2022 Tokyo Marathon Men’s Preview: Ethiopians Team Up to Try To Take Down Eliud Kipchoge
By Jonathan Gault
March 3, 2022
The 2022 World Marathon Majors season kicks off on Sunday (Saturday night in the US) with the Tokyo Marathon, and it’s going to be a special one. For starters, it will be the first Tokyo Marathon in two years, as the 2021 edition was cancelled due to COVID (technically, race organizers are saying Sunday’s race is the 2021 edition and the 2022 edition has been cancelled, and yes, that makes no sense). And from a competitive standpoint, this year’s race is the best in Tokyo Marathon history — thanks in part to the London Marathon, typically staged in April, being held in October for the third consecutive year.
World record holder Eliud Kipchoge headlines the field, but he’s hardly the only fast guy entered; Ethiopian Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55 pb), who ranks fourth on the all-time list, is also running. So is the last guy to beat Kipchoge, 2020 London Marathon champ Shura Kitata, and Japanese record holder Kengo Suzuki (2:04:56 pb). The weather forecast (48-52 F, partly cloudy) looks ideal for fast racing in terms of temperature but it will be a little windier than ideal, 7-10 mph with gusts potentially approaching 20 mph. With a 7:10 p.m. ET start time on Saturday night, the timing is perfect for American marathon fans, particularly since Sara Hall will be taking a crack at the AR (women’s preview coming soon). You won’t want to miss this one.
What: 2022 Tokyo Marathon
When: Sunday, March 6 (race starts at 7:10 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 5 for US fans)
Where: Tokyo, Japan
How to watch: Full TV/streaming info here. It’s on Eurosport, ESPN International and Flotrack (US/Canada) depending on your IP.
Year 20 and Still Going Strong for Kipchoge
Eliud Kipchoge’s first year as a truly world-class runner was 2003, when he ran 7:30 and 12:52 on the track and won the 5,000-meter world title in one of the great races in World Championship history. While Kipchoge hasn’t always been the best runner in the world in the ensuing 18 years, he’s been pretty damn close most of the time and has been the unquestioned best marathoner in the world since the spring of 2015. It’s a staggering run of brilliance:
Eliud Kipchoge, year-by-year
2003: 7:30/12:52, World Junior XC champ, 5k world champ
2004: 3:33/7:27/12:46, Olympic 5k bronze
2005: 3:33/7:28/12:50, 5th World XC, 4th Worlds 5k
2006: 7:30/12:54, World Indoor 3k bronze
2007: 7:33/12:50/26:49, Worlds 5k silver
2008: 7:33/13:02/26:54, Olympic 5k silver
2009: 7:28/12:56, 5th Worlds 5k
2010: 7:32/12:51, Commonwealth 5k silver
2011: 7:29/12:55/26:53, 7th Worlds 5k
2012: 7:31/12:55, 6th World Half champs
2013: 60:04/2:04:05, 1st Hamburg, 2nd Berlin
2014: 2:04:11, 1st Rotterdam, 1st Chicago
2015: 2:04:00, 1st London, 1st Berlin
2016: 2:03:05, 1st London, 1st Olympics
2017: 2:03:32, 1st Berlin, 2:00:25 at Breaking2
2018: 2:01:39 WR, 1st London, 1st Berlin
2019: 2:02:37, 1st London, 1:59:40 at INEOS 1:59 Challenge
2020: 2:06:49, 8th London
2021: 2:04:30, 1st NN Mission Marathon, 1st Olympics
Just look at the consistency. Aside from the COVID year of 2020, when Kipchoge was limited to one marathon (a rainy London where he struggled with an ear blockage), what is his worst year? Probably 2012, when Kipchoge tried to move up to the 10k but wound up finishing just 7th at the Kenyan Olympic trials, held that year at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. And that’s about it in terms of “down” years. Even in 2011, when Kipchoge was “only” 7th at Worlds in the 5k, he still ran 7:29/12:55/26:53, pre-super spikes.
