Boston Women’s Preview: Who Will Win the Deepest Women’s Marathon Ever?

Back in January, when the Boston Athletic Association announced the women’s elite field for its 2023 race, we immediately hailed it as the deepest in women’s marathon history — with the caveat that things could change if athletes withdraw before race day or what London came up with.

So far, so good. One big name has withdrawn from the initial field — NYC champ Sharon Lokedi — but she was quickly replaced by Kenyan star Hellen Obiri, a two-time world champ on the track and the 2019 World XC gold medalist. Barring an 11th-hour scratch, here are the crazy numbers behind the 2023 Boston Marathon women’s elite field:

2023 Boston Previous Most In History
Sub-2:18 PB 5 4 (’21 Olympics)
Sub-2:19 PB 7 7* (’22 London)
Sub-2:20 PB 9 9 (’21 London)
Sub-2:21 PB 16 10 (’21 London)
Sub-2:22 PB 16 11 (’21 London)
Sub-2:23 PB 20 13 (’20 Valencia)
Sub-2:24 PB 21 15 (’20 Valencia)
Sub-2:25 PB 21 18 (’21 Olympics)

*The 2023 London Marathon, which will be held six days after Boston, features 8 sub-2:19 women

It can all be a tad overwhelming. Exactly two years ago, only eight women in history had broken 2:18 in the marathon. Now we have five of them in the same race. Is it all the shoes? Or is this year’s Boston field really that good? As Abraham Simpson would say, “a little from Column A, a little from Column B.”

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So who’s going to win this thing? Let’s break the top contenders down by category. (We discuss the Americans’ chances in a separate article here).

2023 Boston Marathon women’s elite field top international entrants *Full field

Amane Beriso Ethiopia 2:14:58 (2022 Valencia) Her 2:14 in Valencia came out of nowhere
Sheila Chepkirui Kenya 2:17:29 (2022 Valencia) Debuted in 2:17 in Valencia in Dec.
Joyciline Jepkosgei Kenya 2:17:43 (2021 London)
Has won 2 majors + 2nd at ’22 London but only 7th at ’22 Boston
Lonah Salpeter Israel 2:17:45 (2020 Tokyo) Bronze at Worlds, then 2nd in NYC in ’22
Angela Tanui Kenya 2:17:57 (2021 Amsterdam) 6th at Worlds, then 2nd Abu Dhabi in ’22
Fancy Chemutai Kenya 2:18:11 (2022 Valencia) Ran 6-min pb of 2:18 at ’22 Valencia
Gotytom Gebreslase Ethiopia 2:18:11 (2022 Worlds)
Podiums in all 4 career marathons, including wins at ’21 Berlin/’22 Worlds
Hiwot Gebremaryam Ethiopia 2:19:12 (2022 Tokyo) 5th in Tokyo last year
Edna Kiplagat Kenya 2:19:50 (2012 London) 1st, 8th, 2nd, 1st, 4th in last 5 Bostons. Now 43 years old
Mary Ngugi Kenya 2:20:22 (2022 London) 2nd and 3rd in the last two Bostons
Ababel Yeshaneh Ethiopia 2:20:51 (2019 Chicago) 2nd last year, just 4 secs behind Peres Jepchirchir
Viola Cheptoo Kenya 2:22:44 (2021 NYC) Almost won ’21 NYC, then 6th at ’22 Boston
Hellen Obiri Kenya 2:25:49 (2022 NYC)
Underwhelming debut but two-time world champ on track has massive potential

Her PB is two minutes faster than everyone else

Courtesy Valencia Marathon

Because there are so many accomplished women in this year’s Boston field, it’s hard to call any of them the favorite. But if I were to pick only one, it would probably be Beriso. Her 2:14:58 pb (#3 all-time), which she ran by dropping Letesenbet Gidey to win Valencia in December, is more than two minutes faster than any other woman in the field has ever run.

Beriso’s run in Valencia was one of the most shocking results in recent marathon history. When she stepped on the line for that race, Beriso was 30 years old, had barely raced over the previous four years, and hadn’t run a personal best since her 2:20:48 debut in January 2016. Five months later, a jump that large is still a little hard to fathom, though Beriso’s coach, Gemedu Dedefo, pointed out she did not have supershoes for her debut and nagging injuries meant Beriso had not been fully healthy for most of the previous five years.

Among marathons, Boston and Valencia could not be more different, and Beriso was 13th in her only previous Boston appearance in 2016. But if she’s anywhere close to 2:14 shape on Monday, she should be battling for the win.

Past major champions

Six women in Monday’s field have won a World Marathon Major in the past. One is Des Linden, whom we already discussed in our preview of the top Americans. Another is Atsede Baysa, who hasn’t done much since winning Boston in 2016; I’m writing her off (though she did run 2:25:12 to win Florence in November). A third former champ has an extenuating circumstance; I’ll get to her in a minute.

Joyciline Jepkosgei pulling away at 2021 London (Jon Buckle for Virgin Money London Marathon)

Let’s look at the three who remain: Joyciline Jepkosgei (2019 New York/2021 London champ), Lonah Salpeter (2020 Tokyo champ), and Gotytom Gebreslase (2021 Berlin/2022 world champ).

