Clash of Women’s Titans, Hassan & McColgan Debut, Farah & Bekele’s Last Ride? 5 Things to Watch at 2023 London Marathon

For a marathon fan, it doesn’t get any better than this time of year. In the span of eight days, we get treated to four world-class marathons in Rotterdam, Boston, London, and Hamburg. You might still be thinking about Boston on Monday — and fair enough. There was a lot to process. But we’re only three days away from the TCS London Marathon on Sunday, and, like Boston, this year’s race is overflowing with storylines. (Hamburg, which is also on Sunday, is obviously not as big but does feature 2:04 Brazilian Daniel Do Nascimento and the debut of two-time 5,000m world champion Muktar Edris of Ethiopia).

The women’s race is simply sensational — London race director Hugh Brasher has called it not only the greatest women’s marathon field in history, but “arguably the greatest field ever assembled for a women’s distance race.” London features world record holder Brigid Kosgei and Olympic champ Peres Jepchirchir, who will square off for the first time since going 1-2 in the Olympics in Sapporo two years ago. Plus the debuts of double Olympic champion Sifan Hassan and Eilish McColgan, the greatest British female marathon prospect since Paula Radcliffe. (update McColgan has pulled out) The only downside is that Emily Sisson and Keira D’Amato, who were supposed to duel for the American record in London, have both withdrawn due to injury.

The men’s race, meanwhile, is the first in history to feature two 2:01 marathoners (Kenenisa Bekele and Valencia champ Kelvin Kiptum) and will have a record-tying six sub-2:04 men on the start line — and that doesn’t count two-time NYC champ Geoffrey Kamworor or British legend Mo Farah, likely running in his final London Marathon at the age of 40.

LetsRun.com will have boots-on-the-ground coverage in London starting Thursday, so be sure to return to the site later this week for interviews and analysis after we talk with the top pros, agents, and coaches. But to get started, here’s a look at the five biggest storylines at the 2023 London Marathon, in no particular order.

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1) A clash of the titans in the women’s race

Peres Jepchirchir and Brigid Kosgei are the two best marathoners of their generation (I’m considering Mary Keitany, who is 12 years older than them and ran her final race in 2019, part of the previous generation). Between them, they have the world record and victories at all six World Marathon Majors plus the Olympics. Just check out these resumes:

Peres Jepchirchir, 29 years old, Kenya, 2:17:16 pb (2020 Valencia)

  • Marathon wins in Valencia (2020), Olympics (2021), New York (2021), and Boston (2022)
  • 10th-fastest woman in history (2:17:16 pb)
  • Two-time World Half Marathon champ (2016, 2020) and former half marathon world record holder
  • Has won her last five marathons and has never lost a marathon outside of Kenya

Brigid Kosgei, 29 years old, Kenya, 2:14:04 pb (2019 Chicago)

  • Marathon wins in Honolulu (2016, 2017), Chicago (2018, 2019), London (2019, 2020), Tokyo (2022)
  • World record holder since 2019 (2:14:04 in Chicago)
  • Also has the #6 time in history (2:16:02 at 2022 Tokyo); only woman with 2 times in top 10
  • 2021 Olympic silver medalist
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Jepchirchir and Kosgei have only raced once in their careers: the 2021 Olympics in Sapporo, where they went 1-2, Jepchirchir winning in 2:27:20 to Kosgei’s 2:27:36. Kosgei, however, was not at 100% — she stepped on a stone in training just before leaving for Japan, leading to discomfort in her foot on race day.

With her Olympic victory, Jepchirchir seized the crown of world’s best female marathoner. So far, no one has taken it from her. Jepchirchir piled on wins in New York (November 2021) and Boston (April 2022) but didn’t run a fall marathon in 2022 — she was scheduled to defend in NYC but withdrew due to injury. Kosgei, meanwhile, returned to form in Tokyo last year, crushing a quality field to win in a course-record 2:16:02 (she beat Gotytom Gebreslase, who went on to win Worlds four months later, by more than two minutes). But she too wound up scratching from her 2022 fall marathon in London after an injury to her right hamstring.

