Can Meb repeat? History says there’s a good chance.
Written by: Mario Fraioli
As the reigning champion heading into Sunday’s ING New York City Marathon, Meb Keflezighi has a huge target on his back. Luckily, he has a little history on his side, too.
Keflezighi, the first American winner of this race since Alberto Salazar broke the tape in 1982, will be looking to become the sixth repeat champion in the 41-year history of the much ballyhooed battle in the Big Apple. Salazar, who won three straight New York City Marathons from 1980-1982, was the last to turn the trick. Keflezighi will have his work cut out for him, however, as he’ll face perhaps the deepest New York City Marathon field ever assembled on Sunday.
Leading the list of potential dethroners is marathon world-record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, the only man in history to run faster than 2 hours and 4 minutes for 26.2 miles, who will be racing a marathon devoid of pacemakers for the first time in his run-fast-at-all-costs road racing career. How significant is that little variable on a course like New York? In Geb’s case it’s quite significant, since a fast rhythm and even splits will get thrown out the window early.
So, can Geb win big in the Big Apple? I say yes, but I don’t think he will. History has shown that experience rules the roost in New York and the winner of the race has failed here once or twice before taking their spot atop the podium. If Geb can pull out the victory on Sunday, it will carry more weight than any of his world records and solidify his spot as the greatest–not just the fastest–marathoner of all time.
While Keflezighi and Gebrselassie are getting most of the pre-race attention, there are plenty of other able-bodied men worth keeping a close eye on, too. Kenya’s Abel Kirui is the reigning world champion, and the third-fastest man in the field with a personal best of 2:05:04. Kirui, who is making his NYC debut, has shown he has the tools to win a tactical affair, but like Gebrselassie, lacks experience on New York’s unique undulating layout.
One man with plenty of experience in New York–and two victories here to show for it–is Marilson Gomes dos Santos. While the Brazilian last won here two years ago, nobody is paying any attention to him. Again. What kind of shape is he in heading into this year’s race? No one seems to know, which makes him the wildcard. Again. He ran a near personal-best 2:08:46 to finish sixth at London in April, which doesn’t mean a whole lot since he ran 2:08:43 in 2008 to win on a much tougher course New York. He’s also got a half marathon best of 59:33 to his credit, which is amongst the fastest in the field. I won’t say Dos Santos is a shoe in to win, but watch him. Closely.
Another guy worth watching is Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam, who is making his marathon debut. Typically, someone in those shoes isn’t worth mentioning as a potential race-winner here, but Gebremariam may be the lone exception. The 2009 IAAF World Cross Country champion has been on a road-racing tear in 2010, with big wins at Heathy Kidney, Peachtree, Beach To Beacon and Falmouth. His only loss of the year came in September at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon, where he finished second in a swift 1:00:25. While not familiar with the marathon route itself, Gebremariam is familiar with New York, and has the cross country background and win-at-all-costs mentality necessary for success here.
Let’s see, who else could open a few eyes and take a bite out of the field in the Big Apple on Sunday? How about Kenyan Peter Kamais, who earlier this year ran a quick 59:53 to win the New York City Half Marathon, a race in which the great Gebrselassie dropped out. Or his countryman James Kwambai, the third-fastest marathon in history, whose kept relatively quiet since his 2:04:27 second-place effort in Rotterdam last year. And let’s not count out American Dathan Ritzenhein, who is a completely different runner than he was the last time he ran here in 2006, where inexperience and fueling issues led to an 11th-place finish in 2:14:01. Ritzenhein, who has yet to figure out the full marathon distance, is a strong cross country runner whose gritty style suits a course like New York. He’s has both the the physical tools and tactical toughness to be in the mix on Sunday.
Despite all that’s been said about course familiarity being in one’s favor when it comes to racing the New York City Marathon, I believe this year’s race will be like no other in history and it’s not unlikely a newcomer to New York will win the race. So with that said, my money’s on Abel Kirui. He has wheels that rival anyone else’s in the field and the know how to win a championship-style marathon on a tough course. And if nothing else, I agree with Dathan Ritzenhein‘s prediction that the course record will be broken and there will be a lot of carnage.
1. Abel Kirui (2:07:14)
2. Marilson Gomes dos Santos (2:07:24)
3. Haile Gebrselassie (2:07:31)
4. Dathan Ritzenhein (2:07:57)
5. Gebre Gebremariam (2:08:05)
As for Meb? I believe he’ll run a low to mid-2:09 and finish in the top 10.