2019 NYC Men’s Preview: After an Epic Year of Marathoning, What Does NYC Have in Store?

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By Jonathan Gault
October 29, 2019

2019 has been a pretty good year for men’s marathoning. Here are just a few things that have happened over the past 10 months:

  • Getaneh Molla of Ethiopia ran the fastest debut ever (2:03:34 in Dubai)
  • Kenenisa Bekele came back from the dead to run 2:01:41 in Berlin to miss the world record by two seconds
  • Eliud Kipchoge ran 1:59:40.2 for the marathon distance in Vienna
  • Three majors (2019 Boston, 2019 Worlds, 2019 Chicago) have been decided by four seconds or less
  • Eight different men have broken 2:04 — doubling the previous record for a single year
  • Two men in two different races ran 2:02 and lost

It’s been a special year. And yes, the shoes may have something to do with it — all eight of the men who have broken 2:04 this year did so wearing a version of Nike’s Vaporflys (even if Herpasa Negasa tried to obscure that fact).

Given the course’s hills and bridges, we’re probably not going to see a 2:03 at the year’s final major, Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon, but the men’s race promises to be a good one, even though the field is extremely top-heavy, with just four entrants with PBs under 2:08. Reigning champ Lelisa Desisa returns and will try to complete an unprecedented Worlds/NYC sweep just four weeks after winning gold in Doha. Geoffrey Kamworor goes for his second NYC victory in three years after breaking the half marathon world record last month in Copenhagen. And 2:04 Ethiopians Tamirat Tola and Shura Kitata go for their first World Marathon Major victories.

Plus while many of the top American men are sitting out New York to rest up for February’s Olympic Trials, last year’s top American, Jared Ward, is entered and will chase his first podium finish at a major.

Race details below; read on for an in-depth preview of the men’s race.

We also previewed the men’s race in this week’s NYC Marathon Preview podcast. Listen in the player below. Men’s preview starts at the [9:11] point.

What: 2019 TCS New York City Marathon

When: Sunday, November 3, 9:40 a.m. ET (elite women start at 9:10 a.m. ET. Reminder that US clocks go back one hour on Saturday night).

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. International tv partners are listed here.

Important links: LRC Full 2019 NYC Marathon coverage * 2018 NYC coverageRace website

Men’s elite field (sub-2:14 pbs and other notables)

Name Country PB Note
Tamirat Tola ETH 2:04:06 4th last year, then 6th in London in April
Lelisa Desisa ETH 2:04:45 Reigning champ won Worlds just 4 weeks ago
Shura Kitata ETH 2:04:49 2nd in London/NYC in ’18; 4th at ’19 London
Geoffrey Kamworor KEN 2:06:12 2017 champ set HM WR on September 15
Albert Korir KEN 2:08:03
Wins in Houston & Ottawa this year but has never broken 2:08 in 9 career marathons
Arne Gabius GER 2:08:33 38-year-old was only 7th in Hanover in April
Abdi Abdirahman USA 2:08:56 Top American in ’16 and ’17 but he’s 42 and last 3 marathons have gone poorly
Jared Ward USA 2:09:25 Top American last year coming off 2:09 pb in Boston
Michel Butter NED 2:09:58 Hasn’t broken 2:11 since 2012
Yoshiki Takenouchi JPN 2:10:01 6th at Japanese Olympic trials in September
Daniel Mesfun ERI 2:10:06 14th in Boston
Brett Robinson AUS 2:10:55 Ran 2:10 in first marathon finish in London in April
Jack Rayner AUS 2:11:06 Debuted with 2:11 in London
Stephen Sambu KEN 2:11:07 Former U of Arizona star was 5th in Chicago in ’16 and ’17
Tadesse Yae ETH 2:11:27 Coming off PR in Pyongyang in April
Birhanu Dare ETH 2:12:21
Tyler McCandless USA 2:12:28 Best finish in a major is 20th (’18 Chicago)
Mustafa Mohamed SWE 2:12:28
Harbert Okuti UGA 2:13:01
Tyler Pennel USA 2:13:32 Healthy again, he was 5th at ’16 Olympic Trials and 8th at ’16 NYC
Tyler Jermann USA 2:13:39 Coming off pb in Houston in Jan.
Joe Whelan USA 2:13:39 This will be his 7th marathon of ’19 (ran 2:18 in Albany on Oct. 13)
Craig Leon USA 2:13:40 First marathon since Feb. ’18
Connor McMillan USA 2:23:28 BYU alum was 4th in USA 10k in July
Andy Vernon GBR Debut 2016 British 10k Olympian

