Wednesday, November 3, 2010

New York City Marathon Women’s Elite Race Preview

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Sometimes there is little doubt who will win the ING New York City Marathon. Like Grete Waitz in each of the seven years she won the race after her surprise first win in 1978.

This year is different. There is no clear favorite. Yes, defending champion Derartu Tulu of Ethiopia is back, but she is no lock to repeat, as she took advantage of a bizarre decimation of the women’s elite field in the weeks and days before last year’s race to barely eke out a victory over 41-year-old Ludmila Petrova and an injured and undertrained Paula Radcliffe. I’m not saying Tulu can’t repeat, but she lacks the usual defending champion’s halo of invincibility.

The hot pick to win seems to be another Ethiopian, Teyba Erkesso, and why not? Erkesso won April’s Boston Marathon with a bold break from the front at a relatively early point in the race. But it’s tough to pick Erkesso over Kenya’s Mary Keitany. Although the 28-year-old has never run a full marathon before, she is a two-time half-marathon world champion and boasts a sizzling 1:06:36 (just 11 seconds shy of the world record) at that distance. What’s more, she destroyed the 25K world record by 2:20 in Germany earlier this year, running 1:19:53 (a time that predicts sub-2:20 marathon ability).

Tapping a first-timer to win her first major marathon is a risky move, but what it takes to break a world record at 25K is not much different from what it takes to win a major marathon (42K). I’ll say this: if Keitany doesn’t win this one, she will win a major marathon sooner or later.

Keitany is not the only very fast half-marathon performer making her marathon debut Sunday. Ethiopia’s Werknesh Kidane comes into the race with a 1:08:31 PR on her resume. But it’s been a while since Kidane has won anything, and she seems strongest at shorter distances. All in all, she’s not the runner one would expect to win her first marathon in an event as competitive as New York.

Are all the contenders African? Hardly. Russian women have a history of performing well in New York, and that tradition looks well poised to continue with Inga Abitova in the race. She has the second-fastest marathon PR in the entire field (2:22:19) and finished second in this year’s London Marathon. Other intriguing Europeans in the race include Christelle Daunay of France (2:24:22 PR) and Ana Dulce Felix (1:08:36 half-marathon PR) of Portugal.

As for the English speakers, Great Britain’s Mara Yamauchi (2:23:12 PR) and New Zealand’s Kim Smith (2:25:21 PR) both have legitimate top-five potential.

And then there’s Shalane Flanagan. Can Flanagan become the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon since Miki Gorman in 1977? In a word: yes. Her track speed matches that of any other woman in the race, with personal best times of 14:44.80 for 5,000 meters and 30:22.22 for 10,000 meters. She has proven she can compete with the best in the world on the biggest stages, claiming a bronze medal at 10,000 meters in the Beijing Olympics. On top of all that, Flanagan is an exceptional cross-country runner—the kind of runner that New York’s tough and varied course tends to favor.

The factors working against Flanagan are lack of previous marathon experience and the sheer depth of the field she faces. While Flanagan may have as good a shot as anyone at winning, there are half a dozen other women with just as good a shot.

Competitor’s Picks

If you saw the pick I made on this week’s RunCenter, please pretend you didn’t. I’ve had an epiphany. Here’s my new story, and I’m sticking to it:

1. Mary Keitany

2. Inga Abitova

3. Teyba Erkesso

4. Shalane Flanagan

5. Derartu Tulu