7 Final Thoughts on the 2021 Fall Marathon Season: The US Worlds Team Is (Almost) Set, Kenya > Ethiopia, & The WMM Champions Are Crowned

By Jonathan Gault
November 9, 2021

With the 2021 New York City Marathon in the books, that’s a wrap on the 2021 World Marathon Majors season — and on Series XIII of the World Marathon Majors (which is not the same thing, as I’ll explain in a minute). We’re not totally done with fall marathon season, with Abu Dhabi (November 26) and Valencia (December 5), among others, still to come. But it’s a good time to reflect back on what has happened so far in one of the busiest seasons of elite marathon running in history. Below, a wrap-up of the campaign and a few final thoughts on what transpired.

Albert Korir, Peres Jepchirchir, & Joyciline Jepkosgei are your World Marathon Majors Series XIII champions

In case you missed it, Sunday’s New York City Marathon brought an end to Series XIII of the World Marathon Majors. If you forgot about how all of that works, I don’t blame you. It had been over two years since the WMM crowned its last champions, and it was already hard enough keeping track of what series we were in before a pandemic got involved.

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A reminder: every year or so, the World Marathon Majors (Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York) crown a series champion. Athletes earn points based on their two best placements at those six races (plus Worlds and the Olympics) during each series, and the champions earn $250,000 each (it was $500,000 each until 2017). The just-concluded Series XIII ran from 2019 Chicago through 2021 New York and the champions were crowned in New York: Albert Korir on the men’s side, and Peres Jepchirchir and Joyciline Jepkosgei on the women’s side.

Korir with his WMM trophy (courtesy Abbott World Marathon Majors)

Frankly, I was shocked when the WMM folks announced after New York that Korir was the champion. What about that Kipchoge fellow? Eliud Kipchoge had in fact won each of the four previous WMM series titles, but he was only 7th in Series XIII.

How did that happen? Well, let’s take a look at the races Kipchoge ran during Series XIII.

INEOS 1:59 Challenge: Kipchoge ran this on October 12, 2019, the day before Series XIII began with the 2019 Chicago Marathon. It may have been the greatest performance of his life, but he didn’t earn any WMM points for it.
2020 London Marathon: Kipchoge, citing a blocked ear, ran the worst marathon of his life and finished 8th, which earned him zero points.
2021 NN Mission Marathon: With all 2021 WMMs pushed to the fall, Kipchoge ran 2:04:30 to win this race at an airport in the Netherlands. Again, it was worth zero WMM points.
2021 Olympic marathon: Kipchoge won in Sapporo and earned 25 WMM points.

So even if Kipchoge is the best marathoner on the planet, he only earned 25 points during Series XIII — which was never going to be enough to win the title. Instead, surprisingly, the title is going to Alberto Korir, who had a first (2021 NYC) and a second (2019 NYC) during Series XIII, which was better than anyone else during that span (Sisay Lemma, who was third in Tokyo and London last year and won London this year, was second in the standings — remember, only an athlete’s two best races count).

That’s right. The World Marathon Majors champion — the unofficial greatest marathoner in the world in the year 2021 — is a guy who has run 12 career marathons and never broken 2:08.

That says a lot about the power vacuum behind Kipchoge in men’s marathoning right now. With Kipchoge sitting out the fall season, there was an opportunity for a number of guys — Titus EkiruKenenisa Bekele, Shura Kitata, Mosinet GeremewAbdi Nageeye — to stamp themselves as the top challenger to Kipchoge. None of them did it. Seriously, who would you call the second-best marathoner in the world right now? Maybe Bashir Abdi, who was 3rd at the Olympics and ran 2:03:36 to win Rotterdam two weeks ago? It’s a tough call.

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On the women’s side, the WMM champion was complicated. Peres Jepchirchir (2021 Olympics, 2021 New York), Joyciline Jepkosgei (2019 New York, 2021 London), and Brigid Kosgei (2019 Chicago, 2020 London) all finished tied with the maximum 50 points. In case of a tie, the tiebreakers are head-to-head record at WMM races, then WMM wins. If still tied, the WMM race directors vote on a champion.

In this case, Jepchirchir beat Kosgei at the Olympics and Jepkosgei beat Kosgei in London this year, which meant Kosgei was out. But Jepchirchir and Jepkosgei had not raced each other at a WMM during this series (though Jepchirchir did beat Jepkosgei in Valencia last year), which left it down to a race directors’ vote. The race directors chose to split the title, with each woman earning $150,000 (as 2nd place pays $50,000, and third $25,000).

