11:04), 1st 2016 New York (2:07:51), 6th 2017 London (2:09:57)
Tuneup Race: None

The field in New York was weak last fall, but even in a strong year, it would have been tough to defeat Ghebreslassie, who used a brutal mid-race surge to weaken his competition before cruising to victory over the final 10 kilometers. His 2:07:53 was the third-fastest winning time in NYC history, and the best since Geoffrey Mutai‘s legendary 2:05:06 in 2011.

The win capped a stellar year for Ghebreslassie, who also recorded a PR in finishing 4th behind a trio of studs (Eliud KipchogeStanley BiwottKenenisa Bekele) in London and taking 4th again at the Olympics in London.

Though he’s the defending champion, Ghebreslassie won’t be the sexy pick this time in New York because his spring marathon — 2:09:57 for 6th in London — was, on paper, the worst of the 21-year-old’s brief career. That result doesn’t particularly discourage us, however. Every year in London, a few get caught up in the hot early pace, go out over their head, and pay for it over the second half. That’s exactly what happened to Ghebreslassie, who clocked splits of 61:44-68:13 in April.

Ghebreslassie is a stud, but it’s possible that he’s a stud who can run exceptionally in championship-style marathons but can’t run 2:04. On paper, the only other “bad” result of his career was his 2:09:08, 6th-place finish in his debut in Chicago in 2014, and that was the product of another big positive split (62:12-66:56). But he had a very good reason for running a positive split that day: he was a pacemaker but decided to finish the race after his pacing duties were done at 35k.

The point? Since the start of 2015, Ghebreslassie has run three championship-style marathons against strong fields and has finished 1st (2015 Worlds), 4th (2016 Olympics), and 1st (2016 New York). Expect him to continue the trend with another strong race on Sunday.

Wilson Kipsang — Kenya, 35 years old, 2:03:13 pb (2016 Berlin), 58:59 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
5th 2016 London (2:07:52), 2nd 2016 Berlin (2:03:13), 1st 2017 Tokyo (2:03:58), DNF 2017 Berlin
Tuneup race: Ran first 30k of Berlin Marathon in 1:27:26 (2:02:58 marathon pace)

Kipsang is one of the most intriguing names on the New York start list. This fall was supposed to be about breaking the world record, and through 30 kilometers in Berlin, Kipsang was on pace to do just that. Then this happened:

Just seconds after taking his drink at the 30k aid station, with the leaders just a few strides ahead of him, Kipsang stepped off the course. The timing of the move was odd, to say the least. Normally only rabbits drop out when they’re running with the leaders that late into a race. Immediately, the running internet was ablaze with speculation. Cathal Dennehy’s tweet just minutes after Kipsang’s DNF proved to be right on the money.

Officially, Kipsang’s manager Arien Verkade told us that Kipsang dropped out because “he felt very cold and could not run properly anymore. Probably because of rain. Problems started at 25km.”

Unofficially, we expect the reason was more along the lines of this:

I don’t feel great right now and I know I can’t hang with this pace for the final 12k. And even if I can, I’m still not beating Kipchoge. If I drop out now, I may be able to bounce back and try to win New York in six weeks (and pick up another appearance fee in the process).

Think about it. Kipsang could have gutted it out for third and taken home 15,000 Euro ($17,476) in prize money in Berlin. Or he could drop out and go to New York, where he gets a shot at juicier prize money ($100,000 for 1st, $25,000 for 4th) and collects another appearance fee in the process.

We’re not going to sit here and write that Kipsang has to be the favorite. After all, he still dropped out in Berlin, and if the weather there (high-50s and rain) made him cold, he may not like New York as the temperature is supposed to be around the same with a chance of showers on Sunday.

But Kipsang felt that he was in WR shape before Berlin, and he ran 2:02:58 pace for 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), the best “tuneup race” of anyone in the field. Assuming that didn’t take too much out of him — and we don’t think he’d agree to run New York if he didn’t think he could win it — he’s a very dangerous man. Remember, this is one of the greatest marathoners in history, the only man ever with four sub-2:04s, and he’s won New York before. There are few men in this field — heck, few men in history — who can contend with Kipsang at his best.

The Boston Champs

Berhanu winning Boston last year Berhanu winning Boston last year

Lemi Berhanu — Ethiopia, 23 years old, 2:04:33 pb (2016 Dubai), 61:37 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
2nd 2016 Dubai (2:04:33), 1st 2016 Boston (2:12:45), 13th 2016 Olympics (2:13:29), 1st 2017 Xiamen (2:08:27), DNF 2017 Boston
Tuneup Race: None

Berhanu (also known as Hayle Lemi) has followed a similar pattern in each of the past two years. He’s run a great marathon in January, a great marathon in April, and a disappointing marathon in August. Check it out:

Marathon #1 Marathon #2 Marathon #3
2015 2:05:28 in Dubai (1st) 2:07:57 in Warsaw (1st) 2:17:36 at Worlds (15th)
2016 2:04:33 in Dubai (2nd) 2:12:45 in Boston (1st) 2:13:29 at Olympics (13th)

Just as in 2015 and 2016, 2017 began with a strong marathon in January (2:08:27 in Xiamen) but Berhanu wound up dropping out in Boston and did not race the World Championships. Three marathons in a year is still a big ask, especially from a guy who has struggled in marathon #3 in the past, but considering that Berhanu has spaced those marathons out over 11 months this year as opposed to eight, we’re more bullish on his chances.

