The Ultimate NYC Marathon Women’s Preview: Fantastic Four Set to Wage War in Strongest NYC Ever

Brigid Kosgei, Letesenbet Gidey, Peres Jepchirchir, and Hellen Obiri square off in an incredible women's race at the 2023 TCS New York City Mmarathon

So far, the 2023 fall marathon season has been all about the times. Tigst Assefa‘s 2:11:53 world record in BerlinKelvin Kiptum‘s 2:00:35 world record in Chicago. Who knows what will happen next month in Valencia, but with Joshua CheptegeiKibiwott Kandie, and Kenenisa Bekele lining up, it’s probably going to be fast.

Fast times are nice and all, but there was not much head-to-head racing over the second half in either Berlin or Chicago: the average margin of victory was 2:56 across the four men’s and women’s races. This weekend’s TCS New York City Marathon should be much closer. Over the last five editions, NYC has seen four races decided by 10 seconds or less:

2017 men: 3 seconds (Geoffrey Kamworor over Wilson Kipsang)
2018 men: 2 seconds (Lelisa Desisa over Shura Kitata)
2021 women: 5 seconds (Peres Jepchirchir over Viola Cheptoo)
2022 women: 7 seconds (Sharon Lokedi over Lonah Salpeter)

The NYC women’s course record could should go down on Sunday — it is mind-blowing that, in the age of supershoes, the CR remains Margaret Okayo‘s 2:22:31 from 2003 — but the winning time should be an afterthought to what is easily the most compelling storyline of the weekend: the absolutely stacked women’s field. Brigid KosgeiLetesenbet GideyPeres Jepchirchir, and Hellen Obiri are all superstars of the sport; add in reigning champion Sharon Lokedi and the ageless Edna Kiplagat and we just might have the greatest NYC women’s field ever.

We’ll have the full scoop from NYC after media day on Thursday morning. Before then, let’s run through the biggest women’s stories ahead of race day, starting with that clash of the titans up front.

What: 2023 TCS New York City Marathon
When: Sunday, November 5. Elite race starts at 8:40 a.m. ET.
Where: New York, New York (course map)

*TV/streaming information *Full elite fields

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Women’s race headlined by the fantastic four

In Brigid Kosgei, Letesenbet Gidely, Peres Jepchirchir, and Hellen Obiri, NYC has four legitimate headliners in this year’s women’s race. A reminder of what each has accomplished:

  • Brigid Kosgei, Kenya (2:14:04 pb, 5 WMM wins): Former world record holder, third-fastest woman in history, two-time London champ, 2021 Olympic silver medalist.
  • Letesenbet Gidey, Ethiopia (2:16:49 pb): Ran fastest debut ever at 2022 Valencia (2:16:49), 2022 10,000m world champ, world record holder in 10,000m (29:01.03) and half marathon (62:52). Former world record holder in 5,000m (14:06.62).
  • Peres Jepchirchir, Kenya (2:17:16 pb, 3 WMM wins): 2021 Olympic gold medalist, three-time World Half Marathon champion (2016, 2020, 2023), only woman ever to win Olympics (2021), NYC (2021), and Boston (2022). Has won five of last six marathons.
  • Hellen Obiri, Kenya (2:21:38 pb, 1 WMM win): 2023 Boston champ, two-time 5,000m world champ (2017, 2019), 2019 World XC champ, 64:22 half marathon pb (#5 all-time).

It’s rare to see this much top-tier East African talent square off in New York. NYC elite coordinator Sam Grotewold prides himself on the diversity of his fields. You can see that on the men’s side this year, where the home nations of the top seeds (by pb) are as follows: Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Netherlands, Canada, Israel, Belgium, Italy, Kenya, Morocco, Germany. That approach often produces intriguing storylines but not always star-studded showdowns at the top of the race.

Kosgei won her second straight London in 2020 (Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon)

This year is different. Because of the timing of the US Olympic Marathon Trials — which are just three months away — many American stars are skipping New York, which means there are more appearance dollars to put towards the international field. The home nations of the top women’s seeds at 2023 NYC (by pb): Kenya, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya. There will still be a few American pros in NYC — Kellyn Taylor and Molly Huddle are the biggest women’s names — but the focus is squarely on the top of the field.

Just three years ago, Brigid Kosgei was the undisputed queen of the marathon, reeling off back-to-back wins in Chicago and London, highlighted by her 2:14:04 world record in Chicago. Then Jepchirchir dethroned her at the Olympics in Sapporo and cemented her status as World #1 by winning New York in 2021 and Boston in 2022.

