For this glorious day in November, the Big Apple shone. The 46th New York City Marathon, and the 40th anniversary of the Five Boroughs Marathon showed off the City that truly never sleeps in all of its sporting splendor. Mary Keitany tamed the tough course, for the third straight time, and Ghirmay Ghebrselassie won the first time here, but also was the first from his country, Eritrea to win in New York-not bad for a 20 year old who has won the World Championships and placed 4th in the Rio Olympics!
Here is the feature by our senior writer, David Hunter, a man who has seen many marathons and run many as well. We hope you enjoy David’s look into marathoning in the Big Apple. We sure have!
November 6th, 2016
Marathon legend Frank Shorter has a phrase to describe a marathon competition day that dawns with bright, crisp, windless conditions. Race day for the 2016 TCS New York City Marathon was the ’72 Olympic marathon champion’s “no excuses day” – perfect road racing weather in which to celebrate the 40th anniversary of New York’s first 5-borough race and the first of 4 NYC Marathon victories for Bill Rodgers.
As the elite women started and began their ascent of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge – the biggest climb of the race – many questions remained unanswered. Could any woman mount a serious challenge to two-time defending champion Mary Keitany? Would Keitany – passed over in the assembly of the Kenyan Olympic team – use that slight to fuel yet another NYC winning performance? How might American rookie hopefuls Molly Huddle and Kim Conley – two-time Olympians unfurling their marathon debuts – perform on one of the biggest stages of world-class marathoning.
Similar unanswered questions lingered when the men’s elite race got underway just 20 minutes later. Could Stanley Biwott – who DNF’d late in Rio’s Olympic marathon – come back just 11 weeks later to successfully defend his title? Might Lelisa Desisa – a two-time Boston Marathon champion – be able to add a New York championship to his resume? Will Ghirmay Ghebreslassie – the reigning IAAF world marathon champion – recapture his 2015 form and grab the 2016 title here in New York? Does three-time American Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein – who failed to make the U.S. team for Rio – have gas left in the tank to make the podium?
The answers to these questions – and many more – would emerge as the 50,000 runners traveled the 26 mile 385 yard course from Staten Island’s Fort Wadsworth to the west side of Central Park.
The women’s race unfolded cautiously as Keitany and Buzunesh Deba – hospitalized with food poisoning Friday night! – paced the lead pack of 15 through the first 5 miles in 29:10. The early leaders featured 9-time NCAA champion Sally Kipyego, 2015 NYC Half Marathon runner-up Joyce Chepkirui, 2015 NYC Marathon runner-up Aselefech Mergia, and Americans Huddle, Conley, and Sara Hall. After a 7th mile in 5:24 strung out the field, Deba and Keitany – gliding smoothly with little effort – led a trimmed pack that included Huddle. Kipyego, and Mergia as Americans Conley and Hall struggled to stay in contact. A 10th mile initiated by the two-time defending champion in just a shade under 5:00 separated the contenders from the pretenders as only Chepkirui and Mergia could cover the Kenyan’s move. Huddle kept her poise despite quickly being dropped and facing a deficit of 13 seconds and growing. Observations of the leading trio made it clear who was in charge. Keitany was the alpha dog, leaving Chepkirui and Mergia to work hard to react positively to the champion’s pace changes. Shortly after the trio raced past the halfway point in 72:38, Keitany made her decisive move on the ascent up the Pulaski Bridge. With her two rivals unable to respond, the 34-year old Kenyan instantly broke away and was soon on her own. Comfortable controlling the race from the front, Keitany sped across the Queensboro Bridge and descended into Manhattan with no one else in sight.
There is always race day drama on First Avenue, and today was no exception. While Keitany had the race well in hand, the road battles were among those who followed. Mergia soon cracked, a victim of Keitany’s torturing pace. While Chepkirui worked hard to stay with the Kenyan leader, Kipyego – out to make amends on this course after her DNF marathon debut here last year – moved into 3rd. The patient Huddle remained unflappable in 4th as 2016 NYC half marathon champion led a parade of Americans toward the Bronx that included Hall [7th], Neely Spence Gracey [8th], and Conley [9th].
