The week in the Big Apple is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Besides watching the race, this keen observer meets with coaches, athletes, members of the medi and sponsors to get a feel for where the sport will be going in the next year.
This has been a great week in New York. Lots of changes in the sport, and many changes coming to New York. The brand ASICS went out in style as the footwear and apparel sponsor of the TCS New York City Marathon, after a 24 year run. There will be an announcement on the next decade’s sponsor in the next month.
But today, and in this colum, I have come to praise Mary Keitany. Mary Keitany dominated this race with a ferocity not seen since the 1970s and runners the likes of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton, Frank Shorter, Akio Usami and Karel Lismont. This was old school, run hard as long as you can, and dare anyone to come with you.
And, it was a work of art!
In one of my favorite movies on the sport of Athletics, the coach character notes that athletics is similar to jousting. It is warfare with all of the emotions, nobility, but not the bullets.
In that case, Mary Keitany is a road warrior. And she is the second best of her generation, or any generation, if one looks at her 2:18:47. Mary Keitany’s time is only behind that of Paula Radcliffe, who, in 2003, ran 2:15:25, nearly touching the stars, never to run that fast again. For Paula, that amazing two hours, and fifteen plus minutes challenged her body and her soul. I equate what happened to her with how Derek Clayton, the first man under 2:12, 2:11, 2:10, and then, holding WR, and how his body reacted to the WR. ” I was never the same” Clayton told me almost 35 years ago. The description of how his body reacted should just be left to the imagination, but Derek had put much of his physcial and all of his emotional vigor into that race in Antwerp.
Mary Keitany has run 2:18:47, but, I believe, her three races in New York City put her in a class all of her own. She is the first women to win three in a row since the late, incomperable Grete Waits, en route to her five straight in the Big Apple.
This is my third major marathon to view in person this fall (I watched Berlin from afar, staying up all night). And this race was a battle from 5k on. The race went out in a pedestrian 18:41 for the 5k, and the 10k was a bit better, in 35:50, a 17:09.
Mary Keitany, Asefelech Mergia and Joyce Chepkirui increased the pace in the second 5k and then, in the 10k-15k, dropped the pace to 5:40, as the lead pack began to show strain on their face, the the resolute intentions of many were overcome by a pace that got progressively faster.
There are many ways to push the pace, and Mary Keitany knows all of the tricks. Asefelech Mergia pushed along with Keitany and Joyce Chepkirui. From 15k to 20k, the pace dropped to 5:33 pace. ” I knew I could run a 5:30 pace, but not much faster,” was how Molly Huddle would describe her cautious running.
At the halfway, Mary Keitany had been leading since nine miles and Joyce Chepkirui was on her shoulder with Asefelesh Mergia collapsing, and falling back by over a minute. Keitany hit the halfway in 1:12:39, with Chepkirui on her shoulder. Mergia was back at 1:13:25, with Molly Huddle at 1:13:35, and Sally Kipyego at 1:13:54.
This was Molly Huddle’s first marathon, and Coach Ray Treacy has instructed her to be cautious, stay out of the battle, and stay in her safety zone. Sally Kipyego had a bad experience in New York last year, and was listening to her coach, Mark Rowland, who had instructed her to run within herself and, again, stay out of trouble.
In the golden days of mens’ marathoning, there were two schools of thought. Most races found the usual supsects up front, bashing away, until they could no longer withstand the battle, and someone would fall off, while another might endure for that day. The other school of thought, exemplified by the likes of Karel Lismont, who would keep his cool early on, and come on strong from 35k to the finish. That tactic gave him gold in 1971 Euros, silver in 1972 Olympics, bronze in 1976 Olympics, bronze in 1978 and 1982 Europeans.
Women’s marathoning is coming into a golden age of racing. There is such a plethora of fine women marathoners, in the 2:22-2:25 range, that, in Chicago, Berlin and Frankfurt, and now New York this year, a group of top women marathoners battle until only one is left standing. Chicago had Florence Kiplagat, Frankfurt had Mamitu Deska, and New York, the toughest of all, has Mary Keitany.
