2020 London Marathon Women’s Preview: WR Holder Brigid Kosgei vs. World Champ Ruth Chepngetich in Clash of World #1 vs World #2

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By Jonathan Gault
October 1, 2020

Kipchoge-Bekele may be the main attraction at this weekend’s London Marathon, but to describe the women’s race — which goes off at 2:15 a.m. EDT on Sunday, three hours before the men — as the undercard would be a disservice. Just as in the men’s race, the two best female marathoners in the world will square off in London: world record holder and reigning champion Brigid Kosgei and world champion Ruth Chepngetich, the fourth-fastest woman in history. Add in 2018 London champ Vivian Cheruiyot (who also won 5 global golds on the track), 2:19 woman Valary Jemeli, Berlin champ Ashete Bekere, plus American stars Sara Hall and Molly Seidel, and London promises to host a terrific race, as always.

One young star won’t be in London, however. Ethiopia’s Degitu Azimeraw, who ran a course record of 2:19:25 to win the Amsterdam Marathon in her debut last year at age 20, tested positive for COVID-19 and was not allowed to board the chartered London Marathon flight out of Addis Ababa. Her absence is unfortunate, but proof that London is testing — and treating the results of those tests seriously in order to stage a World Marathon Major in the age of COVID.

Below, we break down Sunday’s race in detail and examine the women who could win it.

*TV/streaming information *LRC London men’s preview *All LRC 2020 London Marathon coverage

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2020 London Marathon women’s elite field (sub-2:27 plus Americans)

Athlete Country PB Comment
Brigid Kosgei Kenya 2:14:04 WR holder and reigning champ has won 3 straight majors
Ruth Chepngetich Kenya 2:17:08 4th-fastest woman ever…yet her pb is still 3+ mins slower than Kosgei’s
Vivian Cheruiyot Kenya 2:18:31 ’18 champ and ’19 runner-up. Only 4th last time out in Valencia, but still ran 2:18
Valary Jemeli Kenya 2:19:10 Ran big pb to win Frankfurt last year
Ashete Bekere Ethiopia 2:20:14 Has won 3 straight marathons but has never cracked 2:20 in 20 career marathons
Alemu Megertu Ethiopia 2:21:10 1st Rome, 2nd Frankfurt in ’19
Sara Hall USA 2:22:16 Ran huge pb at ’19 Berlin, but has DNF’d last 2 marathons, including Oly Trials
Sinead Diver Australia 2:24:11 7th London, 5th NYC in ’19 at age 42
Carla Salome Rocha Portugal 2:24:47 8th at ’18 Berlin, ’19 London. 28th at ’19 Worlds
Ellie Pashley Australia 2:26:21
Broke out in ’19 at age 30 with pbs in 10k (31:18; 13th at Worlds), HM (69:14), and marathon
Sara Caterina Ribeiro Portugal 2:26:39 Has only broken 2:30 once in 5 career starts
Steph Twell Great Britain 2:26:44 Ran big HM pb of 68:55 in Houston in Jan
Anna Hahner Germany 2:26:44 Has broken 2:30 just once in last 8 marathons
Molly Seidel USA 2:27:31 Surprisingly made US Olympic team in debut in Feb
Lindsay Flanagan USA 2:28:05 12th at Olympic Trials in Feb

Does anyone else have a chance?

Kosgei checking into the London Marathon bubble on Monday (Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

The more you stare at the “PB” column above, the more you wonder whether there’s any point to previewing this race at all. Ruth Chepngetich has run 2:17:08, a time only three women have ever bettered…and she’s still not within three minutes of what Brigid Kosgei ran in her last marathon. For so long, Paula Radcliffe‘s 2:15:25 loomed as one of the most unbreakable records in running…and then Kosgei dropped her 2:14:04 in Chicago. Kosgei is now almost as far ahead of Radcliffe (81 seconds) as Radcliffe is ahead of everyone else in history (96 seconds). How does one even compete with 2:14?