In their absence last fall, the marathon world went mad. Jepchirchir began the fall at #5 on the all-time women’s marathon list; now she’s #10. So there are a few big questions to be answered in London:

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Are Kosgei and Jepchirchir still at the level they were at before their injuries?

Is that level at or better than what we saw last year from women like Ruth Chepngetich in Chicago (2:14:18) and Amane Beriso in Valencia (2:14:58)?

Who is better, Kosgei or Jepchirchir?

Is someone else in the field better than both of them?

Kosgei in the past has spoken of her desire to lower her own world record, and with the number of women running in the 2:14s and 2:15s now, it does seem feasible for a woman to run in the 2:12s or 2:13s. It probably won’t happen in London, however. To run that fast, they’d need male pacemakers (still unclear whether London will have them) and conditions could be better (Sunday’s forecast calls for rain and a high of 57).

Part of the intrigue here is that we haven’t seen either woman race a marathon for a while. Kosgei, at least, did run the RAK Half on February 18. Her time of 66:34 wasn’t slow, but it was only good for 4th (Hellen Obiri won in 65:05) and was slower than 2019, when she ran 65:28 in Bahrain before her 2:18:20 win in London and 64:28 at the Great North Run before her 2:14:04 WR in Chicago.

Jepchirchir is more of a question mark. She hasn’t raced since September’s Great North Run, and while she “only” ran 67:07 for 2nd, she was only two seconds behind Obiri and finished three seconds up on Almaz Ayana, who went on to win Amsterdam a month later in 2:17:20.

The women’s marathon doesn’t have one transcendent superstar on the level of Eliud Kipchoge, but if they’re both fit and healthy again, head-to-head showdowns in this event don’t come any better than Jepchirchir and Kosgei. This is going to be fun.

2) What if someone is even better than Jepchirchir or Kosgei?

Yehualaw was brilliant in London last year (Jon Super for London Marathon Events)

There’s a reason Hugh Brasher is bragging about this field. Kosgei and Jepchirchir may be two of the most decorated marathoners of their generation, but it’s no guarantee one of them wins on Sunday. After a series of incredible performances at shorter distances (29:14 10k road WR, 63:51 half), Ethiopia’s Yalemzerf Yehualaw took the marathon by storm in 2022, running a debut record (since broken) of 2:17:23 to win Hamburg before ripping apart the field over the final three miles to win London in 2:17:26 despite falling at the 20-mile mark. And Yehualaw — whom we at LetsRun have nicknamed Y2 —  has shown no signs of slowing down, running 29:19 for 10k in Valencia on January 15, missing her own WR by just five seconds. Yehualaw could get even better: she’s still only 23 years old.

Almaz Ayana is another Ethiopian star who could challenge for the win. A world and Olympic champion and former world record holder in the 10,000 meters on the track, Ayana has resurrected her career after racing only once in a four-year period from 2018-21 due to two knee surgeries and a pregnancy. But, as we love to say at LetsRun, “talent doesn’t go away,” and Ayana showed that last fall, running 2:17:20 to break Yehualaw’s debut record and win the Amsterdam Marathon. She won the Lisbon Half in 65:30 last month and looks ready to roll in London.

There’s depth behind them. 1500 world record holder Genzebe Dibaba is in the field as well. She has moved up the marathon and is doing quite well, running 2:18:05 behind Ayana in her marathon debut last fall. Sheila Chepkirui, who ran 64:36 in the half last year and 2:17:29 in her marathon debut in Valencia, is a late add to the field after failing to secure a visa for last week’s Boston Marathon. And Tadu Teshome, who won last year’s Copenhagen Half in 66:13 and ran 2:17:36 in Valencia, has run incredibly fast for a 21-year-old. The six sub-2:18 women is a record for a single race (yes, Boston was supposed to set this record last week, but Chepkirui switching from Boston to London gives London six compared to four for Boston).