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But last fall, Jepchirchir was forced to withdraw from NYC due to injury and the women’s marathon went crazy. Now there’s no clear dominant force. Sifan Hassan, with wins in London (over Jepchirchir) and Chicago this year, has won two majors in 2023. But should she be ranked ahead of Tigst Assefa, who just ran 2:11:53 in Berlin? What about Amane Beriso, who ran 2:14:58 to win Valencia in December, then won Worlds in August? New York will not provide any resolution — in fact, it could muddle things further — but it’s an exciting time to be a women’s marathon fan.

Sunday’s race is big for all of these women, but perhaps Kosgei most of all considering she has not finished a marathon in 20 months. Kosgei’s injury issues actually date back to the Olympic marathon in 2021, when she twisted her foot the week before the race. She still earned the silver medal, but was only 8th in London that fall and has subsequently withdrawn from 2022 London (knee) and did not even make it a mile at London this spring before dropping out with a hamstring issue. The one marathon she has finished in the last year went very well — Kosgei set a course record of 2:16:01 at 2022 Tokyo — but will we see that version of Kosgei again?

The other thing to know about Kosgei is that her greatest success has come on flat courses — she’s never run NYC before, and in her only run in Boston, in 2017, she finished 8th. That said, she has twice won on Honolulu’s challenging course — though the field on Sunday will be much tougher than Honolulu.

Jepchirchir won her third World Half title last month (Adam Nurkiewicz for World Athletics)

Jepchirchir is not in the same spot as Kosgei — we know she’s in shape because she just won the Great North Run (66:45) and World Half (67:25) this fall. But, like Kosgei, she hasn’t won a marathon since the spring of 2022 (she withdrew from 2022 NYC, then finished 3rd at 2023 London). Is she still the woman to beat?

Gidey and Obiri, meanwhile, may not have even hit their marathon ceilings yet — scary to think considering both have already run very well over 26.2 miles. It’s awesome that Gidey is even running this race. In February, she came up just short of winning World XC in Australia. Then she ran a European track season, clocking 14:07 and 14:08 for 5k and taking silver in the 10,000 at Worlds. Now she’s tackling a marathon. And this very well could be her strongest event. Consider: Gidey’s 62:52 world record in the half marathon is 59 seconds faster than any other woman in history. Last year, when the marathon world record was still 2:14:04, her coach Haile Eyasu was already talking about breaking 2:10 someday.

We’ll talk about Obiri in a second, but it’s going to be fascinating to see how this race plays out. Because there are no pacers and because New York starts with a uphill/downhill on the Verrazzano-Narrows (with more bridges and the Central Park hills to come during the second half), the race has a tendency to go out slowly. That’s why the course record is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Will we see that again in 2023, with the big stars waiting each other out until late in the race? Jepchirchir and Obiri are best served by staying patient and attacking late, but Gidey and Kosgei (if she’s fit) don’t mind leading and it wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them throw in an early surge if they are feeling good.

Dathan Ritzenhein on Hellen Obiri: “She can run 2:11 if she was to go to Valencia or Berlin”

The fast times this fall have sent a lot of heads spinning in the running world. But when Hellen Obiri’s coach Dathan Ritzenhein saw Assefa’s 2:11:53 and Hassan’s 2:13:44, he didn’t view them as crazy. Obiri’s workouts this fall had suggested to him that times like that were possible by a female marathoner. Now here was the proof.

“I think Hellen can do that, so I don’t see why others can’t do it either,” Ritzenhein told LetsRun. “…I think she can run 2:11 if she was to go to Valencia or Berlin and have pacers and perfect weather. But she’s a competitor. Maybe one day we’ll do that. but really for her, it’s about the competition and trying to win the major marathons, the big ones. She really does want to come back to New York and have another crack at it after last year.”

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Ah yes, last year. Obiri’s NYC debut was hugely hyped, but she ran the race like a rookie. Throughout her buildup, Ritzenhein, who made his own marathon debut in New York in 2006, had preached patience. But that is not Obiri’s style. She was part of the big move that split open the pack in 16 miles, but in the end it was someone who did not go with that move, Sharon Lokedi, who came back and won the race. It was also a warm day, and Ritzenhein believes she did not drink enough fluids on the day.

“[During that buildup], she’d hand me back the bottle and there was just not much taken out of it,” Ritzenhein said.

All of that resulted in Obiri fading to a 6th-place finish, averaging only 18:29 5k pace from 35k to the finish. But experience proved to be a great teacher. Come marathon #2 in Boston, Obiri knew first-hand the importance of staying hydrated and staying patient. She did not attack until 40k, at which point she gapped the field and won by 12 seconds. A marathon star was born.

Now Obiri has the experience to know what to expect in New York, and Ritzenhein said she has had a flawless buildup heading into this year’s race.

She hasn’t missed a run, hasn’t missed a workout,” Ritzenhein said. “…Definitely the best shape I’ve ever seen her in.”

