2022 Boston Marathon Women’s Preview: Who’s World #1, Meet Degitu Azimeraw, and Can Molly Seidel Make the Podium?
By Jonathan Gault
April 15, 2022
(Our men’s Boston preview was published yesterday and can be found here)
It has been three long years since we had a Boston Marathon in the spring. How long ago was that? On April 15, 2019, the day of the last spring Boston, the following things were true:
-The top American woman in the race was Jordan Hasay, who finished 3rd in 2:25:20. Hasay ran that race in the black and white colors of the Oregon Project under the watchful eyes of her coach, Alberto Salazar.
–Sara Hall finished 15th, running 2:35:34 on her 36th birthday. Ten races into her marathon career, her pb stood at 2:26:20.
–Molly Seidel had never run a half marathon, let alone a marathon.
–Deena Kastor held the American record at 2:19:36. No one had any reason to know the name Keira D’Amato, a realtor from Virginia with a 2:40:56 marathon pb.
About the only thing that hasn’t changed since the 2019 race is that Des Linden is still running it (Monday will be her ninth Boston start) and Edna Kiplagat, now 42, remains a contender (because Kiplagat will be contending in World Marathon Majors until the sun explodes).
2022 Boston promises to be special. It’s the 50th anniversary of Boston allowing official women’s entrants, and there’s never been an elite women’s field in Boston this good. The headline showdown is the battle between Olympic/New York champion Peres Jepchirchir and London champion Joyciline Jepkosgei, with the winner earning the unofficial title of world’s greatest marathoner (at least, until Brigid Kosgei races one of them this fall). But they’ll also have rising Ethiopian star Degitu Azimeraw and a certain American Olympic medalist named Molly Seidel to deal with. Let’s dive into the preview…
Top elite entrants
|Peres Jepchirchir||2:17:16 (Valencia, 2020)||Kenya||Olympic/NYC champ|
|Joyciline Jepkosgei||2:17:43 (London, 2021)||Kenya||London champ|
|Degitu Azimeraw||2:17:58 (London, 2021)||Ethiopia||15 secs behind Jepkosgei in London|
|Edna Kiplagat||2:19:50 (London, 2012)||Kenya||1 win, 2 2nds in Boston|
|Etagegn Woldu||2:20:16 (Valencia, 2021)||Ethiopia||2nd in Valencia last year in debut|
|Maurine Chepkemoi||2:20:18 (Amsterdam, 2021)||Kenya||2nd in Amsterdam last year|
|Ababel Yeshaneh||2:20:51 (Chicago, 2019)||Ethiopia||Former HM WR holder was 3rd at ’21 NYC|
|Desiree Linden||2:22:38 (Boston, 2011)||USA||’18 champ lining up for 9th Boston|
|Viola Cheptoo||2:22:44 (NYC, 2021)||Kenya||Almost won NYC in her debut last year|
|Charlotte Purdue||2:23:26 (London, 2021)||Great Britain||2:23 in London last year made her 4th-fastest Brit ever|
|Molly Seidel||2:24:42 (NYC, 2021)||USA||Olympic bronze medalist|
|Malindi Elmore||2:24:50 (Houston, 2020)||Canada||42-year-old was 9th in Olympic marathon|
|Mary Ngugi||2:25:20 (Boston, 2021)||Kenya||Two-time World Half medalist was 3rd last year|
|Monicah Ngige||2:25:32 (Boston, 2021)||Kenya||4th last year|
|Natasha Wodak||2:26:19 (Chandler, 2020)||Canada||40-year-old was 13th in Olympic marathon|
|Sara Vaughn||2:26:53 (Sacramento, 2020)||USA||Won CIM in her debut in December|
|Nell Rojas||2:27:12 (Boston, 2021)||USA||Top American last year in 6th|
|Stephanie Bruce||2:27:47 (Chicago, 2019)||USA||38-year-old is retiring at end of year|
|Dakotah Lindwurm||2:29:04 (Duluth, 2021)||USA||Finished 13th in ’21 after leading early|
Who is the best women’s marathoner in the world?
