2023 Boston Men’s Preview: Can Anyone Beat Eliud Kipchoge?

By Jonathan Gault
April 12, 2023

Boston Marathon Monday is always one of running’s red letter days, but the 2023 edition has the potential to go down as one of the greatest in the race’s 127-year history. Race organizers can’t guarantee fast times or a close finish, but the folks at the B.A.A. have done their best to set the stage for a race to remember on April 17.

Eliud Kipchoge, the Olympic champion, world record holder, and greatest marathoner in history, is making his long-awaited Boston Marathon debut. (You may have heard). And he’ll face one of the finest fields ever assembled in Boston. Between Kipchoge, Evans Chebet (Boston & NYC champ), and Benson Kipruto (Chicago champ), 2023 Boston features the winners of five of the six World Marathon Majors held last year (the only one missing is Amos Kipruto, who will defend his London crown next week). The men’s field also includes Gabriel Geay (2:03:00 pb, tied #8 all-time) and Shura Kitata — the 2020 London Marathon champion (aka the last time Kipchoge lost a marathon).

The domestic field is deep as well, with five Americans entered who have run 2:09 or faster. With Galen Rupp passing on the spring marathon season, Conner Mantz (2:08:16 pb) and Scott Fauble (2:08:52 pb) will try to stake their claim as America’s #1 marathoner less than 10 months out from the 2024 US Olympic Trials. (Separate preview focused on the Americans coming later this week).

There’s so much to discuss before the starting gun fires in Hopkinton on Monday morning. Let’s get to it.

(If you prefer audio or video we discussed Boston on this week’s podcast here and have video below)

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*Full elite field

Notable international entrants

Name Country Personal best Comment
Eliud Kipchoge Kenya 2:01:09 (2022 Berlin) Marathon GOAT coming off WR in Berlin
Evans Chebet Kenya 2:03:00 (2020 Valencia) Won Boston & NYC last year
Gabriel Geay Tanzania 2:03:00 (2022 Valencia) Coming off pb in Valencia; T-8 all-time
Herpasa Negasa Ethiopia 2:03:40 (2019 Dubai) 2nd 2022 Seoul (2:04:49), DNF Chicago in 2022
Benson Kipruto Kenya 2:04:24 (2022 Chicago) 2021 Boston champ coming off win in Chicago
Lelisa Desisa Ethiopia 2:04:45 (2013 Dubai)
Won Boston in ’13 & ’15 but hasn’t had a good marathon since winning ’19 Worlds
Shura Kitata Ethiopia 2:04:49 (2018 London) The last time Kipchoge lost (2020 London), he was the winner
John Korir Kenya 2:05:01 (2022 Chicago) 3rd in Chicago last year
Nobert Kigen Kenya 2:05:13 (2017 Amsterdam) Won Prague last year, then 7th in Amsterdam
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie Eritrea 2:05:34 (2022 Seville) 2016 NYC champ had a few rough years but PR’d last year
Andualem Belay Ethiopia 2:05:45 (2022 Lisbon) Has won 8 of last 10 marathons
Mark Korir Kenya 2:05:49 (2015 Paris) 2nd in Berlin last fall
Andamlik Belihu Ethiopia 2:06:40 (2022 Berlin) PRs of 26:53/58:54
Albert Korir Kenya 2:08:03 (2019 Ottawa) 2021 NYC champ was 6th in Boston last year

Kipchoge is the man to beat

Dan Vernon for Virgin Money London Marathon

Kipchoge, despite never having run Boston before, is clearly the man to beat. No, there are no pacemakers. Yes, there are a few hills. But this is still a 26.2-mile race, and no man in history has been more successful at racing 26.2 miles than Eliud Kipchoge. He’s the “Babe Ruth” of marathoning and has won 17 of his 19 marathon, if you count his two sub 2-hour attempts. It’s a good bet Kipchoge will be the fittest man on the start line, and that’s a big advantage, even on a more technical course like Boston.

There are a few big questions surrounding Kipchoge. The first is how will his legs handle the undulating Boston course, which drops 310 feet in the first four miles, climbs 200 feet between miles 16 and 21 (with a few downhills thrown in), then drops another 200+ to the finish. To win Boston — especially in recent years — you need to be able to withstand those first 21 miles of pounding and still fly downhill to the finish line. We know Kipchoge can close marathons very hard — in his two Olympic victories, Kipchoge put 70 seconds on the field in the final 7k in Rio and 80 seconds on the field over the final 12k in Sapporo. But neither of those courses featured anything close to the hills of Boston.