2022 will be Kipchoge’s 20th year as a pro, and he remains at the very top of the sport, having won August’s Olympic marathon by 80 seconds — an even greater margin of victory than his (already large) 70-second cushion in 2016. It also marks the beginning of Kipchoge’s third Olympic cycle as a marathoner, and a new phase of his career.
His first Olympic cycle, 2013-16, was about becoming the world’s greatest marathoner, and by the time he won gold in Rio — his sixth straight marathon victory — many viewed him as not just the best marathoner in the world, but the best we had ever seen. Kipchoge’s second Olympic cycle, 2017-21, was about breaking barriers and redefining what was possible in the marathon, not just for himself, but for humanity. 2:01:39 and 1:59:40 are testaments to his success in that regard. Olympic cycle #3 is essentially Kipchoge victory tour. He wants to win all of the World Marathon Majors, which requires running three races — Tokyo, Boston, and New York — that he’s never attempted.
If Kipchoge continues at his current clip — he’s won 12 of his last 13 marathons — he should check off those boxes before Paris 2024. There are two major obstacles standing in his way. First, can he succeed on the hilly, technical courses of Boston and New York after spending his career racing on flat, fast layouts? And second, can the 37-year-old (or perhaps slightly older) Kipchoge ward off Father Time? It’s the question that has hung over his career for years now, but so far, Father Time has taken a beating.
There is another obstacle, of course: his competition. That hasn’t been an issue for Kipchoge in the past — he would annually race the best of the best in London and trounce them all — but if Kipchoge is beaten in Tokyo, it will be because he is defeated by an actual human. So let’s take a closer look at the men who could do it.
Who Could Beat Kipchoge in Tokyo?
In terms of top-tier talent, Tokyo has never had a men’s field this good. 2019 World Champs bronze medalist/2021 Kenyan Olympian Amos Kipruto would have been a headliner for most previous editions of this race, but in 2022, he’s something of an afterthought. Domestically, Japan’s Kengo Suzuki, who ran a Japanese record of 2:04:56 at Lake Biwa last year, is the leading contender, but he doesn’t have much of a chance to win this race. Only one Japanese man has ever won a World Marathon Major, and it took a once-in-a-generation marathon storm for Yuki Kawauchi to win in Boston in 2018. A 2:04:56 pb just isn’t enough to win a fast major like Tokyo these days.
The way I like to think of this race — and buckle in, because I’m about to get nerdy on you: Kipchoge is Thanos. He’s the most powerful being in the marathon universe, and with wins in London, Berlin, and Chicago, he’s already halfway to completing the Infinity Gauntlet of World Marathon Majors. Trying to stop him: Ethiopia, who is sending its very best marathoners (minus Bekele) to stop him in Tokyo. That’s right, Ethiopia is the Avengers. Let’s meet them:
Update: David Monti reports Legese has scratched.
Birhanu Legese, Ethiopia, 27 years old
2:02:48 pb (2019 Berlin)
Why he could win: At his best, Legese is capable of some incredible performances. His 2:02:48 in Berlin in 2019 made him the fastest marathoner in history not named Kipchoge or Bekele, and he is one of just four men to break 2:03:30 twice (Kipchoge, Bekele, and Wilson Kipsang are the others). In particular, he’s had success in Tokyo as he ran 2:04:48 to win there in 2019 (a more impressive performance than it sounds — the cold, rainy conditions were poor for running fast and Legese won by a full two minutes) and successfully defended his title by running 2:04:15 in 2020. Legese missed the Ethiopian Olympic trials last year due to foot and hamstring injuries, but he is a monster talent when healthy. Why he won’t: Legese was only 5th in his last marathon in London last fall, and before that he was 3rd in Valencia in 2020. Neither of those are disastrous performances (he still ran 2:03:16 in Valencia), but he’ll have to be at his best to challenge Kipchoge on Sunday.