At the end of 2021, it was pretty clear: Kenyans Peres Jepchirchir and Joyciline Jepkosgei were the two best female marathoners in the world. Jepchirchir had followed up a 2020 season during which she won the World Half Marathon title and ran 2:17:16 to win the Valencia Marathon (#5 all-time) with wins at the Olympics and New York in 2021 — the first woman in history to win the Olympics and a fall major in the same year. With four straight marathon wins dating back to 2019, Jepchirchir is the reigning queen of the event.
But Jepkosgei isn’t far behind. In November 2019, she almost broke the New York course record in running 2:22:38 to win in her debut. She followed that by finishing second in Valencia in 2020 in 2:18:40 (behind only Jepchirchir) before running 2:17:43 last fall (#7 all-time) to win London.
After Jepkosgei’s win in London and Jepchirchir’s win in New York, marathon fans wanted to see the two square off again in 2022, and their wish was granted when Boston announced its elite field in January. But it almost didn’t happen. Initially, Jepkosgei had been targeting the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on March 13 and its $250,000 first-place prize. But Jepkosgei suffered a minor injury early in her return to training following London, and she decided with her coach Gabriele Nicola to run a different race. With Nagoya and Tokyo (March 6) coming too early, Jepkosgei wound up running Boston somewhat by default.
“Where do we go?” said Jepkosgei’s agent Gianni Demadonna. “We don’t have any other chance. There is no London in spring…the other marathons are really far away from Boston in budget.”
Ultimately, however, Demadonna believes Jepkosgei’s performance on Monday will be better than it would have been in Nagoya a month ago.
“[Nicola] said it’s better to have 40 days more to go to Boston because I am sure that in Boston she will be ready,” Demadonna said. “In Nagoya, she [would have been] only 75-80%. That’s not enough.”
(Editor’s note: He’s right in saying that 75-80% wouldn’t have been enough as Ruth Chepngetich won Nagoya in 2:17:18 and 2nd place pays much less – $50,000)
Jepchirchir didn’t have an ideal start to her buildup either, dealing with a foot injury in November (she wasn’t 100% in New York, which explains why she waited until the final 800m to make her winning move). Demadonna is optimistic that she is fitter now than she was five months ago, but we’ll have to wait until race day for sure.
But while Jepchirchir and Jepkosgei were the world’s top two marathoners at the end of last year, things may have changed a bit this spring. Brigid Kosgei ran 2:16:02 in Tokyo, the third-fastest marathon ever. Kosgei owned the event in 2019 and 2020 but battled injuries last year and was “only” 2nd at the Olympics and 4th in London. And a week after Kosgei’s Tokyo run, 2021 Chicago champ Ruth Chepngetich ran 2:17:18 to win in Nagoya (Chepngetich DNF’d at the Olympics).
The reality is, there are a bunch of women operating at a very high level in 2022. I’d take a healthy Kosgei over all of them, but if we’re treat marathoning like boxing, Jepchirchir earned the title belt with her Olympic win last year and deserves to keep it until someone beats her. Which could very well happen on Monday.
Meet Degitu Azimeraw
The quartet mentioned above — Peres Jepchirchir, Joyciline Jepkosgei, Brigid Kosgei, and Ruth Chepngetich — constitute the “Big Four” in women’s marathoning right now. Between them, they own the world record and the current titles at Worlds, the Olympics, Chicago, London, Tokyo, and New York. They comprise four of the seven fastest marathoners in history. And they have one thing in common: they’re all Kenyan.
Ethiopia, however, is working to close the gap, and one of its most promising hopes is the group helmed by coach Tessema Abshero. His squad includes Haven Hailu (2:20:19 pb), Tsehay Gemechu (65:08 half marathon pb), Yalemzerf Yehualaw (63:51 HM pb), and Degitu Azimeraw (2:17:58 pb). All four are 24 or younger.
The group will have a busy spring. Hailu started it by winning Rotterdam last week (2:22:01), and Yehualaw is slated to make her much-anticipated marathon debut in Hamburg next week. But the focus this week is on Azimeraw, who will be running Boston for the first time.