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Of course, Kipchoge has experience on hills — just not in the marathon. Kipchoge trains on hills all the time at home in Kaptagat, including a famous local course known as “Boston” because of its hills. He also was the world junior XC champ in 2003 in Switzerland, and that course had some up and down, even if many of them were man-made.

The second is whether Kipchoge attempts to break Geoffrey Mutai‘s 2:03:02 course record — which was the fastest marathon ever run back when Mutai did it in 2011. If Kipchoge is to even consider a record attempt, he will need good weather, and it’s a bit early to tell whether that will fall into place. The current forecast calls for nice temps (50-54F during the race) but the wind forecast is dicey — currently it predicts a bit of a head/crosswind of 9 mph with gusts up to 18 mph.

Even with good weather, it’s not clear if Kipchoge will try to break the record. Back in December, Kipchoge said he would be happy if he broke the course record but it was not his plan. More recently, in an NN Running Team video released in March, Kipchoge mentioned getting the course record at half the World Marathon Majors, but it wasn’t clear if he was referring to the three course records he already owns (Tokyo, London, Berlin) or the three he does not.

Kipchoge’s biggest challengers

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Right now, 34-year-old Evans Chebet is the best marathoner in the world not named Eliud Kipchoge. During his first 10 career marathons, Chebet won exactly zero of them, and one of them was a DNF in Boston (2018). But he was second in 6 of those 10 races.

Starting with marathon #11 — a 2:05:00 win in Buenos Aires in 2019, he figured out how to win, capturing five of his last six marathons, including big-time victories in Valencia (2:03:00 in 2020), Boston (2:06:51 in 2022), and New York (2:08:41 in 2022) — the latter two making him the first athlete to win Boston & NYC in the same year since Geoffrey Mutai in 2011.

Chebet’s training partner Benson Kipruto, 32, isn’t far behind — he won Boston in October 2021 (2:09:51), finished 3rd in 2022 (2:07:27), and won Chicago last fall in a pb of 2:04:24. Two former Boston champions coming off fall marathon victories? There’s no one better to challenge Kipchoge in Boston.

Their coach, Italian Claudio Berardelli, tells LetsRun that Chebet had to take an extended break after winning NYC in early November, mainly to nurse an injured Achilles tendon (Chebet also got married on December 11). But Berardelli says both Chebet and Kipruto have trained without issue since January and have had solid, healthy buildups. The two mostly trained together throughout the buildup, though they ran in separate groups for a few long runs because Kipruto was in better shape at the time. Now, however, Berardelli says it is difficult to say who is fitter.

“Evans is in the peak of his career and he has now to work to maintain that peak,” Berardelli says. “Benson, because he’s younger – okay, he has quite a number of marathons completed (12), but not as many as Evans – so maybe Benson, I feel like still has a margin to explore in what is his athletics development. But you can never fully say if they have reached the ultimate limit of what they can perform or not.”

I ask Berardelli the big question: how do your guys beat Eliud Kipchoge in Boston?

“First of all it’s important to be fit, in shape,” Berardelli says. “We did it. I think we have done good training. Second, is on that day to have respect for the marathon itself because Boston, especially, is a very unique race. And maybe also not to forget there are other strong competitors in the race. Maybe the secret is not to have too much focus on Eliud, otherwise, it might create a bit of confusion in the mind.”

When does Kipchoge (or someone else) make his move?

Kipruto flew downhill through Brookline in 2021 en route to victory (courtesy BAA/Victah Sailer) Kipruto flew downhill through Brookline en route to victory in 2021 (Courtesy BAA/Victah Sailer)

Strategically, this is going to be a fascinating race. If Kipchoge is serious about a course record, he needs to get moving early. 2:03:02 is no joke and requires a fast opening half, especially with the uphills lurking in the second half. And if Kipchoge does go out super fast — say in the 61:00-62:00 range — does anyone go with him?

If Kipchoge opts to run more conservatively (I suspect he will), then the question becomes: when does he make his move? In his two previous races without a rabbit, Kipchoge dropped his rivals at 35k (2016 Olympics) and 30k (2021 Olympics). With that in mind, the top of Heartbreak Hill (21 miles) would be a logical place to attack, assuming his legs are still up to the task.