If I were picking the best marathoner in the world right now, I’d go with Jepchirchir considering she beat Jepkosgei head-to-head last year. But if you’re going only by WMM results, it’s fair to crown co-champions. Jepchirchir’s Olympics win was roughly equal to Jepkosgei’s London win, and they ran near-identical times in their NYC wins (2:22:38 for Jepkosgei, 2:22:39 for Jepchirchir).

Beginning next year, the WMM series will move to a calendar-year format, with the winner of each series crowned after NYC — a much easier format for fans, media, and athletes to follow.

The US marathon team for the 2022 World Championships is almost set

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Two weeks ago, USATF announced it would be picking its marathon team for the 2022 World Championships in Eugene — the first-ever on US soil — based on the results of four marathons this year: the Olympics, Chicago, Boston, and New York. All four are complete, which means we can now project the US’s World Championship squad. Here’s the ranking of the top five athletes per gender, based on USATF’s criteria.

Men
1. Galen Rupp (8th Olympics)
2. Elkanah Kibet (4th New York)
3. Colin Mickow (6th Chicago)
4. Colin Bennie (7th Boston)
5. Ben True (7th New York)

Women
1. Molly Seidel (3rd Olympics)
2. Emma Bates (2nd Chicago)
3. Sara Hall (3rd Chicago)
4. Keira D’Amato (4th Chicago)
5. Kellyn Taylor (6th New York)

Barring any injuries between now and July, the men’s team is set. Rupp has said he wants to run Worlds, and Kibet and Mickow both told LetsRun they plan on taking their spots as well. On the women’s side, Bates and Hall have spots locked up. The third spot is Seidel’s if she wants it, but she has yet to decide. If Seidel declines, would D’Amato take her spot? “Hell yes,” D’Amato wrote in a text message to LetsRun.

Those are two very strong squads for a US World Championship team. In 2019, nine women declined their spot at Worlds, leading to a team of Roberta GronerCarrie Dimoff, and Kelsey Bruce. With a reward of representing the US on home soil in Eugene instead of at 2 a.m. in 90-degree heat in Qatar, there is significantly more interest in 2022.

Shalane Flanagan amazes at age 40

When Shalane Flanagan announced she was going to run all five majors this fall (plus a virtual marathon in place of the cancelled Tokyo Marathon) in the span of 43 days, with a goal of breaking 3:00 in each of them, I expected her to do it. I did not expect her to run as fast as she did.

Date Race Time Overall place American place
September 26 Berlin 2:38:32 17th 1st
October 3 London 2:35:04 19th 1st
October 10 Chicago 2:46:49 34th 28th
October 11 Boston 2:40:36 33rd 15th
October 18 Portland 2:35:14 N/A N/A
November 7 New York 2:33:32 12th 6th
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Flanagan averaged 2:38:17 for her six marathons (2:35:35 if you exclude the Chicago/Boston back-to-back). Or, put another way, she ran a time that would have qualified her for the 2020 Olympic Trials five times in six weeks. At age 40. Coming off surgeries on both knees in 2019.

Though Flanagan retired from professional running in 2019, she is clearly still training at a fairly high level. Her 2:33:32 sb — on a tough course in New York — makes her the 14th-fastest American woman of 2021, and had she focused on one fall marathon instead of six, she would likely have been in the mix for top American honors at Chicago/Boston/New York.

Flanagan has no plans to resume her professional career, however, telling Runner’s World, “running to make a living is just not where I’m at anymore.” That was clear from her decision to run with the masses in New York rather than start with the elites — where she belonged after her previous five races this fall. Flanagan may still be one of the top female marathoners in the US, but she has also moved into a coaching role with Bowerman Track Club and become an adoptive mother to son Jack. Her own running is no longer her top priority.

Related: The guy who ran 3 marathons in three days in an average of 2:30:30 joins the LRC podcast

Final score: Kenya 6, Ethiopia 4

Two marathons into the fall major season, it looked like it was going to be the year of Ethiopia. With a sweep in Berlin (Guye Adola and Gotytom Gebreslase) and a win by Sisay Lemma in London, Ethiopia had claimed three of the four WMM titles on offer. But Kenya responded in force, with Kenyans winning five of the six remaining titles — including sweeps by Benson Kipruto and Diana Kipyokei in Boston and Albert Korir and Peres Jepchirchir in New York — to finish the fall with six WMM wins to Ethiopia’s four. If you add in the Olympic results, it’s a complete blowout as Kenyans won both gold medals (and a silver on the women’s side) while five of the six Ethiopians dropped out.

One more interesting note: all five men’s WMM champions this year were first-time major winners, the first time that had happened in the history of the World Marathon Majors.