Azimeraw has run well in all three of her career marathons. She debuted with a 2:19:26 win in Amsterdam in 2019, ran 2:19:56 for 5th in Valencia in 2020, and last year finished 2nd in London in 2:17:58, 15 seconds back of winner Jepkosgei and 3rd-fastest ever by an Ethiopian.
In Boston, she is hoping to go one better and win her first World Marathon Major, and her agent Daan van den Berg says she is in the shape of her life after a “perfect, perfect” preparation. Due to uncertainty about entry limitations, she was not able to run her tuneup race at the RAK Half in February, but van den Berg believes she was in shape to run in the 64:00s in that race and that 2:16 would be a realistic marathon time for her right now if she were racing on a flat course like Berlin or London.
Boston, famously, is not flat. But van den Berg does not believe that will be a problem for Azimeraw.
“She’s good on the hills in Ethiopia and she enjoys them,” van den Berg said. “It’s a choice that the coach made to go for Boston instead of Tokyo, because of course she could have run either of them with her pedigree. We think she’s good on the hills and that she’s good in that kind of race.”
How dedicated is Azimeraw to winning Boston? She and Abshero wanted to practice running in the cold to be prepared in case race day is cold in Boston. The problem is, it never gets that cold when the sun is up in Addis Ababa. Their solution: Azimeraw has been getting up at 3 or 4 a.m. for some of her workouts in order to train during the coldest part of the day.
She is locked in. And if she can improve at all from her performance in London last fall, she just might spoil the Kenyan party on Boylston Street.
Could the course record go down?
The Boston Marathon course record of 2:19:59 was set by Buzunesh Deba in 2014 and has not been challenged since (Rita Jeptoo actually crossed the line first that year in 2:18:57 but was later stripped of the title after testing positive for EPO later that year).
Deba wasn’t the only one to run fast that day. The top six finishers all ran 2:21:29 or faster. 2:21:29 would have won every other Boston Marathon in history, save for 2002 (In 2002, Margaret Okayo won in 2:20:43, Catherine Ndereba was second in 2:21:12).
How did everyone run so fast in 2014? Well the most obvious reason is PEDs. In addition to Jeptoo, 4th placer Jemima Sumgong and 6th placer Aleksandra Duliba would later go on to serve doping bans. But other than that, there were three key factors: good weather, a deep field, and someone willing to push the pace early (in 2014, that was Shalane Flanagan, who would finish 7th in an American course record of 2:22:02).
Boston 2022 will have the first two. But will it have the third?
Finding someone willing to push hard from the gun is easier said than done. Just look at NYC the last few years. The women’s course record could easily have been broken there in 2018 and 2021, but each time the big guns opted to start conservatively before slamming it home over the second half. This year, the top women — Jepchirchir, Jepkosgei, and Azimeraw — will all be making their Boston debut. Will any of them risk a hard start, knowing that the Newton Hills loom in the distance?
If it does go out even semi-quickly, there’s a good shot the CR could go on Monday. With the benefit of supershoes and a great weather forecast, the world’s best women are capable of running a lot faster than 2:19:59 in Boston.
Where is defending champ Diana Kipyokei?
Boston loves to trot out its former champions, so it’s very unusual that reigning women’s champ Diana Kipyokei isn’t returning to defend her title since she hasn’t been announced for any other marathons. Behind the scenes, there has been a lot of chatter about her situation but nothing that anyone will state on the record. Demadonna, the agent who represented Kipyokei last fall, says he is not working with her anymore.
“We don’t know anything about Diana,” Demadonna said. “Honestly, we are awaiting what will be the next [step] for her. But at the moment, we are waiting. At the moment, she has to follow other situation and at the moment, she’s not in preparation for any marathon. We will see if we have any news coming up. Because at the moment, she’s not training. She’s waiting some decision.”
Boston elite coordinator Mary Kate Shea did not elaborate much when asked about Kipyokei’s absence, saying only “we don’t know what Diana’s spring running plans are.”
Molly Seidel makes her Boston Marathon debut
There aren’t many better fits than Molly Seidel and the Boston Marathon. Seidel used to live and train in the city. She excels in tough, championship-style marathons. Heck, the parents of her coach, Jon Green, even own a hardware store at mile 15 in Wellesley.