The Four Guys Who Could Win

Of the 46 World Marathon Majors since the start of 2013, only one — the wild weather 2018 Boston Marathon — featured a winner who entered the race without either a sub-2:08 pb or a World/Olympic medal. If we go by that criteria, there are only four men capable of winning on Sunday — Desisa, Kitata, Kamworor, and Tola, who went 1-2-3-4 in that order in New York last year.

But that’s okay! Last year’s race was one of the fastest and most exciting in NYC history, with Desisa outdueling Kamworor and Kitata in Central Park to win by two seconds as they became just the third, fourth, and fifth men to break 2:07 in New York. With near-perfect weather in the forecast (high of 52 degrees Fahrenheit, 7 mph winds) and Vaporflys on the feet of Desisa, Kamworor, and Kitata, Geoffrey Mutai‘s 2:05:06 course record could be in play. Let’s take a look at the top contenders, one by one.

Lelisa Desisa — Ethiopia, 29 years old, 2:04:45 pb (2013 Dubai), 59:30 half
Last three marathons: 
1st 2018 New York (2:05:59), 2nd 2019 Boston (2:07:59), 1st 2019 Worlds (2:10:40)
Tuneup race: Won Worlds in 2:10:40 4 weeks ago

Desisa won Worlds on October 6. 28 days later, he’ll try to win NYC too.

Unless your last name is Kipchoge, it’s hard to put together a string of marathons much better than the three Desisa just completed: wins in NYC and at Worlds, sandwiched by a runner-up effort in Boston where he came just two seconds shy of champ Lawrence Cherono. While Desisa does have three DNFs on his resume, if he makes it the full 26.2 miles, he is almost always in contention for the win, with 12 top-3 placings in 13 marathon finishes.

The concern, of course, is that Desisa just ran a tough championship marathon at Worlds four weeks ago. Desisa did manage to run the Worlds/NYC double in 2015 (he was 7th at Worlds and 3rd in NYC), but that was with a much larger gap (11 weeks). Bouncing back from Doha will be tougher, but Desisa doesn’t think so. When LRC asked him in Doha how he’d manage both races, he cracked a smile said that he’d simply take a week to recover and get back to training (check out the clip below for a smile).

Despite the quick turnaround, Desisa can absolutely win this race — he’s proven time and again that he excels in championship-style marathons like Boston and New York. And if he does, it would go down as one of the most impressive feats in marathon history. In the WMM era, no one has ever won two majors just 28 days apart — and few have been brave (or crazy?) enough to even attempt it.

Geoffrey Kamworor — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:06:12 pb (2012 Berlin), 58:01 half
Last three marathons: 
2nd 2015 New York (2:10:48), 1st 2017 New York (2:10:53), 3rd 2018 New York (2:06:26)
Tuneup race: 
58:01 half marathon world record in Copenhagen on September 15

Embed from Getty Images

Geoffrey Kamworor doesn’t run many half marathons. While he was acknowledged as the world’s best athlete over 13.1 miles, he ran the distance just twice from 2015 to 2018, each time at the World Half Marathon Championships (each time, he won gold). That’s because Kamworor likes to think big — world championships, Olympics, major marathons — and outside of the World Half, a fast half marathon doesn’t usually fit into those plans.

So when he lined up for the Copenhagen Half Marathon on September 15, he wanted to make it count. He did, running 58:01 to break the world record.

“The world record in half marathon was ready for several years, in his mind, to attack it,” his manager Valentijn Trouw told LetsRun.com. “It was incredible joy for him to break that record and you could see on the finish line, the emotion you could see on the finish line, then we all realized how much this has been inside him and how big of a dream this has been for a long time.”

Clearly, Kamworor is fit, and he has run well in New York in each of his three appearances, placing second in 2015, first in 2017, and third last year. Ironically, his win in 2017 may actually have been his “worst” performance in absolute terms. In 2015, he closed in an incredible 28:49 for the final 10k only to lose out to Stanley Biwott‘s even more incredible 28:35. And last year, he ran 2:06:26 — a time that would have won every NYC Marathon save two (2011 and 2018). All signs point to another strong outing in 2019.