London rules the women’s marathon

Here’s a look at the top 10 times in the world this fall (with the caveat that Valencia — the fastest marathon in the world last year — is still to come):

Women

Time Athlete Race Place
2:17:43 Joyciline Jepkosgei London 1st
2:17:57 Angela Tanui Amsterdam 1st
2:17:58 Degitu Azimeraw London 2nd
2:18:18 Ashete Bekere London 3rd
2:18:50 Brigid Kosgei London 4th
2:18:54 Lonah Salpeter London 5th
2:20:09 Gotytom Gebreslase Berlin 1st
2:20:18 Maurine Chepkemoi Amsterdam 2nd
2:20:19 Haven Desse Amsterdam 3rd
2:20:35 Valary Jemeli London 6th

Men

Time Athlete Race Place
2:03:36 Bashir Abdi Rotterdam 1st
2:03:39 Tamirat Tola Amsterdam 1st
2:04:01 Sisay Lemma London 1st
2:04:04 Marius Kipserem Rotterdam 2nd
2:04:09 Bernard Koech Amsterdam 2nd
2:04:12 Leul Gebresilase Amsterdam 3rd
2:04:21 Elisha Rotich Paris 1st
2:04:27 Dawit Wolde Rotterdam 3rd
2:04:28 Vincent Kipchumba London 2nd
2:04:32 Jonathan Korir Amsterdam 4th

Clearly, London was the race of the year on the women’s side; with one of the deepest fields ever assembled, London produced a race of unmatched quality, with five women breaking 2:19 in the same race for the first time ever. In all, it produced six of the 10 fastest times on the year.

On the men’s side, Rotterdam featured the fastest winning time, while Amsterdam featured four of the top 10 times. Conspicuously absent: Berlin and Chicago, though both races did feature unseasonably warm weather. The winning time in Berlin was 2:05:45 — the slowest since 2009 — and the winning time in Chicago was 2:06:12 — the slowest since 2010 (excluding the non-rabbitted years of 2015-2017).

Will three (or four) marathons per year become the norm?

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It’s no secret that, in addition to helping athletes run faster, super shoes such as the Nike Vaporfly also help them recover more quickly. Peres Jepchirchir won New York 13 weeks after the Olympics and Belgium’s Bashir Abdi ran a European record of 2:03:36 to win Rotterdam 11 weeks after the Olympics. Sisay Lemma (London) and Ruth Chepngetich (Chicago) also won majors eight and nine weeks after the Olympics, respectively, though both DNF’d in Sapporo. Add in Flanagan’s exploits and Kenenisa Bekele finishing 3rd in Berlin and 6th in New York in the span of six weeks and it’s clear the super shoes are having a big impact.

The question now is whether racing more frequently becomes the norm for marathoners. Could we see more athletes attempting three, or even four, marathons per year? 2021 was a strange year given the spring marathon season was almost nonexistent. That means athletes were desperate to race in the fall, with those who raced at the Olympics more inclined to double back in order to secure at least one appearance fee this year. Will we see more of the same in 2022? The World Championship marathons, scheduled for July 17 and 18, are perfectly placed for athletes to fit them in as part of a three-marathon season.

It was a very profitable fall for one agent

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Athletes weren’t the only ones missing out on appearance fees and prize money in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021; their agents missed out as well. With a huge slate of fall marathons on the schedule in 2021, there was a chance to recoup some of those losses.

It’s unlikely any agent had a more productive fall than Gianni Demadonna. His clients swept the victories (both genders) in London, Boston, and Amsterdam, and he also represents Peres Jepchirchir, who won New York (and the WMM series title), and Guye Adola, who won Berlin. He even got to stand atop the victory podium in London — his client Sisay Lemma was deemed a close contact of another COVID-positive runner and was not allowed to participate in the awards ceremony, leaving Demadonna to accept the plaque in his place.

Here’s a sampling of the prize money Demadonna stands to collect, assuming he takes an industry standard cut of 15%.

Event Athlete Prize money Demadonna’s cut
Berlin Guye Adola $23,185 $3,478
London Sisay Lemma $105,000 $15,750
London Joyciline Jepkosgei $155,000 $23,250
Boston Diana Kipyokei $150,000 $22,500
Boston Benson Kipruto $150,000 $22,500
New York Peres Jepchirchir $100,000 $15,000
WMM series title Peres Jepchirchir $150,000 $22,500
WMM series title Joyciline Jepkosgei $150,000 $22,500
TOTAL $147,478

Add in appearance fees and shoe company bonuses (not to mention money earned by all the other athletes Demadonna represents) and it has been a profitable fall indeed.

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