Berhanu showed in Boston last year that he can deliver in a championship-style race, and he has the benefit of training with one of the top marathon groups in the world (his coach Gemedu Dedefo mentors a ton of studs, including Berlin runner-up Guye Adola and Worlds runner-up Tamirat Tola). With a nice break between marathons and a strong pedigree, Berhanu should be in the hunt for the win in NYC.

Fun fact about Berhanu. The fact that he didn’t do a tune-up race is par for the course for him. Tilastapaja lists 11 races for him for his entire career – 10 marathons and one half marathon from 2015.

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Lelisa Desisa — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:04:45 pb (2013 Dubai), 59:30 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 
2nd 2016 Boston (2:13:32), DNF 2016 New York, 3rd 2017 Breaking2 (2:14:10)
Tuneup Race: None

This will be Desisa’s fourth straight NYC appearance, and he’s trending in the wrong direction. In his NYC debut in 2014, he finished second, just seven seconds behind winner Wilson Kipsang. In 2015, he was again solid but ran over a minute slower and dropped a place to third. Last year, he dropped out despite running with the leaders for 20 miles.

Like Berhanu, Desisa has cut back from his marathon schedule this year. After running three in 2013 and four in 2015, Desisa only ran two last year and New York will be his second of 2017. That means that it’s been a while since Desisa ran a good one — you’d have to go back to his runner-up finish in Boston 19 months ago — but he remains a big talent and the hope is that he can apply some of the lessons of his failed attempt at Breaking2 in May.

Desisa only ran 2:14:10 there, but there’s a lot of context missing. For one, Desisa was never going to come close to 2:00; Kipchoge was the only one with even a small chance at it. Second, Desisa did not have a good buildup for Breaking2; he was hurt in February he could only manage 62:55 at the half marathon test event two months before the attempt. Third, he went out on 2:00 pace in the attempt despite being nowhere close to that level of fitness. Thus the ugly positive split and 2:14:10 finishing time. Desisa shouldn’t have even been on the start line at Breaking2, so we give him a lot of credit for toughing it out and finishing on what was very clearly a bad day.

The silver lining is that Nike’s top minds were able to take a close look at Desisa’s training, and he believes that getting a fresh set of eyes on his preparation will benefit him in future marathons, starting with New York.

“I didn’t know enough about pacing; I didn’t know enough about how to do speedwork; I didn’t know enough about how much rest I need,” Desisa told RunBlogRun’s Sabrina Yohannes. “On top of that, in terms of nutrition, about carbohydrates, protein and the like. They made facilities and running outfits and shoes available to us. As a result of all that, it’s like I’m a beginner, a beginner athlete.”

We wouldn’t quite go that far — after all, the guy has run 2:04 and won Boston twice, so he’s clearly doing something right. But we’ve long believed that African runners can benefit from Western innovations. His race in New York will be an interesting test of that theory.

The All-Around Stud

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Geoffrey Kamworor — Kenya, 24 years old, 2:06:12 pb (2012 Berlin), 58:54 half
Last two marathons: 4th 2014 Berlin (2:06:39), 2nd 2015 New York (2:10:48)

Few runners of this generation have had as much success across as many surfaces as Geoffrey Kamworor. He’s won the last two World Half Marathon Championships, the last two World Cross Country Championships, a silver medal on the track at Worlds (26:52 10,000 pb), and has run a 2:06 marathon in addition to finishing as the runner-up in this race two years ago.

Kamworor has had a good year in 2017, and he’s got one of the world’s top marathon coaches in his corner in Patrick Sang. He won World XC in March, ran 13:01 to finish third in a loaded Pre Classic 5,000 in May and ran 26:57 to finish 6th in the 10,000 at Worlds in August. That’s not quite as good as his 2015 season (World XC title, 26:52 10,000, silver at Worlds), but it’s close, and in 2015 it took a ridiculous close from Stanley Biwott (28:35 final 10k) to deny Kamworor the NYC title.

Kamworor is not a full-time marathoner at this point, and it’s possible that that could hold him back from taking down the rest of the guys in this preview. But he’s a truly outstanding half marathoner — his win at the World Half Champs last year was one of the most impressive performances we’ve ever seen — and he’s got all the tools to be a great marathoner as well.

One argument against Kamworor is that he’s yet to win a marathon (0-for-6), but he ran most of those at a young age (he’s still only 24) and good competition (five majors — including two in which the world record was set — plus a strong Rotterdam field). His last marathon was the best one of his career to date, and if he’s progressed at all in the two years since then, he’ll have a shot to win on Sunday.

Who do you think will win? Vote in the poll below and then talk about it in our fan forum: 2017 NYC Marathon Talk.

We’ll also have much more later in the week when we get the inside scoop from the press conferences so come back regularly please.

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