2019 Tokyo Marathon Women’s Preview: Can Ruti Aga Finally Break Through After 3 Straight Runner-Up Finishes in Majors?
February 28, 2019
The 2019 Tokyo Marathon will be held this weekend, and the good news for US viewers is that the race will be shown live on TV in primetime (the race goes off at 9:10 a.m. Sunday in Japan, which is 7:10 p.m. Saturday US Eastern Time). We’ve already previewed the men’s race, where Japanese record holder Suguru Osako will be looking to follow up countryman Yuki Kawauchi‘s Boston win with a major victory of his own. Now it’s time to take a look at the women’s race.
While this women’s field pales in comparison to London — which has assembled the greatest women’s field in the history of marathoning — it’s not that far behind Boston in terms of the PRs of the women who are running. We certainly think in terms of international runners that the women’s field is better than the men’s field. The headliner is Ethiopian Ruti Aga, who will be trying to win her first major after three straight runner-up finishes. She’s coming off her most impressive performance to date, a 2:18:34 in Berlin, which would have smashed the course record had Gladys Cherono (2:18:11) not beaten her to the punch. Of the five women who broke 2:19 last year, Aga is the only one who isn’t running London in April, which means she has her best opportunity yet to win a major on Sunday.
There are two other sub-2:20 women in the field in Yebrgual Melese and four-time major winner Florence Kiplagat. Plus there’s world champ Rose Chelimo, Abu Dhabi champ Ababel Yeshaneh, and Mimi Belete, who is fresh off a course record in Toronto in October. And Kenya’s Joan Melly, the fourth-fastest half marathoner in history at 65:04, will be making her marathon debut. If Aga wants to end her major drought, she’s going to have to work for it.
2019 Tokyo Marathon women’s elite field (sub-2:24) *Full elite field
|Ruti Aga||Ethiopia||2:18:34||Ran PR to finish 2nd in Berlin last year|
|Yebrgual Melese||Ethiopia||2:19:36||Big PR in Dubai last year, then won Shanghai in Nov.|
|Florence Kiplagat||Kenya||2:19:44||Two-time Chicago champ was just 4th last year in Chicago|
|Ababel Yeshaneh||Ethiopia||2:20:16*||Won Abu Dhabi in December but the course was short|
|Shure Demise||Ethiopia||2:20:59||4th last year. Also 3rd in Chicago|
|Bedatu Hirpa||Ethiopia||2:21:32||Ran 4+ min PR to take 3rd in Frankfurt in October|
|Mimi Belete||Bahrain||2:22:29||Set CR in Toronto in October|
|Helen Tola||Ethiopia||2:22:48||6th in Berlin last year|
|Rose Chelimo||Bahrain||2:22:51||2017 world champ was 6th in London last year|
|Ruth Chebitok||Kenya||2:23:29||Wins in Barcelona & Gold Coast last year|
|Honami Maeda||Japan||2:23:48||2nd Osaka, 7th Berlin last year|
|Joan Melly||Kenya||debut||4th-fastest half marathoner ever after her 65:04 in Prague last year|
Aga Leads Crop of Contenders Seeking First Major Title
As we mentioned above, Ruti Aga, last year’s runner-up, is the clear favorite to win. Reigning champion Birhane Dibaba, who also won Tokyo in 2015, is running London this spring instead. Amy Cragg, who finished 23 seconds behind Aga in 3rd last year, isn’t likely to run a spring marathon at all this year. That leaves fourth-placer Shure Demise (2:22:07) as the only woman returning from last year’s race who finished within seven minutes of Aga (2:21:19).
Of course, there are plenty of fast women in this field who didn’t run Tokyo last year, but Aga has more going for her than her status as the top returner. Her PR is the fastest in the field by over a minute, and she’s also shown better recent form than anyone else running Tokyo; on January 20, she ran 66:56 at the Houston Half Marathon. She finished 3rd in that race, behind only Chicago Marathon champ Brigid Kosgei and Fancy Chemutai (whose 64:52 pb is one second off the WR).
Aga is the smart bet for the win. But even as the favorite, it’s still hard to win a marathon (unless you’re Eliud Kipchoge). Aga came into Tokyo last year in a very similar position, having run a PR to finish 2nd in Berlin the previous fall and winning the Houston Half in January. She ran a good race in Tokyo, but not good enough to win, and that could certainly happen again in 2019.
The marathoner with the best chance to topple Aga may be her countrywoman Yebrgual Melese, who is coming off a career year in 2018. In her first four years as a marathoner from 2013-2017, Melese won three marathons (Hangzhou, Houston, and Prague) but never ran faster than 2:22:51. But she began 2018 with a big PR of 2:19:36 in Dubai, and after taking 2nd in the Dongying Marathon in May, won Shanghai in November in 2:20:36. She also won the Lisbon Half last fall in 67:18 and sets up as a strong contender for the win.