Well it won’t be easy — Kosgei is absolutely the favorite. But there are three reasons why she might not win:

1) Regression to the mean

World record performances, by their very nature, are outliers. No matter how well Kosgei runs in London, she’s unlikely to run as well as she did in Chicago last year. If she’s “only” in 2:16 shape instead of 2:14 shape, she could be beatable.

2) The rest of this field is really good

Vivian Cheruiyot is an Olympic gold medalist and beat Kosgei in London two years ago. Ruth Chepngetich has won her last three marathons — including a 2:17:08 win at 2019 Dubai — and has not been challenged in any of them. It’s very possible that we’ve yet to see the best of Chepngetich — who will be making her World Marathon Major debut — in London, and it just might be enough to beat Kosgei.

3) It’s the marathon

No event is more difficult to dominate than the marathon. Even the best marathoners have bad days. A nagging injury during training, an upset stomach during the race, a bad weather day — it’s the marathon. Shit happens. Mary Keitany was ridiculously good at the marathon, yet during her prime years (2011-18), she barely won 50% of the time (7/13 races). Kosgei has won three straight majors, and it’s really tough to win more than that.

And for this race, there’s a huge wildcard: COVID-19. If Kosgei’s preparation was affected by the virus, that’s another reason to doubt her invincibility.

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Of course, there are counters to all of those arguments. Regression is real, but Kosgei could still run 2:16 in London and win by a minute. The field in London is strong, but the field in London last year was the greatest ever assembled and Kosgei dismantled it. And while it’s extremely difficult to dominate the marathon, it’s not impossible. Eliud Kipchoge hasn’t lost a marathon since 2013. Radcliffe won seven straight marathons that she finished from 2002-2007 (her only blemish was the 2004 Olympics, when she was clearly injured and dropped out). And Kosgei, based on recent evidence, is a Kipchoge/Radcliffe-type talent. She could conceivably rip off a five-year stretch in which she is totally unbeatable.

Looking at Sunday’s race, there are no male pacers, so don’t expect Kosgei to go out in 66:59, as she did in her WR run in Chicago. Instead, the belief is the female pacers will be targeting women’s-only WR pace (2:17:01), or roughly 68:15-68:30 at the half. That means Kosgei will almost certainly have company at halfway (Chepngetich hit halfway in 68:10 last year in Dubai). Of course, Kosgei has also shown she can close incredibly fast — she ran her final 13.1 in London in 66:42 last year, the fastest-ever half marathon split in a women’s marathon. But this won’t be a blowout for the entire 26.2 miles.

So that, broadly, is what to expect on Sunday. Now let’s familiarize ourselves with the athletes.

The Heavy, Heavy Favorite

Kosgei made history in Chicago last year (Sean Hartnett/Chicago Marathon)

Brigid Kosgei — Kenya, 26 years old, 2:14:04 pb (2019 Chicago), 64:28 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2019 London (2:18:20), 1st 2019 Chicago (2:14:04 WR)

Assuming Kosgei is in the same kind of shape as the last few years, she will be very tough to beat. Kosgei won all eight of her races in 2019, including London (by almost two minutes), Chicago (in world-record time), and the Great North Run (where she ran 64:28 — the fastest half marathon ever, albeit on an aided course). She has lost just one road race since September 2018 — at the RAK Half in February 2020 where she ran 64:49 and it took a world record to beat her.

And Kosgei actually enters London after a loss as she did lose her lone race during her London build up. Once again, someone had to set a WR to beat her. The race in question was the one-hour run WR attempt in Brussels on September 4, but I don’t believe that’s cause for concern as she was outkicked by one of the best — 1500 world champion in Sifan Hassan. Kosgei’s effort that night in Brussels was roughly 67:00 half pace for a little under 12 miles, which doesn’t sound that impressive on paper, but both she and Hassan were capable of a lot faster; both were likely running merely to break the record.

The Next Big Thing?

