2019 Chicago Women’s Preview: The Course & American Records Are In Jeopardy — If the Weather Cooperates

By Jonathan Gault
October 10, 2019

Like it or not, Alberto Salazar‘s shadow will hang over the 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Two weeks ago, Salazar, 61, was coaching Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay, the two biggest American stars of this year’s Chicago field, in his role as head coach of the Nike Oregon Project. From 2011-17, Salazar coached Mo Farah, who returns to Chicago this year as the defending champion.

On September 30, however, Salazar was handed a four-year ban from the sport by USADA, and on Thursday the Nike Oregon Project was disbanded on Thursday by Nike CEO Mark Parker. Salazar’s suspension and absence is one of the biggest storylines in a Chicago Marathon full of them. How will Rupp — who, in case you forgot, is running his first race since Achilles surgery in October 2018 — run without the guidance of the only coach he’s ever known? Can Farah retain his title and lower the European record of 2:05:11 he set to win here a year ago? Will Hasay break Deena Kastor‘s 2:19:36 American record? How fast will the world’s top female marathoner, Brigid Kosgei, run?

What: 2019 Bank of America Chicago Marathon
When: Sunday, October 13, 7:30 a.m. local (8:30 ET)
TV: Live on the Olympic Channel starting at 8:00 a.m. ET.
Race will also air locally on NBC5 and will be streamed on
NBCChicago.com and NBC Sports Gold.

The women’s field is very shallow, but there is true quality at the top. Namely, Kosgei, who has not lost at any distance in over a year and will be targeting Paula Radcliffe‘s 17-year-old course record of 2:17:18 (which she set with the help of a certain LetsRun.com co-founder). Considering only three women in history have run that fast, and Kosgei is the only woman in the Chicago field to have broken 2:20, it seems unlikely she’ll have much company on Sunday.

There could be a battle for second, however, as Paris Marathon champ Gelete Burka (2:20:45 pb) and Abu Dhabi champ Ababel Yeshaneh faces American Jordan Hasay, who ran 2:20:57 — the second-fastest time ever by an American — in her last trip to Chicago in 2017. After those three, however, the quality drops off steeply (it doesn’t help that 2016 Olympic Trials champ Amy Cragg withdrew from the race in August).

That’s not to say there aren’t more storylines. Notably, there are several second-tier American marathoners — Emma BatesStephanie BruceLaura ThweattLindsay Flanagan — who will be looking to establish themselves as serious Olympic contenders, just like Sara Hall did with her 2:22 in Berlin two weeks ago.

LetsRun.com will have boots-on-the-ground coverage from Chicago beginning on Friday, but first, let’s preview the races. This article will deal with the women; if you missed the LRC men’s preview, you can read it at the link below.

LRC Men’s Preview: Galen Rupp Returns to Face Mo Farah & Boston Champ Lawrence Cherono

The Weather

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With a high of 56 degrees and partly cloudy skies, the weather is promising. The only issue? Right now, Weather.com is forecasting winds of 17 mph. That could put a damper on what would otherwise be a great day for running fast.

MB: OFFICIAL Chicago Marathon Weather Thread

Women’s elite field with sub-2:31 pbs *Americans with pbs over 2:31 here *Internationals over 2:31 here:

Name Country PB Note
Brigid Kosgei Kenya 2:18:20 The world’s best marathoner just ran the fastest half ever (64:28) at GNR
Gelete Burka Ethiopia 2:20:45 Incredible range (3:58 1500 pb); she won Paris in April
Jordan Hasay USA 2:20:57 Ran her PR here 2 years ago; has talked about chasing Kastor’s 2:19:36 AR
Betsy Saina Kenya 2:22:56 Former Bowerman TC athlete still struggling to figure out the marathon
Madai Perez Mexico 2:22:59 39-year-old has broken 2:27 once since 2006
Ababel Yeshaneh Ethiopia 2:24:02 Won shortened Abu Dhabi Marathon last year; 6th in Tokyo in 2:24
Lisa Weightman Australia 2:25:15 40-year-old just ran 68:48 HM pb in August
Laura Thweatt USA 2:25:38 Now coached by Joe Bosshard, Thweatt hasn’t finished a marathon since April 2017
Emma Bates USA 2:28:19 Ran 2:28 in debut last year to win US title; won US 25k champs in May
Stephanie Bruce USA 2:29:20 After big year (US HM champ, 4th USA 10k), she’ll try to run big PR here
Lindsay Flanagan USA 2:29:20 Ran 2:30 for 9th in Boston in April
Fionnuala McCormack Ireland 2:30:38 18th at World XC in March, then 11th in Boston in April

The Winner (Barring Catastrophe)

Brigid Kosgei — Kenya, 25 years old, 2:18:20 pb (2019 London), 64:28 half
Last three marathons: 2nd 2018 London (2:20:13), 1st 2018 Chicago (2:18:35), 1st 2019 London (2:18:20)
Tuneup race: 64:28 win at Great North Run on September 8

Brigid Kosgei in Chicago last year

There are really only two ways that Kosgei doesn’t win this race: she is felled by some mid-race malady (cramps, illness, period) or she has developed an injury in the last month that she is hiding. Because even a subpar race by Kosgei should be enough to win Chicago by some margin.