Thing is, if Kipchoge waits until then, chances are strong someone else is going to be feeling good and ready to respond (or perhaps someone else opts to attack on/before the hills). In 2021, Kipruto won Boston by crushing the post-Heartbreak downhills: he split 14:06 from 35k to 40k. Last year, Chebet was even more impressive: he went 4:27-4:26-4:26 for miles 22-24, splitting 13:55 (1:57:26 marathon pace) from 35k to 40k. 13:55!

I do wonder whether, with that in mind, Kipchoge attempts to surge earlier (or at least keep the tempo honest) to avoid Boston turning into a 5-mile slugfest against a few guys who have already shown they can close here. Then again, maybe he doesn’t care. It’s hard to imagine anyone splitting much faster than 13:55 for 5k at the end of a marathon…until you realize Kipchoge averaged 14:10.8 per 5k for 26.2 miles in the INEOS sub-2 event where he ran 1:59:40. Considering the elevation drop of roughly 125 feet between 35k and 40k is worth something close to 22 seconds, I’m wondering if we should almost expect it from Kipchoge.

If there’s anyone who can drop a sub-13:50, it’s him. Whatever happens, it’s going to be fun to watch.

Other contenders

Kipchoge is clearly the favorite, but if he falters, there are a number of guys beyond Chebet and Kipruto who could step up. Here are a few of the more interesting names to watch:

Gabriel Geay, Tanzania, 26 years old, 2:03:00 pb (2022 Valencia)
Last two marathons:
7th 2022 Worlds (2:07:31), 2nd 2022 Valencia (2:03:00)

Geay was 4th in his Boston debut last year, then ran 2:03:00 to finish 2nd in Valencia in December, tying him with Evans Chebet as the eighth-fastest man in history (coincidentally, they ran the same time on the same course two years apart). In this field, only Kipchoge has a faster pb, which means Geay has to be viewed as a serious contender.

Kitata won a wet London Marathon in 2020 (Thomas Lovelock for Virgin Money London Marathon)

Shura Kitata, Ethiopia, 26 years old, 2:04:49 pb (2018 London)
Last two marathons:
5th 2022 Tokyo (2:06:12), 2nd 2022 New York (2:08:54)

Kitata has finished in the top five in seven of his nine career World Marathon Majors, with three runner-up finishes and a win in London in 2020. He’s not afraid of Kipchoge, either — he hung with him through 23 miles in London as a 21-year-old in 2018, and Kitata was the winner of the only marathon Kipchoge has lost in the last nine years. Kitata’s form had been slipping in recent years but a runner-up finish in New York last fall suggests Kitata may be trending in the right direction.

Andualem Belay, Ethiopia, 31 years old, 2:05:45 pb (2022 Lisbon)
Last two marathons: 
1st 2022 Ottawa (2:06:04), 1st 2022 Lisbon (2:05:45)

Boston will be Belay’s 24th marathon, but his first World Marathon Major appearance. Belay won just one of his first 13 marathons, but since 2019 he’s been nearly unbeatable, winning eight of the nine he has finished in that span. His progression is pretty incredible. From 2013 through 2018, he broke 2:11 just once in 14 marathons. In eight marathon finishes since 2019, he’s broken 2:09 in all of them except the 2021 Abebe Bikila Marathon, held at significant altitude in Ethiopia.

None of those victories, however, required him to run faster than 2:05:45. How will he respond to the significant jump in competition in Boston?

Andamlak Belihu, Ethiopia, 24 years old, 2:06:40 pb (2022 Berlin)
Last two marathons: 23rd 2021 Valencia (2:09:43), 4th 2022 Berlin (2:06:40)

Belihu’s marathon stats aren’t super impressive, but he has great potential. His pbs at shorter distances are great (26:53/58:54), but what really stands out is how he ran in Berlin last fall. When Kipchoge went through halfway in 59:51, Belihu was right with him, and he hung with the GOAT through 25k. Yes, he faded to 4th in 2:06:40, but a more sensible opening half could produce a great result in Boston.

Albert Korir, Kenya, 29 years old, 2:08:03 pb (2019 Ottawa)
Last two marathons: 6th 2022 Boston (2:08:50), 7th 2022 New York (2:13:27)

Korir didn’t have a great 2022 season, but he’s only 17 months removed from winning New York.

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