Ready Or Not, Sifan Hassan Will Challenge Herself & Run With Leaders at 2023 London Marathon

LONDON — Sifan Hassan admits that, occasionally, she has the same thought that inevitably crosses the mind of most of the 40,000+ people who annually run the TCS London Marathon — the ones who, unlike Hassan, are not paid to be there.

“Sometimes I wake up, I’m like, why the hell did I decide to run a marathon?” Hassan said on Friday, two days before she will make her marathon debut in London.

One can sympathize. During this buildup, Hassan has run more volume than ever, surpassing 120 miles in her biggest weeks. And Hassan, a Muslim, has done the last month of her training while observing Ramadan (March 22-April 20th this year), which means no food or water during daylight hours.

She is not here for the money. She is not here for glory — she knows that will be hard to come by against one of the greatest marathon fields ever assembled. Sifan Hassan is here because she lives to challenge herself. And in running London, Hassan said she has been challenged to almost the same degree as she was when preparing to triple in the 1500, 5,000, and 10,000 meters at the 2021 Olympics.

Hassan in London on Friday (Chloe Knott for London Marathon Events)

“I’m a really curious athlete,” Hassan said. “I just say one day, I want to do something new.”

Her coach, Tim Rowberry, said that when Hassan, 30, initially told him of her desire to run the marathon, he advised her to wait until later in her career. But ultimately, he relented.

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“We honestly argued about it, going back and forth,” Rowberry said. “….When she’s really excited about something, that’s something I have to pay attention to.”

Unconventional prep during Ramadan

Rowberry, 36, has never coached a marathoner and Hassan has never run a marathon. For this buildup, they were based in Sululta, Ethiopia, near Mo Farah (also running London) and his training partners, Olympic medallists Bashir Abdi and Abdi Nageeye. Hassan would run some of her easy runs with them while Rowberry picked their brains for marathon advice.

“It was good to be able to talk to them about their training and mix it with what we’re already doing,” Rowberry said. “The biggest change in training was Sifan learning to run slow. She’s used to doing everything at a pretty high intensity. When she started training with those guys, they would always be like, slow down, slow down! You’ve gotta do a lot of miles, you’re gonna kill yourself if you do too much.”

Hassan’s buildup did not begin smoothly. In January, Hassan fell ill — Rowberry believes it was related to the drinking water in Ethiopia — and had to fly to the Netherlands for treatment, missing several weeks of training as a result. He said the last six weeks of training have gone well, but she’s still not in her best shape.

Hassan, Brigid Kosgei, Yalemzerf Yehualaw, and Peres Jepchirchir makes for a star-studded race on Sunday (Bob Martin for London Marathon Events)

“We’ve done way less workouts than we’ve wanted to do,” Rowberry said. “Much, much less than we thought we thought we would have done.”

Rowberry has made some tweaks to Hassan’s training, but they have approached this buildup with one eye on the summer track season — where Hassan hopes to be racing again by June. Her long runs are longer — she’s gone beyond 40 km (24.9 miles) — and her highest mileage weeks have been over 200 km (124 miles) whereas she is usually in the 100-150 km (62-93 miles) range while training for the track. But it has not been a purely marathon-focused training block. Hassan said she is in better 5k/10k shape than marathon shape right now.

“She’s not even thinking about moving to the marathon within the next couple years,” Rowberry said. “She wants to keep the track as long as possible.”

Training during Ramadan has had its challenges, though it is something Hassan does every year — including 2021, when she fasted during April and May and wound up winning double gold at the Olympics in August. During Ramadan, Hassan would typically rise before dawn and eat a big meal between 5-5:30 a.m. She would work out around 10 a.m. but not be able to eat or drink until sundown, at which point she would eat another big meal (Rowberry said there were a few exceptions but Hassan typically adhered to her fast).

Typically, the first week is very difficult for Hassan until her body gets adjusted, and then it takes another week or two afterwards for her to get back to normal. That timing did not work great for London this year. Ramadan only ended on Friday, and London is on Sunday. That also means Hassan won’t get to enjoy Eid al-Fitr — the post-Ramadan holiday that began Friday that Hassan would typically spend celebrating with friends and family.

Hassan said the long runs were the hardest for her — not just the lack of fluids, but the inability for her to simulate race conditions in practice.

“I don’t know what it’s going to do to my body,” Hassan said. “I fasted a whole month and now suddenly I give to my stomach so much drink, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m really nervous about it.”

Ready or not, expect to see Hassan with the women’s leaders

Hassan said she does not have any time or place goals for London. She is treating the whole thing as a learning experience. It is similar to Mo Farah’s “soft opener” in the marathon here in 2014. Farah had already won three world titles and two Olympic golds when he debuted with an 8th-place finish in London, then returned to the track and racked up another five global titles before moving to the marathon full-time in 2018.

“My goal is just to meet the marathon, get to know each other,” Hassan said.

That said, this is Sifan Hassan we’re talking about. Rowberry said she still plans on going out with the lead group, which should include world record holder Brigid Kosgei, Olympic champ Peres Jepchirchir, and reigning London champ Yalemzerf Yehualaw. The leaders will be targeting the women’s-only world record of 2:17:01, assuming the weather cooperates (there’s rain in the forecast Sunday morning).

“In the future, she’ll be in much better shape for the marathon,” Rowberry said. “I’m sure people aren’t happy to hear [this but] she’s not ready to go with these girls, to be honest. But how close she is is what we want to find out.”

Hassan doesn’t watch a lot of marathons but said that she would always make time to watch London, even when she was based far away in the United States, because it always puts together the strongest fields. On Sunday, she’ll get a front-row seat to the action, but for how long?

“London, they always have the greatest athletes, the fastest athletes, and it is also you’re always curious who’s going to win,” Hassan said. “I then decided, I’m very curious, I like challenges, so I want to challenge the fastest women and the strongest women and see how long I can keep up with them.”

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Full pre-race interview with Sifan Hassan

Full pre-race interview with Tim Rowberry

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