“Ridiculous” is the only word to describe Kosgei’s form over the past 12 months. Her hot streak began with a dominant 2:18:35 victory in Chicago last year thanks to a storming 68:26 second half. Since then, she’s piled up victory after victory, most notably a 2:18:20 pb to win April’s London Marathon (making her just the fourth woman to break 2:19 twice) and a remarkable 64:28 half marathon at the Great North Run in September — the fastest HM ever by a woman by 23 seconds (it’s not a WR since the GNR is a point-to-point course). For good measure, she also posted the second-fastest HM of 2019 by running 65:28 at the Bahrain Night Half in March. A win in Chicago would close out one of the greatest seasons ever by a female road racer.

But Kosgei will be targeting more than the win on Sunday. Someone as fit as Kosgei right now has a chance to run some truly special times, and Chicago has brought in two male pacemakers to help Kosgei attack the course record (weather permitting). That CR stands at 2:17:18 — the fourth-fastest time ever run, and over a minute faster than Kosgei’s pb — but as impressive as the time is, the bigger issue is the wind. If it is blowing at 17-18 mph as currently forecast, that could hinder chances of a super fast time. The wind is projected to come out of the SW which means that during the last 3 miles, she’d largely be running with a tailwind (course map here).

That would be a shame, because there is no doubt Kosgei can run 2:17 — and perhaps faster. Recall that during her two 2:18’s, she ran massive negative splits. In fact, her 66:42 second half in London in April was the fastest half ever run in a marathon. Her final four mile splits from that race — 5:00, 5:05, 5:03, 5:06 — sound as if they were plucked from a men’s race.

Brigid Kosgei’s two sub-2:19’s

Race First half Second half Overall time
2018 Chicago 70:09 68:26 2:18:35
2019 London 71:38 66:42 2:18:20

Those numbers are absurd. Kosgei went out in 71:38 in London and still ran 2:18:20. There’s no doubt that if she goes out faster in Chicago, she can crack 2:18 and perhaps even 2:17.

The Battle for Second

Jordan Hasay — USA, 28 years old, 2:20:57 pb (2017 Chicago), 67:55 half
Last three marathons: 3rd 2017 Boston (2:23:00), 3rd 2017 Chicago (2:20:57), 3rd 2019 Boston (2:25:20)
Tuneup race: 72:35 for 3rd at Rock ‘n’ Roll Philly Half on September 15

Embed from Getty Images

Hasay has finished third in each of her three career marathons, and while each of those were fine performances, she will be looking for more in Chicago on Sunday. Winning is out of the question unless something happens to Kosgei, but apart from her, there’s no one in this field Hasay can’t beat.

There will be plenty of eyes on Hasay not only because of her status as the top American in the women’s field, but because she’ll be competing in Chicago without the aid of her coach, Alberto Salazar, who has built Hasay into a world-class marathoner. Hasay spoke at length with Runner’s World‘s Sarah Lorge Butler about how she’s adjusted to life without Salazar, and though she misses her coach, she still seems optimistic about her chances on Sunday. She told Butler that she hasn’t spoken to Salazar since his ban was announced on September 30 and said that she has been doing okay for the last two weeks without him.

“I’m the one writing the workouts, calling up Alberto saying, ‘Okay, so this is what we’re going to do tomorrow.’ When we heard the news, the next day I had my final key workout, and he and I were in disagreement about what to do anyways. Obviously, I couldn’t talk to him, so I did the one I wanted to do,” said Hasay, who spent much of her buildup away from Salazar in California, to Butler.

So about the race. Hasay has been thinking about Chicago since the moment she crossed the line in Boston in April; that day, she declared that she was running Chicago, and her goal was to break Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 American record. She walked that back slightly in the RW interview, however.

“I hope to PR,” Hasay said. “If I’m in sight of the record, I’m definitely going to go for it the last couple of miles. But really I’m just there to race and be in that top pack and see what happens. I’m definitely ready to go. I don’t want to solely talk about the record, because I think it can be a great performance even if I don’t get the record.”

Certainly among active US marathoners, Hasay has the best chance to break Kastor’s record. 2:20:57 to 2:19:36 is not an insignificant leap, but Hasay just turned 28 last month. She should have several opportunities to break the record, but breaking it on Sunday could be tough.

Hasay only ran 72:35 in her tuneup race at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philly Half in September. That’s almost two minutes slower than she ran before Chicago in 2017, but it’s not that worrying considering Hasay seemed to be training through it — she told RW it was part of a 26-mile day.

More concerning: the weather and race dynamics in Chicago. As discussed in the Kosgei section, the wind could play a significant factor in slowing times across the board. And then there’s the question of who Hasay runs with. At the moment, there is a group of pacers going out on CR pace (2:17:18), a group going out on sub-2:24 pace, and none in between.

Hasay could try going out with Kosgei, a strategy that worked two years ago when she went out with Tirunesh Dibaba, hit halfway in 69:13, and hung on to run 2:20:57.

