It seems as though the running community—major sportswear companies in particular—has become so firmly focused on breaking two hours for the marathon that it’s lost sight of the excitement that comes with simply shaving seconds off a current world record. This weekend’s London Marathon has the potential to lower the current men’s world record of 2:02:57, which was set by Dennis Kimetto at the 2014 Berlin Marathon.
The last time the men’s world record was set in London was in 2002, when the Morrocan-turned-U.S. marathoner Khalid Khannouchi ran 2:05:38 to improve upon his 2:05:42 from 1999. In last 15 years, 15 men have also run faster than Khannouchi on that course.
The London Marathon race organizers manage to pull together the best East Africans for a fast race, and this year’s fields are no exception. The men’s race will crown a new champion, as 2015 winner Eliud Kipchoge is participating Nike’s sub-two hour marathon attempt in early May. The field includes Olympic medalists and three men that have run under 2:05.
The women’s race is also very strong but a world record is not as likely.
Let’s examine both elite fields.
The favorite: Kenenisa Bekele, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:03:03, 2016 Berlin Marathon
All eyes will be on Bekele. He’s the world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track. He owns three Olympic gold medals. His transition from the track to the roads has gone incredibly well and it showed when he ran 2:03:03 and became the third-fastest marathoner of all time last fall. Bekele has his own sub-two hour marathon ambitions and has been working with sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis an independent science-based group to break the barrier. The group is separate from the Nike attempt. Bekele was set to make a world record attempt in January’s Dubai Marathon but dropped out of the race after feeling the effects of a calf injury, sustained while being shoved and trampled at the starting line. He’s reportedly in good shape and setting the world record only requires a seven-second personal best, which seems much more reasonable than carving three full minutes off. If Bekele hopes to break the world record, he is fully capable of it.
Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:04:52, 2012 Chicago Marathon
Lilesa’s last eight months have been a whirlwind. He won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics while protesting the Ethiopian government in the process. He feared for his life and since he was unable to come home, he came to the United States. He ran several solid half marathons and continued training in Flagstaff, Ariz., before finally being reunited with his family. While Lilesa’s political strife continues, his athleticism remains. He has experience having run the London Marathon before and his personal best puts him as the third-fastest in the field. There should be a little extra motivation that kicks in with a subtle rivalry between Lilesa and Bekele. Lilesa has been very outspoken in his hope to raise awareness for his native Oromo people’s persecution. Bekele is also of Oromo roots but, from my discussions with people within the Ethiopian community, has remained mum on discussing politics because of his stature and businesses in Ethiopia.
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, Erirea
Personal best: 2:07:46, 2016 London Marathon
Ghebreslassie is just 21 years old and he’s already won a world championship gold medal, finished fourth at the Olympics and won the New York City Marathon. He’s young and may not have had his best day in London last year, so Ghebreslassie could be ready to pop off a fast time. Expect that personal best to drop.
Abel Kirui, Kenya
Personal best: 2:05:04, 2009 Rotterdam Marathon
Kirui is 34 years old and saw resurgence in his career with a win in last October’s Chicago Marathon. His credentials as a world champion may make him more suited for a race without pacers, which London will have in hopes of records. He trains with 2017 Boston Marathon champion Geoffrey Kirui, which bodes well if he’s managed to hang in training.
Bedan Karoki, Kenya
Personal best: TBD
Karoki could be Kenya’s best hope for the win on Sunday despite never having run a marathon. He’s run 60:02 or faster for the half marathon on seven occasions since 2014. He ran a personal best of 59:10 in February. Half marathoners are always intriguing for the full 26.2 but expect Karoki to be a dark horse hanging with the leaders late into the race.
Prediction: Bekele for the win in a new world record of 2:02:51.
The Favorite: Mary Keitany, Kenya
Personal best: 2:18:37, 2012 London Marathon
A new champion will also be crowned in the women’s race after Kenyan star and 2016 Olympic champion Jemima Sumgong tested positive for EPO earlier this month. Sumgong won last year’s race in 2:22:58 despite falling about 21 miles into the race. In that fall, she shook fellow Kenyan Mary Keitany. She is the second fastest marathoner of all-time with her 2:18:37 from the 2012 London Marathon, which was the second of her back-to-back wins. Keitany once held the world record for the half marathon in 2011—it’s traded hands several times since but she did manage to run a personal best of 65:13 in February. Considering her third New York City Marathon win in November and a half personal best, her victory hopes are looking good. It’s far stretch to think that she will come close to Paula Radcliffe’s world record of 2:15:25 (from a race paced by men) or 2:17:41 (the women’s only record).
Florence Kiplagat, Kenya
Personal best: 2:19:44, 2011 Berlin Marathon
Kiplagat (no relation to 2017 Boston Marathon champion Edna Kiplagat) has been a fixture on the world marathon majors scene for years. She was once the half marathon world record holder and has won the Chicago Marathon in 2015 and 2016. She’s run the London Marathon every year since 2012 but never been able to come away with the victory. Kiplagat may be due for the W.
Mare Dibaba, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:19:52, 2012 Dubai Marathon
Dibaba is the reigning world champion and Olympic bronze medalist from Rio. She boasts the fourth-fastest personal best of the field but ran London last year and took sixth.
Tigist Tufa, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:21:52, 2014 Shanghai Marathon
Tufa was a major surprise by winning the 2015 edition of the race in 2:23:22 and then proved that she was not a fluke by actually running faster but taking second in 2016 with her 2:23:03 runner-up finish to Sumgong. It’s hard to tell what sort of fitness she’s bringing into Sunday since her last race was a DNF at the Olympics. If Tufa is healthy, she may be ready to take back her title.
Vivian Cheruiyot, Kenya
Personal best: TBD
The Olympic 5,000-meter champion will be making her marathon debut at the age of 33. Her marathon progression has gone well and she finished just behind Dibaba in 69:44 at a half marathon last month in Lisbon. She won five world championship titles as well as Olympic gold and silver medals so she’s no stranger to competing well on major stages.
Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:20:35, 2014 London Marathon
It would be foolish to leave off one of the greatest distance runners of all-time. If you were impressed by Cheruiyot’s resume, Dibaba has nine world championship titles on the track and in cross country, three Olympic gold medals and three Olympic bronze medals. Her only 26.2 race was her 2014 London Marathon before she took a break to have a baby. Last summer, she marked her return. She ran 29:42.56 for 10,000-meter and took bronze in Rio. Once nicknamed the Baby-Faced Destroyer, she’s back.
Prediction: Mary Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba battle for the win. Keitany comes out on top in 2:22:55.