Seven-Time World Marathon Major Winner Mary Keitany Retires at Age 39

By Jonathan Gault
September 22, 2021

Kenya’s Mary Keitany, one of the most fearless and dominant distance runners of the 2010s and one of the greatest marathoners in history, announced her retirement on Wednesday at the age of 39.

“After my successful 2019, when I had some good results including second place in [the] New York [City Marathon], I was hopeful that I could still be very competitive internationally for several more years even though I am in my late 30s,” Keitany said in a statement released by her agent Gianni Demadonna. “However, I’m sad to say, a back injury that I suffered in late 2019 made a decision about my retirement for me. I couldn’t get the treatment I wanted in Europe because of the pandemic-related travel restrictions last year and every time I thought I had got over the injury and started training hard, it became a problem again. So now is the time to say goodbye – if only as an elite runner – to the sport I love so much.”

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Keitany retires with three London Marathon victories, four New York City Marathon victories, and personal bests of 64:55 in the half marathon (#8 all-time) and 2:17:01 in the marathon (#3 all-time). Keitany’s seven World Marathon Major victories are the most by a woman since the series began in 2006 (Edna Kiplagat is next with five), and she won the overall WMM series title on three occasions.

Keitany’s 2017 London victory was legendary (Roger Allen for Virgin Money London Marathon)

Standing 5-foot-2 and weighing in at under 100 pounds, Keitany was small even by elite marathoner standards, but she was a fierce competitor unafraid to assert herself early on the sport’s biggest stages. If you were in a race with Mary Keitany, you knew it.

Keitany announced herself on the world scene in 2007 at the age of 25 by running a Kenyan record of 66:48 to finish second at the World Half Marathon Championships (then known as the World Road Running Championships) in Udine, Italy. She would return to the race in 2009, winning the world title in Birmingham, England, in another Kenyan record (66:36) before setting the world record in 2011, becoming the first woman to break 66:00 on a record-eligible course with her 65:50 at the RAK Half.

Keitany’s half marathon success was merely the prologue for one of the greatest marathon careers of all time. She debuted with a third-place finish in New York in 2010 and followed that up with London Marathon titles in 2011 and 2012. Those two venues would become Keitany’s favorites, as she would run all 16 of her career marathons in one of those two cities, racking up seven wins and 12 podium finishes.

Keitany developed a reputation for making big, aggressive moves to blow apart marathon fields. They did not always work. In New York in 2011, Keitany blasted the first half in 67:56 (this at a time when only Paula Radcliffe had broken 2:18) and opened up a lead of two minutes and 24 seconds. But Keitany would give it all back, running her second half in 75:42 and fading to fourth place.

Keitany winning her fourth NYC title in 2018

Yet failing to respect Keitany — even when she was running a seemingly suicidal pace — was a mistake. At her best, no other marathoner of her generation could touch her. In 2017 — running without supershoes or male pacemakers — Keitany unleashed one of the most impressive efforts in marathon history in London. Attacking Radcliffe’s women’s-only world record from the gun, Keitany ran her first 5k in 15:31 (including 4:37 for the downhill third mile) and passed halfway in a scarcely-believable 66:54 — still the fastest-ever first half split in a women’s marathon. She would slow over the second half, but not much, finishing in 2:17:01, a time that ranks behind only Brigid Kosgei (2:14:04) and Radcliffe (2:15:25) on the all-time list. It remains the world record for a women’s-only race.

A year later in New York, it was Keitany’s second half that left observers slack-jawed as she split 66:58 over the bridges and hills of Central Park to just miss the course record and win by a whopping three minutes and 14 seconds.

The only blemish on Keitany’s spectacular career is her lack of an Olympic medal. In 2012, she entered the Olympic marathon as the favorite and was still in contention over the final mile but would fade to a heartbreaking fourth-place finish. Four years later, she entered 2016 as the Olympic favorite again on the back of three strong WMM finishes (1st ’14 NYC, 2nd ’15 London, 1st ’15 NYC). But Keitany was controversially left off the Kenyan Olympic team after finishing 9th in London that spring and instead had to take her frustration out on the NYC Marathon field, winning her third straight title by a monstrous 3:35 margin.

Keitany, who owns a hotel in Eldoret and is involved with local charities in Kenya, said that she has not fully decided on her future plans but that she is looking forward to spending more time with her children, Jared (13) and Samantha (8). All seven of Keitany’s marathon victories came as a mother, with five of the seven coming after her second pregnancy.

Quick Take by LetsRun.com: If we were building a Mt. Rushmore of women’s marathoners, Keitany would definitely be on ours

Keitany is without a doubt one of the greatest women’s marathoners in history. Determining the GOAT — greatest of all time — is pretty hard as none of the women in contention ever won Olympic gold.

Here is our Mt. Rushmore of retired women’s marathoners, not necessarily in order.

Paula Radcliffe – 8 World Marathon Majors (includes 1 World Championship gold) + 2 world records + 1 third-place showing at a major
Catherine Ndereba – 8 World Marathon Majors (includes 2 World Championship golds) + 1 world record + 8 2nd place showings at a major (including 2 Olympic silvers and 1 WC silver)
Mary Keitany – 7 World Marathon Majors +2 2nd place showings at majors + 2 third-place showings + 4th at the Olympics + women’s-only world record
Grete Waitz – 12 World Marathon Majors (includes 1 World Championship gold) + 4 world records + 1 Olympic silver

We’d definitely rank Keitany behind Radcliffe and Ndereba. Comparing her against someone like Waitz is hard as they competed in different eras with drastically different levels of competitiveness.

Talk about Keitany’s retirement on the LetsRun.com fan forum / messageboard: MB: Mary Keitany retires!

LRC coverage of Mary Keitany’s most famous races

LRC 2011 ING New York City Marathon Women’s Race Recap: Mary Keitany Beats Herself
LRC Mary Keitany Wins 2012 Virgin London Marathon In 2:18:37
LRC Tiki Gelana Wins 2012 Olympic Marathon As Shalane Flanagan And Kara Goucher Finish 10th And 11th
LRC Wow: Mary Keitany Survives Nearly Suicidal First Half and Blitzes A 2:17:01 To Take Down Paula Radcliffe’s Women’s Only World Record and Win 2017 London Marathon
LRC A Run for the Ages: Mary Keitany Blasts 66:58 2nd Half to Win Fourth New York City Marathon Crown

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