3) Two huge debuts — Hassan & McColgan

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Whenever the reigning Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 champion debuts in the marathon, it is a big deal. With personal bests of 1:56/3:51/14:22/29:06/65:15, the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan is already one of — if not the — most versatile distance runners in history. The question now is whether that remarkable range extends to 26.2 miles.

It’s hard to imagine a woman with 1:56/3:51 pbs in the 800/1500 becoming one of the world’s top marathoners. But it was also hard to imagine someone medalling in the 1500, 5k, and 10k in the same Olympics before Hassan did it two years ago. In many ways, she breaks the mold.

Hassan made some curious comments when she was announced for London back in February, saying, “I want to do marathon without really preparing for marathon.” Meaning that she plans on running a track season this summer and does not want to abandon that portion of her training.

“Sometimes I do some longer distance and next day I’m sprinting for 1500m or 5000m,” Hassan said.

She has chosen a baptism by fire for her first marathon. The 2023 London field is one of the strongest ever assembled for a women’s marathon, and the pace should be hot. But don’t expect Hassan to be cautious. Do you think an athlete wired like her would choose to be anywhere but the front?

More from LRC Ready Or Not, Sifan Hassan’s Marathon Debut Is Here, and She Will Challenge Herself & Run With Leaders in London

Brit Eilish McColgan will also be debuting on Sunday, and that is a much more exciting prospect than it was a few months ago. McColgan has been good on the track, with a career year in 2022 featuring double medals at Commonwealths and Euros, highlighted by Commonwealth 10,000 gold. But her results in 2023 have suggested she could be even better in the marathon — the event her mother, 1996 London Marathon champ Liz, has always felt Eilish was destined for. On March 4, in the midst of her London buildup, McColgan hopped in The TEN at the last minute and ran a British 10,000 record of 30:00. She followed that up by taking 43 seconds off her own British record at the Berlin Half on April 2, running 65:43. While Hassan has the faster pbs, it’s not crazy to suggest McColgan could be the superior marathoner — the move up in distance helps McColgan and hurts Hassan.

The concern about McColgan is whether her body can hold up to 26.2 miles. She had to withdraw from her planned debut in London last fall after dealing with blood sugar issues in training. McColgan believes she has solved those problems, but she also had to withdraw from the NYC Half on March 19 due to bursitis in her knee. McColgan has also never been a high mileage runner — she said when she got up to 65 miles per week last year, it was a “bit of an increase.” She’s been above 80 for this buildup, which is a ton for her.

Sometimes, training as a professional runner can be a high-wire act teetering between elite fitness and injury. If McColgan has struck the right balance, she has the opportunity to do something special in London. There’s a huge gap between Paula Radcliffe (2:15:25) and #2 on the all-time British marathon list (Jess Piasecki‘s 2:22:27). McColgan, if things go well, should wind up somewhere in the middle on Sunday.

4) Do Bekele and Farah have anything left?

Two enormous names headline the men’s field in London: Kenenisa Bekele and Mo Farah, who between them own seven Olympic gold medals. Bekele was the planet’s greatest distance runner from 2003 to 2009, with Farah succeeding him and holding the belt from 2011 to 2017. Ten years ago, they waged a memorable duel at the Great North Run, Bekele coming from behind to win a classic by one second, but they’ve only met once since (the 2018 London Marathon, where Farah was 3rd and Bekele 6th).

Both men are now 40 years old. Is this going to be like the Masters, where the former champions putter around the course and shoot +8 while the young guys battle it out for the win? Or could one of these guys pull a Phil Mickelson and actually contend in London?

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Bekele is far more likely to be a factor. He hasn’t won a marathon in more than three years (that famous 2:01:41 in Berlin in 2019 was his last victory), but he’s actually been pretty consistent recently. It’s just that he’s consistently okay rather than consistently great. In 2021, he was 3rd in Berlin (2:06:47) and 6th in New York (2:12:52)  Last fall, he was 5th in London in 2:05:43.

That’s not what Bekele is shooting for — he’s still motivated by Kipchoge’s 2:01:09 world record. Realistically, that ship has sailed. But Bekele, who said his London buildup has been “good but not perfect” could still potentially challenge for the win and certainly land on the the podium on a great day.