Because he’s so good at a variety of events, Kamworor has a lot of options heading into an Olympic year, and his result in New York could impact what he decides to focus on. Kamworor has had tremendous success running either World Cross or the World Half in the spring, followed by a major track champs in the summer and the NYC Marathon in the fall. But Trouw says that Kamworor ultimately wants to shift his focus more fully to the marathon, running two per year like his training partner and mentor Eliud Kipchoge. Kamworor’s decision to skip Worlds this year (despite winning the Kenyan 10k trials) for Copenhagen may have been the first step in that shift.

But the Kenyan Olympic marathon team may be the single hardest squad to make in any event. One spot is already taken (Kipchoge), and to earn one of the other two, Kamworor would likely have to win New York and/or a spring marathon next year, which could prevent Kamworor from defending his World Half title.

“It might be logical still to do the 10,000 in the Olympics because he is still young and [do] the half marathon and 10,000 in 2020 [and then] become a full marathoner from 2021,” Trouw said.

Regardless of what Kamworor decides moving forward, he’s already a very strong marathoner and a serious threat to win on Sunday.

Shura Kitata — Ethiopia, 23 years old, 2:04:49 pb (2018 London), 59:16 half
Tuneup race:
None
Last three marathons: 
2nd 2018 London (2:04:49), 2nd 2018 New York (2:06:01), 4th 2019 London (2:05:01)

Kitata may not be the Best Runner Who’s Never Won a Major (that honor currently belongs to 2:02 man Mosinet Geremew, the runner-up at 2018 Chicago, 2019 London, and 2019 Worlds), he’s certainly in the conversation. He would have won London handily in 2018 were it not for Kipchoge, and he ran the #3 time ever in New York last year (2:06:01) — only to lose out to the #2 time. This spring, he was “only” 4th in London, but considering the three guys who beat him ran 2:02:37, 2:02:55, and 2:03:16, that’s hardly a bad result.

The big question for Kitata is whether he has any room for improvement. At 23, he is easily the youngest of the “Big Four” in New York, which means that, theoretically, he has the biggest upside — though he has already run 11 marathons in his career. Even if Kitata doesn’t get any better, he’s still good enough to win a major. He just needs the right day. Could it be Sunday?

Last year, it’s worth noting we knew he was fit as he ran 59:16 in Philadelphia during his NY buildup. This year, he didn’t run a tuneup half like he normally does. The last time he didn’t run a half curing his marathon buildup was in April of 2017. The result? He won Rome in 2:07:20.

Tamirat Tola — Ethiopia, 28 years old, 2:04:06 pb (2018 Dubai), 59:13 half
Last three marathons: 
DNF 2018 Boston, 4th 2018 New York (2:08:30), 6th 2019 London (2:06:57)
Tuneup race: 59:13 for 2nd at Great North Run on September 8

Tola’s recent marathon results aren’t quite on par with his form in 2017, when he won Dubai and earned silver at Worlds, but he’s run some impressive road races since finishing 6th in London in April (though it should be noted he finished just 10th in the Ethiopian 10,000 trials on the track this year after earning Olympic bronze at that distance in 2016). First, he clocked 62:35 to win the Bogota Half Marathon in July. That may not sound like much on paper, but it’s a lot more impressive when you realize it came at 8,600 feet of elevation and Tola beat Boston/Chicago champ Lawrence Cherono by 94 seconds. Then, in September, he ran 59:13 at the Great North Run to take second behind Mo Farah.

Of course, that doesn’t look quite as fast when he’s going up against a guy who just ran 58:01, but at his best, Tola is capable of winning this race, and his HM results point to him being close to his best in NYC.

***

So who’s going to win?

Embed from Getty Images

There was little to separate Desisa, Kitata, and Kamworor last year, all of whom were in contention in the final mile, and given the way recent majors have gone on the men’s side (particularly those involving Desisa), it wouldn’t be surprising to see another battle all the way to the finish line in Central Park.

While Desisa’s win at Worlds shows he’s in shape, he would inarguably be in a better spot for NYC had he not run that race. Thus Kamworor, coming off a sensational half marathon (seven weeks before race day, plenty of time to recover), should be viewed as the slight favorite. But Desisa, Kitata, and Kamworor are all close to even, and Tola could be right in there too based on his tuneup races.