Now Seidel, 27, will make her Boston debut after a career year in 2021 that saw her earn Olympic bronze in Sapporo and run a pb of 2:24:42 to finish 4th in New York, the fastest time ever run on that course by an American woman. Boston will be marathon #5 for Seidel, and she has yet to run a bad one. Even after breaking two ribs a month before NYC last year — an injury that affected her buildup to the point where she seriously considered scratching from the race — she rebounded to run a great race.
That’s good to know, because Seidel’s Boston prep hasn’t gone perfectly either — she was supposed to race the NYC Half on March 20th, but wound up withdrawing after some “setbacks in training.” Her coach Jon Green declined to elaborate on those setbacks to LetsRun, but described them as “normal things” and said they felt they were better served using the week of the NYC Half to get in a good week of training rather than tapering and traveling across the country for a race. (For you Strava sleuths, Seidel didn’t post any entries for the week of February 28 – March 6 but then ran 93, 130, and 136 miles for the next three weeks).
“New York didn’t come at the perfect time, so we just decided to pull out,” Green said. “To be honest, I’m happy with the decision that we made and I think Molly’s heading into Boston really fit and ready to rip it.”
So how will Seidel fare on Monday? Her pb may only be 2:24:42, but ignore that — she’s never run a fast course in good conditions, and her Olympic bronze shows that she can compete with the best in the world in a certain kind of race.
Winning on Monday is unlikely. The course in Boston can be challenging, but the course alone isn’t enough of an equalizer against a field this good. And the weather may actually work against Seidel. If it was super hot or cold and rainy, I’d like Seidel’s chances a lot more. That kind of race, where it turns into a test of toughness in grueling conditions, is where Seidel excels. But if it’s a race that goes fast from the gun, or a race where the top women wait around for the first 20 miles before one of them tries to rip the last 10k, that doesn’t favor Seidel.
Forecasting a specific kind of race in Boston often proves to be a fool’s errand, though. Here’s what I know: unless someone takes off at a truly ridiculous pace, Seidel will be in the lead group, and she’ll probably hang around for a while.
“No matter what race we’re in, we’re putting our neck in there and going with that front pack and just competing with the best,” Green said. “I think Molly’s proved to the world at this point that she’s one of the best marathoners out there.”
Whether she can hold on for a podium finish will depend on how good a day Seidel is having and whether any of the big three of Jepchirchir, Jepkosgei, and Azimeraw run into problems. Seidel could finish in the top three, but with women like Edna Kiplagat (two 2nds and a 1st at Boston) and Viola Cheptoo (who beat Seidel by two minutes in New York last year) in the field, Seidel could also run a great race and finish 6th.
Others to watch on Monday
It would be a surprise if someone outside of the Jepkosgei/Jepchirchir/Azimeraw trio wins the race — their best days are just so much better than everyone else’s. But Edna Kiplagat, who was 2nd last year and always closes strong, can’t be discounted, nor can the two women whom Jepchirchir outkicked in New York last year, Cheptoo (Bernard Lagat’s younger sis) and Ababel Yeshaneh. Cheptoo, in her debut, came just five seconds away from winning NYC and could be dangerous if she improves in marathon #2. And Yeshaneh, who was also second in Chicago in 2019 behind Brigid Kosgei’s world record, is a former half marathon world record holder with a 64:31 pb.
Looking at the domestic field, Seidel is the overwhelming favorite to finish as top American. But there are others who could step up if Seidel falters. Des Linden, now 38, has forgotten more about the Boston course than most of us will ever know and will be hoping to bounce back after hobbling to a 17th-place finish last fall. Nell Rojas was an impressive sixth last year in 2:27:12, and like Seidel and Linden, the former triathlete has shown an affinity for tough courses. And Sara Vaughn, who made the World Championship team at 1500 in 2017, surprised many by running 2:26:53 to win CIM in her debut last year and will line up for her first Boston.
As with the men, I’ll hold off on any predictions until after the elite athlete media availability on Friday, but I’m leaning toward Azimeraw FTW and Seidel as top American.
Talk about 2022 Boston on the world-famous LetsRun.com / messageboard.
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