It’s harder to envision Farah contending on Sunday. After a glittering track career and a solid second act as a marathoner, Farah has begun to show his age in recent years. In 2021, he moved back to the track to pursue a fourth Olympic team, but injury and illness scuppered those chances. He began 2022 getting beaten by little-known club runner Ellis Cross at the Vitality London 10,000 on the roads. And though he eventually worked himself into good shape — he ran a 61:49 half and said he had been keeping up with training partner Bashir Abdi (who was 3rd at Worlds and London) last fall — he wound up withdrawing from October’s London Marathon with a hip injury.

Farah has raced once in 2023 and was soundly beaten, running 30:41 for 10k on the roads in Gabon (that’s a country in western Africa), 2:30 behind the winner. If he runs that pace for the full marathon in London, he will finish in 2:09:28, minutes behind the leaders.

We’ll see what Farah has to say at the press conference on Thursday. Maybe there is a reason he ran so slowly in Gabon. But it will be a challenge for Farah to contend in London in what he has said will likely be his final year as a professional runner.

5) What does Kelvin Kiptum do for an encore?

Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum delivered one of the most stunning performances of the 2022 marathon season by running 2:01:53 to win Valencia in December. The time made him the fastest debutant ever, and the third-fastest marathoner, period, after legends Kipchoge and Bekele. Kiptum showed talent at a young age — he ran 58:42 for the half just four days after his 21st birthday in 2020 — but no one saw a 2:01 coming. Especially the way Kiptum ran it: with a 60:15 second half, the fastest ever in a legitimate marathon.

Valencia and London are similar races — flat and fast — meaning Kiptum should be among the favorites on Sunday. A few others who could win:

  • Amos Kipruto, Kenya, 2:03:13 pb: The defending champ had a brilliant 2022, finishing 2nd behind Kipchoge in Tokyo before winning London, his first major victory. Between Amos Kipruto, Benson Kipruto, and Evans Chebet, Kipruto’s training group, 2 Running Club in Kapsabet, has won five of the last seven World Marathon Majors on the men’s side. He will look to keep the hot streak going Sunday.
  • Tamirat Tola, Ethiopia, 2:03:39 pb: Tola was 3rd in Tokyo behind Kipruto, then won Worlds and ran 2:03:40 for 4th in Valencia during a busy 2022 season. He can succeed in any type of marathon but has only finished 6th in two appearances in London (2019 and 2020).
  • Seifu Tura, Ethiopia, 2:04:29 pb: Tura has finished 1st and 2nd in Chicago in the last two years, with a 7th-place finish at Worlds in between.
  • Leul Gebresilase, Ethiopia, 2:04:02 pb: Talk about consistent: Gebresilase, who has trained with Bekele during this buildup, has run 2:04 or 2:05 in seven of his nine career marathons. He’s only won one of those races (2018 Valencia) but was 2nd in London last year.

A few other big talents will be looking to revive their careers with a big run in London. A few years ago, Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese was in the conversation for “best marathoner not named Kipchoge” but dealt with injuries in 2021 and hasn’t been the same runner since — he DNF’d Boston last year and was only 6th in London. But Legese is still just 28 years old and is looking fit: he just ran a half marathon pb of 58:59 in Barcelona in February.

Geoffrey Kamworor has also battled injuries in recent years and while he has run some decent recent marathons — a 2:05:23 pb at 2021 Valencia and 2:07:14 for 5th at the 2022 Worlds — he has yet to recapture the highs of his NYC Marathon victories in 2017 and 2019. Is it Kamworor’s destiny to be a decent flat runner and great on the hills in New York, or can he podium in a flat major, something he hasn’t done since he was 3rd in Berlin in 2013? Like Legese, he has a strong recent result on his resume as he was 4th at World XC in February.

That’s it for now — check back later on Thursday and Friday for the inside scoop from the elite press conferences. Join our Supporter’s Club to get out bonus podcast from London on Friday.

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