Kenyan Albert Korir, who has four wins in nine marathon starts — including two in 2019 (Houston and Ottawa) — is an intriguing dark horse but he’s never broken 2:08. He has not yet shown that he belongs in the conversation for NYC Marathon champion.

Can an American Land on the Podium?

Since Meb Keflezighi‘s win in 2009, only one American man has earned a podium finish in New York: Abdi Abdirahman, who finished third in against an extremely watered-down international field in 2016. This year’s field isn’t quite the same, but the same general principle applies. This year’s field features four studs, one promising up-and-comer (Korir), and after that, it’s wide open. A DNF here, a bad day there, and boom: there could be a spot on the podium available for an American.

Embed from Getty Images

The problem is, this isn’t a particularly strong US field either — understandable with the Olympic Trials less than four months away. But NYC does have one of the US’s very best marathoners in Jared Ward, who has his best chance yet at a major marathon podium. And after finishing 6th in NYC last year and 8th in Boston in April, that’s exactly what he’s shooting for on Sunday.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Ward says his strength is as good is it was when he ran his PR of 2:09 in Boston, and his speed is better. And he’s in a way better spot than this time a year ago. Remember, Ward almost withdrew from NYC last year due to a hamstring and had to be talked into running by NYRR elite athlete consultant David Monti. Considering he ran 2:12 and finished 6th after that, his potential on Sunday is much higher.

“I think he’s had as good as buildup as any that he’s had before, so that’s kind of exciting,” Ward’s longtime coach Ed Eyestone told LetsRun.com. “With just about everything we’ve gone into he’s had little hiccups and whatnot, but this one would be one where things have gone as smoothly as possible.”

The one blotch on his buildup was his tuneup race at the Great North Run, where he could only manage 11th place in 63:18. In that race, Ward went out very hard, running with Mo Farah (who would wind up running 59:07) in the early miles before feeling a slight tweak in his calf and backing off the hot pace. Otherwise, it’s all systems go for Ward in NYC.

***

Anyone else?

Ward is the best bet to finish as the top American as the other top US men are all accompanied by serious questions. Abdi Abdirahman has the top PR at 2:08:56 and was the top American in NYC just two years ago, but he’s also 42 years old and has gone 15th (2018 NYC), DNF (2018 NYC), 26th (2019 Boston) in his last three marathons. Tyler Pennel was 5th at the 2016 Olympic Trials and 8th in NYC that year, but injuries have limited him to one marathon in the last two years (4th in the bad-weather 2018 Boston race). Now healthy again, he seems poised for a rebound race, but still has to put it together on the day. Other than Ward and Abdi, Tyler McCandless is the only other American running NYC who has broken 2:13, but he’s only finished 25th (2016 New York) and 20th (2018 Chicago) in two WMM appearances.

Two other guys worth noting: Joe Whelan and Connor McMillan. Whelan, a 28-year-old Syracuse alum, is the epitome of a blue-collar runner, willing himself into a 2:13 marathoner after working 10-hour shifts as a ranch laborer in Texas. Whelan, who says it’s not uncommon for him to split 2:20 marathons during long runs in training, also races a ton: per Tilastopaja, NYC will be his seventh marathon of 2019 (he has four wins, in Austin, Waco, Buffalo, and Albany).

McMillan, a 2019 BYU alum, has been training with Ward and NCAA 10,000 champ Clayton Young out in Utah under Eyestone. And while Ward is the undisputed king of that group, Eyestone said McMillan, who was 4th at USAs in the 10k and 3rd in the US 10-mile champs on October 6, hasn’t been too far off Ward in practice. McMillan has run one career marathon (2:23 as a 20-year-old at 2016 Chicago while he redshirted at BYU) and should go much faster on Sunday.

“I think he’s trained to run 2:12,” Eyestone said.

LRC Prediction: Ward is the top American and in the top 5 but not on the podium. We’ll hold off on our race prediction until we talk to the elites at Thursday’s press event.

Who do you think will win? Tell us in our messageboard. MB: Who wins the men’s race at the 2019 NYC Marathon? Kamworor, Desisa, Kitata, or Tola? Does the course record go as well?

We also previewed the men’s race in this week’s NYC Marathon Preview podcast. Listen in the player below. Men’s preview starts at the [9:11] point.


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