Mary Keitany pushed the knife deep, running miles in the 5:20s. Asefelech Mergia never recovered after 10 miles, passed in 56:12. She kept falling back, finishing 6th in 2:33:28. Joyce Chepkirui was right on Mary Keitany’s shoulder.
Mary Keitany was relentless. Note that her mile between nine and ten was run in 5:06. That is amazingingly fast, and a mile like that cuts like a knife. Mergia did not survive it, and it would only be a few miles before Chepkirui would pay dearly.
In mile 14, Mary Keitany began to push, and push some more. These solid punches to the gut did not show on Keitany, but they did provide a break between Mary Keitany and Joyce Chepkirui. At 14 miles, Keitany hit 1:17:13, and Chepkirui was 1:17:15. Huddle was seventeen seconds back, and Kipyego was behind her, both holding back to see how the final miles would go.
As Mary Keitany blazed 25k to 30k, she ran 16:01. I wrote in my notes, ” Mary Keitany has a look of determination and focus in her eyes. She is blazing! ”
Joyce Chepkirui fell back by a minute between 25k and 30k, hitting the 30k in 1:43:12. Keitany was leading in 1:41:35. Chepkirui was falling back, having run that 5k in 17:07.
By this time, Sally Kipyego had gone in front of Molly Huddle, was Kipyego ran 16:55 for that 25-30k and Molly Huddle ran 17:25. This is that cold corner of hell in a marathon where good intentions mean little and iron will and determination are the difference between second and third.
The relentless pace of Mary Keitany was paying off. Chepkirui and Mergia were going backwards. Sally Kipyego and Molly Huddle were moving forward. At 35k, Mary Keitany lead in 1:58:39, a 17:04 5k for Mary. Joyce Chepkirui was still in second, but her 18:24 5k (2:01:36), still had a sizable lead on Sally Kipyego (2:02:15) and Molly Huddle (2:02:44).
Mary Keitany had taken the risk, and she was winning. By 40k, Mary Keitany hit 2:16:18, her slowest 5k of the last 30k, with Sally Kipyego having moved into second, (2:20:17), running 17:50 for the last 5k, and Joyce Chepkirui freefalling (2:20:25) with Molly Huddle menancingly close in 2:20:35 (17:52 for the last 5k).
The marathon is 42.2 kilometers, or 26 miles, 385 yards. The distance became standardized after the 1908 Olympics and the desire to have the finish run by the royal seats.
Mary Keitany held on after her blistering pace, winning in 2:24:26, noting that ” It was a great race. I am happy for my family and my friends.” Sally Kipyego learnt from her race in 2015, and finished her second marathon start in fine fashion, in 2:28:01, holding off American Molly Huddle in her debut. ” I think I learnt from my race last year, I ran within myself.” noted Sally Kipyego.
Molly Huddle was seen sprinting over the last 800 meters, running 2:28:13, nearly catching Sally Kipyego. ” I am happy with my third place, and I am happy with my race..I was flailing a bit over the last ten miles, I was just tired.” Her coach, Ray Treacy noted that ” Molly had little time to train for the marathon, and she did well here. She will be able to train longer for the next marathon.”
Fine races with a fine women’s field. Joyce Chepkirui held on for fourth in 2:29:08, and Diane Nikuri was fifth in 2:33:04. Two more Americans Neely Gracey was 8th in 2:34:55 and Sara Hall was ninth in 2:36:12.
All in all, great weather for a marathon, as 52,000 plus started and we will have to find out later how many finished. Mary Keitany is showing that she is, if not the best, among the very best in the modern marathon era. Keitany is not only someone who can run fast times, but someone who can battle tough courses like New York and come out on top.
And that, for Mary Keitany is the reasons for her three peat.
When asked if she could win five, or perhaps equal Grete Waitz’s nine wins, Mary Keitany gave the questionaire a quizical look and said, ” Four”.
And, as Mr. Vonnegut would say, so it goes, in the marathon world.