Mosinet Geremew, Ethiopia, 30 years old
2:02:55 pb (2019 London)
Why he could win: Like Legese, Geremew has run super fast (his 2:02:55 pb is #4 all-time and the second-fastest time ever in London after Kipchoge’s 2:02:37 course record) and has put up a number of big-time marathon performances to back up that time. He won 2018 Dubai, was second behind Mo Farah at 2018 Chicago and second behind Lelisa Desisa at the 2019 Worlds, and has finished fourth and third in the last two London Marathons. He’s always in the hunt, and if you’re in the hunt enough times, you’re going to get a major breakthrough, similar to the one we saw from his countryman Sisay Lemma in London last fall. For his career, he’s won just 2 of the 7 marathons he’s finished.
Why he won’t: Most of the time when Geremew has run well, someone else has run even better. That could easily happen again given how strong this field is. For his career, he’s won just 1 of the 8 marathons he’s finished.
Shura Kitata, Ethiopia, 25 years old
2:04:49 pb (2018 London)
Why he could win: The only time Kipchoge has lost a marathon in the last eight years, Kitata was the winner. That was 2020 London, and Kitata has also produced top performances 2018 London (2nd) and 2018 New York (2nd in 2:06:01), which means his 2:04:49 pb is misleading: this dude is for real. Last year, Kitata won the uber-competitive Ethiopian Olympic trials, but he picked up a hamstring injury two weeks before the Olympics, which led to a DNF in Sapporo and a subpar showing in London (where he gutted out a 2:07:51 for 6th despite being nowhere close to 100%). If he’s healthy, watch out.
Remember, he’s way younger than the other expected contenders here. His best days may still be ahead of him.
Why he won’t: Whether it was the hamstring injury last year or forgetting to eat enough before the 2019 London Marathon, things seem to go wrong for Kitata a fair amount. He can’t afford any excuses if he is to pull the upset in Tokyo. For his career, he’s won just 3 of the 14 marathons he’s finished and that doesn’t count a DNF at the Olymics.
Tamirat Tola, Ethiopia, 30 years old
2:03:39 pb (2021 Amsterdam)
Why he could win: Tola’s career highlights are very impressive. He was an Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 in 2016 and a World Championship silver medalist in the marathon in 2017. He’s also a former Dubai Marathon champ (he ran a then-course record of 2:04:11 in 2017) and ran the second-fastest marathon in the world last fall, clocking 2:03:39 to win in Amsterdam in course-record fashion.
Why he won’t: That win in Amsterdam last year was Tola’s first marathon podium since Dubai in January 2018. To be fair, he was racing some tough fields in the interim (London and New York twice each), but Sunday’s field is going to be tough as well. For his career, he’s won just 2 of the 10 marathons he’s finished and that doesn’t count a DNF at 2018 Boston.
What to expect on Sunday
Kipchoge just whipped everyone at the Olympics, and while he (and the rest of the elite field) were only announced two weeks ago (Japan wasn’t allowing foreigners into the country until March 1), Tokyo is the race Kipchoge was targeting all along. He will be ready. The conditions (high of 55, partly cloudy) look good for marathoning and Tokyo is not a challenging course technically, which should mean a fast race. Kipchoge doesn’t lose those.
If Kipchoge runs an “A” race, he will win. If he runs a “C” race or suffers some disaster, he will lose (this is rare — in 17 starts, the ear blockage at ’20 London is the only time this has happened). Things will only get dramatic if Kipchoge runs a “B” race (this is rare too, but it could happen if Kipchoge ever starts to show his age). If that’s the case, Kipchoge could still win but would be vulnerable if one of his Ethiopian challengers — Legese, Geremew, Kitata, or Tola — can summon their best effort. Those guys are far less consistent than Kipchoge (as is every other marathoner in history), but with four of them in the field, chances are decent that at least one of them can pop a big one.
JG prediction: 1. Kipchoge 2. Kitata 3. Geremew
There were rumblings in the Olympic mixed zone last year that Kipchoge might be vulnerable only for him to stomp field in Sapporo. I’m not betting against him until he gives me a reason to, but if he’s fully healthy, I like Kitata’s odds the best of pulling the upset.
Talk about the race on the world-famous messageboard. MB: Tokyo Marathon is this Saturday at 7:10 pm ET – Official Discussion Thread