Ritzenhein has been amazed at some of the sessions Obiri has put together. Three weeks before the race, she ran the same session she did three weeks before Boston, averaging 5:29/mile for 25 miles at elevation in Boulder. She also ran a 25k fartlek, alternating 1k a little faster than race pace and 1k a little slower than race pace, and came through the half marathon in 67:50.

Obiri has also been doing more longer sessions. Last year, Obiri’s longest run before New York was 38k, with a couple more at 35k. This year, she’s done five 40k long runs and five more of 35k. As part of that, Obiri has also started training on the fabled Magnolia Road. Ritzenhein marveled at one run in particular: 21 miles on Mags, descending from 8,800 feet to 8,200 feet before climbing back up to 8,800 feet, at 5:48/mile. When Obiri’s On Athletics Club teammate Joe Klecker heard about that session, he had a hard time believing it.

“I think I ran 17 miles [on Mags] one time shortly before I won the NCAA championships, at about that pace,” Ritzenhein said. “She ran 21.”

How does she do it? Recovery. Ritzenhein said Obiri often spends more than half the day sleeping, with two lengthy naps each day – one in the morning and one in the afternoon – and 9+ hours at night.

“Her ability to recover, I’ve never seen a person as dedicated to it,” Ritzenhein said.

About the defending champ…

Lokedi atop the Empire State Building after winning last year’s race (Photo by Jon Simon for NYRR)

You’ll notice we haven’t talked much yet about Sharon Lokedi. You know, the woman who actually won the race last year. Twelve months later, it’s still wild that the Kenyan Lokedi, the 2018 NCAA 10,000 champ for Kansas, is a major marathon champion — there was little to suggest heading into last year’s race that she would win NYC in her debut.

Clearly, Lokedi is a talent, but repeating will be even tougher. Lokedi missed time earlier this year with a foot injury that caused her to withdraw from Boston and bothered her on-and-off until the summer. It has taken longer than she would like for Lokedi to return to top fitness, but her coach Stephen Haas told LetsRun things are starting to come together. She ran a pb of 67:42 for the half at the Great North Run on September 10, and since then he says she has taken a step up in training, which she has been doing in Kaptagat.

“Based on where she was at last year, where she’s at this year, things are trending in the right direction,” Haas said.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Lokedi is that the competition will be much tougher in New York this year. When she ran that 67:42 pb, she finished nearly a minute behind the winner: Peres Jepchirchir, whom she’ll face on Sunday.

Could this be a de facto Kenyan Olympic Trials?

Kenya does not have an official Olympic trials, but a recent article out of Kenya implied that their 2024 Olympic marathon team would be picked soon (before any 2024 races are run) and Ritzenhein also suggested to LetsRun that Sunday’s race could be a significant factor in picking the team for next year’s Games in Paris. The winning time won’t come close to the fastest Kenyans this year (Ruth Chepngetich 2:15:37, Rosemary Wanjiru 2:16:28) but with Olympic medalists Jepchirchir and Kosgei plus Obiri, Lokedi, Edna Kiplagat, Viola Cheptoo, and Mary Ngugi (a dark horse here who has two Boston Marathon podiums), there is a lot of Kenyan talent in the field. And they’ll be competing on a challenging course that comes closer to mimicking the Paris layout than Chicago or Berlin.

“I think it will matter a lot in their selection for the race,” Ritzenhein said. “We go in knowing there’s a high stake.”

The Americans: Taylor & Huddle return to the marathon post-pregnancy

Huddle ahead of the NYC Half in March (photos by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

With just 13 weeks between NYC and the Olympic Trials, most Americans are skipping this one but there will be two familiar names on the start line: Kellyn Taylor and Molly Huddle. It’s been a while since either woman raced a marathon — Taylor’s last came in New York two years ago, Huddle’s at the last Olympic Trials in February 2020 — in part because both women gave birth last year (Taylor in December, Huddle in April). Both women have also run well in New York in the past, with Taylor finishing 8th, 7th, and 6th in three appearances and Huddle 3rd and 4th in her two races.

What can we expect from them? Taylor, who was coached during this buildup by NAZ Elite interim coach Jenna Wrieden, won the US 7-mile champs in July (beating teammate Aliphine Tuliamuk in the process) and was 7th at the US 20k champs in September in 68:04 (nearly a minute faster than she ran there in 2021). NAZ executive director Ben Rosario noted that Taylor had developed a few injuries in the year and a half before her pregnancy and told LetsRun he believes Taylor’s time away from running was really good for her as she tries to make her first Olympic team at age 37.

“She looks as good as ever,” Rosario said.

There are more question marks around Huddle. She returned in earnest in January by running 70:01 at the Houston Half, but since then her only result was a 72:27, 7th-place finish at the NYC Half in March. At her best, she can beat Taylor but it’s anyone’s guess as to what we’ll see from Huddle on Sunday.

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