There is a third option. The men and women start together in Chicago, and Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka has a PR very close to Hasay’s (2:20:45). The two of them could work together to go out in 69:30 and try to latch on to a group of male sub-elites.

Whatever option she chooses — and she’s shown strong decision-making skills through three marathons — it will be important for Hasay to tuck in to stay out of the wind. Even if Kosgei goes out faster than Hasay would like, it may be worth running behind Kosgei and her male pacers rather than trying to run slightly slower while battling the wind alone.

Gelete Burka — Ethiopia, 33 years old, 2:20:45 pb (2018 Dubai), 66:11 half
Last three marathons: 1st 2018 Ottawa (2:22:17), 3rd 2018 Abu Dhabi (2:24:07/short course), 1st 2019 Paris (2:22:47)

Burka’s 2:20:45 pb is impressive, but it’s more impressive once you consider her uncommon range: she has run 3:58 for 1500m and was the World Indoor champ over that distance in 2008. Now 33, she has shifted her focus on the marathon, and it’s been going well, with two wins in her last three races (Ottawa last year, Paris in April). She seems far better equipped to run well than her last visit to Chicago in 2014, when she could only manage 7th in 2:34.

Ababel Yeshaneh, Ethiopia, 29 years old, 2:24:02 pb (2019 Tokyo), 65:46 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2018 Abu Dhabi (2:20:16/short course), 6th 2019 Tokyo (2:24:02)
Tuneup race: 67:43 win at Buenos Aires Half on August 25

Yeshaneh made tremendous strides in 2018, running a half marathon pb of 65:46 in Copenhagen and winning the Abu Dhabi Marathon in December. Though LetsRun later revealed Abu Dhabi to be roughly 200m short, her 2:20:16 time was still worth a sub-2:21 and puts her firmly in the mix with Hasay and Burka (whom she beat in that race) for the second spot in Chicago. Though she could only manage 2:24 in Tokyo in March (in what were, admittedly, poor conditions for running fast), she ran a 67:43 half in her buildup for this race and could pop a nice pb in Chicago.

One Other with Top-2 Potential

Betsy Saina, Kenya, 31 years old: Saina has run one great marathon (a 2:22 win in Paris in 2018), one so-so marathon (2:24 for 8th at 2018 Frankfurt), and three stinkers (two DNFs and a 10th at 2019 Boston in 2:30). At her best, she could battle it out with Hasay — whom she pipped for the NCAA XC title in 2012 — but she hasn’t been able to reach her best enough during her marathon career.

The Americans

As in the men’s race, there’s a clear divide between the top American (Hasay) and the rest of the US field. It’s a gap that women like Stephanie Bruce, Emma Bates, and Laura Thweatt will be looking to narrow as the Olympic Trials approach. There will be a sub-2:24 pace group and a sub-2:26 group (which will be paced by Bruce’s husband, Ben) in Chicago; expect these woman to run with the latter.

There’s reason to be optimistic about each of those women. Bruce has been on a tear since returning from the birth of her second child in 2015. Now 35, she’s running better than ever. Already in 2019, she’s run PBs in the 5k (15:17) and half marathon (70:44), won a national title in the half, and posted her best USA finish on the track (4th in the 10k). The one thing that’s missing? A fast marathon.

Bruce with Sara Hall and Sally Kipyego at the NYRR Mini 10K in June (Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

“2:29 (Bruce’s pb from CIM last year) is certainly good, but it doesn’t really stack up to how she’s performed at the other distances,” said Bruce’s coach Ben Rosario.

Rosario thinks there’s a reason for that — and it’s not that Bruce isn’t suited for the marathon. Rather, it’s her stomach — Bruce has Celiac disease.

“We’ve felt like that’s been attributable to her lack of absorption of nutrients over the course of long workouts and long races,” Rosario said.

Rosario said that Bruce hasn’t had any problems during her longest sessions in this buildup and believes she has the Celic under control. Should her stomach cooperate, he believes Bruce is ready to take a hammer to her personal best.

“We’re pretty confident that that’s dialed in now. Now we’re just looking to do what we feel like she should have already been able to do, which is run more in the 2:26 range.”

Bates is another woman who could shave a minute or two off her pb. An old-school runner who lives off the grid in rural Idaho, the 2014 NCAA champ turned heads with a 2:28 debut win at the US champs at CIM in December and showed that was no fluke by winning the US 25k champs in May — splitting a half marathon pb of 70:48 en route to the title. The increased competition in Chicago could drag Bates to a fast time after a her solo effort at CIM.

And then there’s Thweatt. The 30-year-old has battled a string of injuries since clocking her PR of 2:25 in London two years ago, and she hasn’t finished a marathon since (she dropped out of Chicago last year with an Achilles injury). Getting back to that level could be tough, particularly since Thweatt’s most recent injury — a stress fracture in her heel — was only diagnosed in June. But Thweatt has the talent, and the fact that she decided to commit to this race in September means that her recovery and buildup must be progressing nicely.

Lindsay Flanagan (2:29:20 pb) ran 2:30:07 for 9th in Boston in April (third American behind Hasay and Des Linden) and should also be in the mix with Bruce, Bates, and Thweatt.

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