Chepngetich winning gold in Doha last year (Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images for IAAF)

Ruth Chepngetich — Kenya, 26 years old, 2:17:08 pb (2019 Dubai), 65:29 half
Last two marathons: 
1st 2019 Dubai (2:17:08), 1st 2019 Worlds (2:32:43)

Were it not for Kosgei’s ridiculous season, Chepngetich is the athlete everyone would be freaking out about right now. She first announced herself in November 2018, running 2:18:35 to win the Istanbul Marathon by over six minutes, easily the most random place a woman has broken 2:19 (it’s the fastest time ever excluding majors and Dubai and Valencia, which are basically majors now). She followed that up in January 2019 with a 2:17:08 win in Dubai. That’s right — she ran two sub-2:19’s just 75 days apart, easily the smallest gap in history.

Those two runs, coupled with Chepngetich’s 2:32 win at 2019 Worlds in the sweltering heat of Doha, stamped Chepngetich as the world’s #2 marathoner. Now, in her major debut, she faces the ultimate measuring stick in Kosgei and gets the chance to see how good she really is. If Chepngetich is fit and the weather cooperates, a 2:15 or 2:16 isn’t out of the question with a fast course and Kosgei to chase.

The Former Champ

Embed from Getty Images

Vivian Cheruiyot — Kenya, 37 years old, 2:18:31 pb (2018 London), 66:34 half
Last two marathons: 
2nd 2019 London (2:20:14), 4th 2018 Valencia (2:18:52)

The good news: five of her Cheruiyot’s six marathons have been very good, she’s won London before, and her coach/agent Ricky Simms tells us her preparation has been very good.

“Her training has been better than when she won in 2018,” Simms wrote in a text message. “She is capable of running a PB on Sunday.”

The bad news? Cheruiyot could be in the shape of her life, run a pb, and still finish a minute or two behind Kosgei or Chepngetich.

Just look at London last year. Just as in 2020, Simms said Cheruiyot was in better shape than when she won in 2018 — and the stats backed that up. Cheruiyot ran really well — she closed her second half in 68:36 and hung with Kosgei through 21 miles, yet still wound up almost two minutes behind Kosgei at the finish.

Cheruiyot was the last woman to beat Kosgei in a marathon, which she did en route to her London win in 2018. But Kosgei has gone supernova since then; if Cheruiyot is to catch her, she’ll have to make a similar leap.

Looking to Take the Next Step

Valary Jemeli — Kenya, 29 years old, 2:19:10 pb (2019 Frankfurt), 66:14 pb
Last two marathons: 
1st 2019 Eldoret (2:27:17), 1st 2019 Frankfurt (2:19:10)

Ashete Bekere — Ethiopia, 32 years old, 2:20:14 pb (2019 Berlin), 66:37 pb
Last two marathons: 
1st 2019 Rotterdam (2:22:55), 1st 2019 Berlin (2:20:14)

Both Jemeli and Bekere enter London riding marathon win streaks (two for Jemeli, three for Bekere) and are coming off personal best victories last fall — Jemeli ran a course record of 2:19:10 in Frankfurt, Bekere 2:20:14 in Berlin. Both of those things are obviously good, but both runners will need to take an additional step forward if they are to contend in London. 2:19 and 2:20 are great, but we’re living in a 2:14 world now — to win a race as loaded as London, you need to be in 2:17 shape, minimum.

The Americans

We’re previewing the Americans in a separate article (coming soon), but it’s worth noting that three American women — Sara Hall, Molly Seidel, and Lindsay Flanagan — made the trip to London. While none are contenders for the win, the fast course could lead to some personal bests. We’ve talked to Hall and Seidel’s coaches for the inside scoop and have some good nuggets to share. We’ll tease you with one quote below from Hall’s coach (her husband Ryan). Check back tomorrow for the full story.

“This was Sara’s best buildup ever,” Ryan Hall said. “Her fitness on her threshold runs improved by three to five seconds per mile compared to when she ran 2:22 in Berlin so she is ready to roll…I know she is in PR shape. No doubt about it.”


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