After a brief tour of the South Bronx, Keitany re-entered Manhattan over the Madison Avenue bridge, raced around Marcus Garvey Park, and ran south on 5th Avenue. Entering Center Park at Engineer’s Gate, Keitany – and the millions who were cheering her on – knew the race was hers. The rolling final 5 kilometers in Central Park can be punishing, but for Keitany – out front and in complete control – it was a coronation, a rare opportunity to savor her victory over those final, unchallenged miles. Keitany looked strong as she crossed the line in 2:24:26. Her win is her third consecutive NYC Marathon victory and the triumph made her the first 3-time winner in the Big Apple since the late Grete Waitz captured her 5th consecutive crown here in 1986. Kipyego earned her redemption, holding on to finish 2nd in 2:28:01. And the fast-finishing Huddle grabbed 3rd in 2:28:13 – an impressive debut and a podium-worthy performance for the new American record holder at 10,000m. Two other Americans clawed their way into the top ten: Gracey [8th 2:34:55] and Hall [9th in 2:36:12].
Afterwards, Mary Keitany expressed what her New York three-peat means to her. “I feel good and I am very excited. To win three times consecutively means a lot to me.” The winner had an uncomplicated explanation of her winning mid-race move. “I ran my own race,’ explained the Kenyan star. “At 15 miles, I continued with my pace.”
Huddle was quite pleased with her debut. “This feels great. I was glad to have a smooth race. To finish third was the best I thought I could do,” stated the 22 time national champion. “I felt close to Sally in 2nd so that gives me hope for the next marathon. I am excited already.”
The men’s race was quite different. Ritzenhein – without the fatigue of an Olympic marathon in his legs – went to the whip early to test the recuperative powers of those in the international field who had raced 42 kilometers in Rio. After a 5:18 first mile up the opening bridge, Ritz uncorked a 4:30 downhill mile. Ritz led a front-running pack of about 12 through the streets of Brooklyn, and kept the heat on by cranking out sub 5:00 miles and splitting 10 miles in 49:05. The pace took its tool – with defending champion Biwott struggling and eventually dropping out, as he did in Rio.
After splitting halfway in 1:04:25, the lead pack broke apart as young Ghebreslassie threw down a move heading onto the Pulaski Bridge incline that only two others could replicate. Kenya’s Lucas Rotich and Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa – a two time Boston Marathon champion – joined Geb in the breakaway. The trio raced on to Manhattan where the young Eritrean dished out the pain as he strung together a series of miles in the mid-4:30’s – into a headwind! – as the threesome charged up First Avenue. While Geb picked up the pace, Rotich held on gamely while Desisa was visibly struggling. As the trio raced up the Willis Avenue Bridge into the Bronx, yet another powerful surge just before 20 miles proved to be the telling move. In the space of less than a minute, first Desisa, then Rotich let go. One final glance in the South Bronx confirmed for Geb that the race would be his. Exhilarated by the break, Geb continued to pour it on, extending his lead. Moving smartly through Central Park, the defending IAAF world marathon champion crossed the finish line in 2:07:51 to become the youngest NYC champion, the first Eritrean winner, and the 5th fastest finisher of all time. Back up the course, spirited racing continued. Shortly after a disconsolate Desisa stepped off the course, Ritzenhein did the same – reportedly hobbled on First Avenue. Steady throughout, Rotich finished 2nd in 2:08:53. And wily American veteran Abdi Abdirahman navigated through the end-race road carnage to move up into 3rd, finish in 2:11:23, and make it onto the podium. Several American newbies stayed focused and were rewarded with top 10 finishes – Tyler Pennel [8th in 2:15:09], Ben Payne [9th in 2:15:46], and Patrick Smyth [10th in 2:16:34].
The young winner – who finished 4th in the Olympic Marathon in Rio – was humble in victory. “This is not my first win at a gold label marathon,” explained the 20-year-old Ghebreslassie. “But to win in New York is one of my best dreams to be a champion. I am really proud of my victory today.”
But perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2016 New York City Marathon was the outstanding performance of 4-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman. “I believe anything can happen,” stated the 3rd place finisher in only his second marathon since 2012. “I did what I was supposed to do. I prepared hard. And I was ready to run,” declared the 39 year old Abdirahman. “In the last mile I knew I was third place – clear, locked in. That’s when you enjoy. I had a good time that last mile,” smiled Abdi. “I was just enjoying it.” Dave Hunter