Ababel Yeshaneh is another woman who will be looking to win her first major in Tokyo, and she made big strides in 2018 as well, going from 67:21 to 65:46 in the half and winning the Abu Dhabi Marathon in a “PR” of 2:20:16 (the effort was still worth 2:21 or faster, but the course was short). The worry is that she’s only 13 weeks removed from that race, and it may be tough to string together two high-quality marathons back-to-back.
Three other women deserve mention based on strong 2018 seasons. Mimi Belete, an Ethiopian-born athlete representing Bahrain, ran a course record of 2:22:29 in Toronto last fall in just her second marathon. She has some outstanding range, having also run 4:00 in the 1500 and 8:30 for 3,000, and is an intriguing marathon prospect. Bedatu Hirpa of Ethiopia is coming off a four-minute PR of 2:21:32 in Frankfurt and should also be in the mix, and don’t sleep on 29-year-old Kenyan Ruth Chebitok, who emerged from relative obscurity last year to claim wins in Barcelona and Gold Coast.
Former Major Champs Look to Rebound
While all of the women we mentioned above are talented, they have one thing in common: they’ve never won a major marathon before. But there are two women running Tokyo who know what that feels like: Florence Kiplagat and Rose Chelimo.
Kiplagat, the former half marathon world record holder, has won Berlin and Chicago twice each, but hasn’t been the same since her second Chicago victory in 2016. She followed that up by taking 9th in London after going out in a ridiculous 68:17 for the first half and came into Chicago 2017 banged up, ultimately dropping out of the race. She then went a full year without racing at all due to injury, but she returned to Chicago and finished 4th last year in 2:26:08.
Kiplagat just turned 32 this week, so she should have a few years of running left in her legs. And she does appear to be healthy, as she raced in November (49:01 for 15k in the Netherlands) and December (1:27:57 for 25k in India), though neither performance was super impressive. We’ll find out in Tokyo if she’s got anything left in the tank.
We’re more optimistic about the chances of Chelimo, a Kenyan-born athlete now representing Bahrain. She had a huge 2017, finishing as the runner-up in Boston before defeating a stacked field to win the world title in London. Last year, she could only manage 2:26 for 6th in London, but she did win her last marathon at the Asian Games in August (granted, she only ran 2:34) and is closer to her last major win that Kiplagat.
Joan Melly Makes Her Debut
Then there’s Joan Melly, 28. She’s one of the fastest half marathoners in history, and she’s making her marathon debut. And while the half marathon and marathon are two different events, the very best female half marathoners also tend to become very good marathoners, as the table below shows.
How the world’s fastest female half marathoners have fared in the marathon
|Name||HM PR (rank)||Marathon PR (rank)|
|Joyciline Jepkosgei||64:51 (#1)||Running Hamburg in April|
|Mary Keitany||64:55 (#4)||2:17:01 (#2)|
|Joan Chelimo||65:04 (#4)||Running Tokyo on Sunday|
|Peres Jepchirchir||65:06 (#5)||2:46:15*|
|Caroline Kipkirui||65:07 (#6)||2:31:44*|
|Florence Kiplagat||65:09 (#7)||2:19:44 (#23)|
|Paula Radcliffe||65:40 (#10)||2:15:25 (#1)|
|Susan Chepkemei||65:44 (#11)||2:21:46 (#74)|
|Priscah Jeptoo||65:45 (#12)||2:20:14 (#33)|
|Senbere Teferi||65:45 (#12)||2:24:11 (#184)|
|Netsanet Gudeta||65:45 (#12)||2:29:15 (#762)|
*Jepchirchir and Kipkirui’s Tilastopaja and IAAF profiles say that they’ve run marathons, but their PRs both come from marathons at elevation in Kenya; neither has attempted a World Marathon Major
The lesson from above: if you run a fast half marathon and are serious about running the marathon, you’re going to do some special things. Some women, such as Fancy Chemutai (64:52) and Sifan Hassan (65:15), didn’t make the list as they’ve never run marathons. And some of the women on the list (Senbere Teferi and Netsanet Gudeta) have only finished one marathon apiece. But of the five women who have made serious attempts at the marathon, four are major champions — Kiplagat, Priscah Jeptoo, plus two of the greatest ever in Mary Keitany and Paula Radcliffe — and the other, Susan Chepkemei, notched four 2nd and two 3rds at majors. Melly has run faster in the half than all of those women, save Keitany.
Of course, there’s a little self-selecting in there as the women who are built for the marathon will naturally run more of them. But Chelimo’s ceiling is clearly quite high, and if she does indeed have what it takes to succeed in the marathon, she could be a future major champion.
LRC prediction: After three straight runner-up finishes in majors, it’s time: Ruti Aga finally wins one.
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