The reigning champion isn’t phased by the pressure surrounding him.
NEW YORK — Geoffrey Mutai isn’t a man of many words, but his legs sure do a lot of talking.
The 32-year-old from Kenya returns to the Big Apple this weekend as the reigning ING New York City champion, having run an eye-popping 2:05:06 here in 2011. In that race, Mutai hit the halfway mark in a swift 1:03:17 before dropping a previously unheard of 1:01:49 split for his final 13.1 miles to put away the field in quick fashion. He didn’t just break Tesfaye Jifar’s 10-year-old course record of 2:07:43 that day — he obliterated it.
So how is he feeling heading into this year’s race?
“I feel OK,” Mutai said at Friday’s pre-race press conference. “I’ve come prepared. To compare my shape from year to year is not so easy.”
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While it might not be easy, it’s hard to believe that Mutai won’t be on his “A” game come Sunday morning. Despite dropping out of the London Marathon in April due to a hamstring injury, Mutai has had a solid 2013 racing campaign. He broke 59 minutes for the first time at the RAK Half Marathon in February, running 58:58 to finish third, and had back-to-back sub-28 minute 10K efforts on the roads this past June. His own race results aside, his two main training partners — Wilson Kipsang and Dennis Kimetto — have lit up the roads this fall, which gives Mutai the confidence that he’s ready to compete with anyone in the world. Kipsang ran 2:03:23 to break the marathon world record at Berlin in September while Kimmetto shattered the Chicago Marathon course record by 53 seconds with a 2:03:45 clocking last month.
“Everyone is in good shape,” Mutai said of his training group, which is based outside of Eldoret, Kenya. “We are the same. We are training together. When Kimetto got his personal best, I was feeling like it was me. For me, I’m feeling comfortable — more comfortable than the last time I was here.”
A deep field of past champions and course record holders, as well as winners and course-record holders from other major marathons such as London, Boston, Chicago and the Olympic Games, will try to make it anything but comfortable for Mutai on Sunday morning. Looking to take Mutai’s title from him will be reigning Olympic and world champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda, who is making his New York City Marathon debut, along with Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, who has wins in Paris, Fukuoka (twice), London (twice) and Chicago — as well as a 2:04:38 personal best — to his credit. Kenyan Stanley Biwott is just getting his feet wet in the marathon, has a 2:05:12 clocking to his credit, and ran 59:36 to win the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon in Philadelphia. In short: it won’t be a stroll through Central Park for Mutai.
Unlike many other major marathons, New York doesn’t enlist the assistance of pacemakers to produce fast times. Competition is the name of the game on the undulating point-to-point course, a setup that plays to Mutai’s preferences and suits his reactive racing style well.
“When I run up and down hills, I enjoy it more than on a flat course,” Mutai admiteed. “The first half is not easy and here we don’t have pacemakers. In the first half you need to go with the group, the next half marathon I can do myself.”
The incredibly soft-spoken Mutai, who also has major marathon wins at Berlin (2:04:15 in 2012) and Boston (2:03:02 in 2012) under his belt, said he isn’t fazed by the pressure his past performances have brought unto him. Despite his high winning percentage, and recording previously unheard of times on two of the more technical marathon courses in the world, Mutai chooses to simply focus on himself.
“The pressure is always going to be there,” Mutai explained. “I am looking forward to running my race. I cannot change the pressure. All I can do is run my race.”