There’s really not much to pick between them. Jepkosgei has the fastest pb (2:17:43) and single most impressive victory on her resume (2021 London). She was 2nd against a strong London field last year; she has finished 1st or 2nd in four of her five marathons. The worry is that her one bad marathon came in Boston last year, where she hung with the leaders through 22 miles but wound up fading badly and finishing 7th.

But Gebreslase’s results are almost as strong — she has four podiums in four career marathons, all majors. She won her debut in Berlin in 2021, then finished 3rd in Tokyo, 1st at Worlds, and 3rd in New York last year. And Salpeter, who won Tokyo in 2020, has a pb just two seconds behind Jepkosgei (2:17:45) and went 2nd Nagoya-3rd Worlds-2nd New York in 2022.

If you’re not convinced by Beriso and want to pick someone who has a proven history of success in big-time marathons, one of these three is your best shot at a winner.

Past major champion (but she’s 43)

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Remember how I said there’s one more past major champ with an extenuating circumstance? Well, that former champ is Edna Kiplagat, and her “extenuating circumstance” is the fact that she’s 43 years old. Since the World Marathon Majors came into existence in 2006, no one that old has ever won a World Marathon Major — though Kiplagat herself did win Boston at age 41 in 2021.

Kiplagat didn’t run her first Boston until 2017, when she was 37 years old. She won it in her debut and since then it’s become a second home for her. She was 8th in 2018 (one of the few African elites not to drop out during the storm year), then 2nd in 2019, 1st in 2021 (after original champ Diana Kipyokei was stripped of her title for doping), and 4th in 2022.

I’d say there’s no chance Kiplagat wins on Monday…but the thing is, I can envision a scenario when it happens. She won Boston a month before her 42nd birthday and last year finished 4th in Boston and 4th at NYC. After more than a quarter-century in the sport — do you realize Kiplagat ran the junior race at World XC in 1996? — she knows exactly how to push her body. She is a master at using Boston’s late downhills to her advantage and rolling people up. If the leaders start throwing punches and going too hard, too early, I know who will be there to pick up the scraps…

Fast times, but…

Sheila Chepkirui (2:17:29), Angela Tanui (2:17:57), Fancy Chemutai (2:18:11), and Hiwot Gebremaryam (2:19:12) all enter with personal bests next to their name that just a few years ago would have made them instant contenders at majors. But in 2023, it’s not as certain. A 2:17 in 2023 is more like a 2:19/2:20 from 2016.

Among that group, Chepkirui has been in the best form recently, running two strong half marathons in 2022 (64:36 for 2nd at RAK, 65:02 FTW in Berlin) and debuting in 2:17:29 in Valencia in December — which would have been the fastest debut in history had she run it at the start of 2022 and not the end. But Tanui has great potential (2:17:57 CR in Amsterdam in 2021) and Gebremaryam (also known as Hiwot Gebrekidan) is in good form, having won the Houston Half in January (66:28, defeating Emily Sisson) and the Guadalajara Half in February (69:06).

They’ve come close before

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Mary NgugiAbabel Yeshaneh, and Viola Cheptoo have never broken 2:20, but all have come close to winning majors in recent years. Ngugi, who used to be married to the great Sammy Wanjiru, got remarried in Boston in 2021 and then was the runner-up in Boston in 2021 and 3rd last year; Yeshaneh was 2nd in Boston in 2019, 3rd in New York in 2021, and 2nd in Boston last year; Cheptoo was 2nd in her debut in New York in 2021. With Ngugi and Yeshaneh, it makes sense. Ngugi is a two-time World Half medalist, while Yeshaneh is a former half marathon world record holder. But how the heck is Cheptoo (aka Viola Lagat, Bernard’s younger sister), a 2016 Olympian in the 1500 for Kenya, now a top marathoner? I’m still not sure.

None of these women have mind-blowing marathon pbs, but you don’t need one to win Boston. If they’re all on their game, Yeshaneh has the best shot of the trio — remember, she was part of the incredible duel with Peres Jepchirchir last year that saw seven lead changes in the final 1.2 miles. Considering Jepchirchir has been the best marathoner in the world the last three years — winning 2020 Valencia, 2021 Olympics, 2021 NYC, and 2022 Boston — that’s no small feat.

The wild card

There was a lot of hype surrounding Hellen Obiri‘s marathon debut in New York last year — and justifiably so for a woman who has won world titles indoors, outdoors, and XC, and boasts a 64:22 half marathon pb. Obiri didn’t totally bomb in NYC, but her 6th-place finish in 2:25:49 isn’t what she had hoped for. Now fully settled in Boulder under coach Dathan Ritzenhein, Obiri started off 2023 hot on the roads, posting wins at RAK (65:05) and NYC (67:21 CR) and after the latter, decided she was fit enough to hop into Boston as a late addition.

How fit is she? Check out this entry from her OAC teammate Joe Klecker‘s Strava account from March 28:

Holy crap. 25 miles at 2:25 pace at 5,000+ feet of elevation? As long as Obiri isn’t overcooked, she should be ready to crush in Boston.

If Obiri can just stay patient and take her swing at the right time — a challenge for her, since she feels most comfortable in control at the front — she will be one of the most dangerous women in the field on Monday.

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