Could this be the year an American wins the Chicago Marathon?
The World Marathon Majors series returns to the United States for the penultimate major of the year with the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Sunday. The men’s field boasts three Olympic medalists and three men that have run under 2:05 including world record holder Dennis Kimetto of Kenya. The women’s side could yield a fast time with Tirunesh Dibaba coming off a 2:17:56 in April’s London Marathon to become the third-fastest woman of all-time. Reigning champion Florence Kiplagat has run under 2:20 in her career and could add a third Chicago Marathon title to her historic resume.
The race will be broadcast on NBC and the local Chicago affiliate will have a livestream available on NBCChicago.com and the NBC Chicago app. The elite races will start at 8:30 a.m. ET.
Here’s a look at the biggest storylines and top competitors heading into the race:
Can Galen Rupp win?
No American man has won the Chicago Marathon since Khalid Khannouchi in 2002. Khannouchi was born in Morocco so if you’re wondering who was the last American-born winner then you have to go back to Greg Meyer in 1982.
When the professional fields for the race were first announced, it looked like the field may have been watered down for Rupp to win the race. Because of the rise of East African marathoners since the ‘80s and ‘90s, victories by Americans are rare on the World Marathon Majors scene. Meb Keflezighi is the last American man to win a major with his 2014 victory in Boston, just one year after the tragic bombings. Keflezighi saw a boom in popularity and the Boston Marathon probably got a few more eyes the following year.
Chicago would love that to be the case and since the race is sponsored by Nike, who has sponsored Rupp for his entire professional career, he would be the perfect candidate. Rupp already owns two Olympic medals, including a bronze from the marathon in Rio, and he finished second in April’s Boston Marathon. His transition from the track to the marathon has been seamless. Rupp owns four American records on the track (three indoor and one outdoors) so there is anticipation for Rupp’s first fast marathon.
Chicago will be Rupp’s fourth career marathon. His first two, the Olympic Marathon Trials and Olympics, were races where place counted more than the time, and he ran 2:11:13 and then 2:10:05, respectively. In the late stages of April’s Boston Marathon, he looked like he could win the race but was overtaken by Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui. Boston is primarily flat for the first half but very hilly in the second half so it’s probably still not Rupp’s best opportunity to run fast. He still lowered his personal best to 2:09:58 in that race.
The good news for Rupp is that he’s managed to have success in races without pacers. Chicago eliminated rabbits for the 2015 race and the winning time from 2014 to 2015 slowed by five minutes and then another two more last year. Any time of 2:09–2:11 would be within his wheelhouse.
Let’s run through Rupp’s biggest challengers:
Dennis Kimetto, Kenya
Personal best: 2:02:57 World Record, 2014 Berlin Marathon
Kimetto returns to the Chicago Marathon four years after he ran the course record of 2:03:45. The following year, he decided not to defend his title and went on to run the current world record of 2:02:57 in Berlin. He has not been very good since. His last marathon was in April 2016 and he ran 2:11:44 for 11th place the London Marathon. He was supposed to run the 2016 Chicago Marathon and 2017 Boston Marathons but withdrew due to injuries so it’s very difficult to instill any sort of confidence that Kimetto is still a dominant force. The course may be the same as it was in 2013 but it will be a much different race and there’s still a lot unknown about Kimetto’s shape.
Feyisa Lilesa, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:04:52, 2012 Chicago Marathon
Lilesa knows what it’s like to beat Rupp because he did it at the Olympics when he crossed the finish line for a silver medal with his arms raised in protest of the Ethiopian government. Lilesa was unable to return to Ethiopia after the Olympics as he feared for his life after speaking out against the government’s oppression of his native Oromo people. He now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., on an immigrant visa and trains with U.S. Olympian Abdi Abdirahman. Lilesa struggled mightily with cramping issues in his calf in the last 10K of April’s London Marathon and finished in 2:14:12 for 12th place. I met with him at his home in August and he’s been healthy ever since. He laughed when he realized that this will be his 21st marathon in his career. He was just 14 seconds away from the victory in 2012 and also wants to make up for his DNF in 2014.
Stanley Biwott, Kenya
Personal best: 2:03:51, 2016 London Marathon
The 2015 New York City Marathon champion will be racing Chicago for the first time. He might be the strongest candidate for the win given his recent success. Since 2014, he’s run under 2:07 on three occasions including a 2:03:51 to finish second at the 2016 London Marathon. He attempted to run at the Olympics but dropped out mid-race and hasn’t raced 26.2 since then.
Abel Kirui, Kenya
Personal best: 2:05:04, 2009 Rotterdam Marathon
Last year’s champion returns and is coming off a solid showing in London. He ran 2:07:45 and took fourth. No man has defended their Chicago title since the late Sammy Wanjiru in 2009 and 2010. Kirui may have been lucky to win last year. He had not run super well since 2012 and everything finally came together for him last October. He’s 35 years old now and he’s been running marathons since 2006. Even though Kirui hasn’t raced since April, it’s a good sign that his training partners seem to be doing well since he’s run with Eliud Kipchoge and he just won the Berlin Marathon in 2:03:32.
Zersenay Tadese, Eritrea
Personal best: 2:10:41, 2012 London Marathon
Tadese is certainly one of the most interesting runners for Sunday because his personal best is 2:10:41 on a legal course, but he was also one of the participants in the Nike Breaking2 project. He was a longshot to try and break two hours and fell apart after the halfway point. It’s ironic because he remains the half marathon world record holder. Tadese ran 2:06:51, which is 3:50 faster than his personal best but it looked super painful considering the first half was at sub-two pace. Kipchoge appears to have not lost his touch since May’s attempt but we’ll see how much Tadese learned for a regular marathon and if he can finally run a good time.
Conclusion on Rupp: Desisa and Biwott could be biggest challengers in his way for the win so a podium finish would be a very successful day for him but a win would not be totally surprising.
Other U.S. stars to watch: Chicago local Chris Derrick, one of the United States’ best 10,000 meter runners, and 61-minute half marathoner Noah Droddy will be making their respective marathon debuts. Andrew Bumbalough looks to improve upon his 2:13:58 from February’s Tokyo Marathon.
The women’s race appears to be a two-woman duel between Ethiopia and Kenya. Tirunesh Dibaba and Florence Kiplagat have personal bests that are head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. This will be a good match-up in a race without pacers, which allows spectators to see how these stars respond to the body language and surges of each other when they go mano a mano.
Tirunesh Dibaba, Ethiopia
Personal best: 2:17:56, 2017 London Marathon
Dibaba is one of the greatest distance runners of all-time and just won a silver medal in the 10,000 meters at the IAAF World Championships in London in August. When she was announced for Chicago, race director Carey Pinkowski said that Dibaba wanted to chase down the course record of 2:17:18, which is held by Paula Radcliffe from 2002. He’s definitely super confident about her ability because there are no pacers and so running a record alone seems like a longshot. London was a crazy race where Kenyan Mary Keitany took it from the gun at world record pace and held on for dear life. Dibaba went with her for some of it but even had to stop in the closing kilometers with a slight cramp. She still ran under 2:18. Unless Dibaba does the leading herself, her best bet for a victory would be to sit tight and then drop a major surge after about 20 miles.
Florence Kiplagat, Kenya
Personal best: 2:19:44, 2011 Berlin Marathon
The bad news for Dibaba is that since the elimination of pacers, Kiplagat is undefeated in Chicago. She took the win in 2:23 in 2015 but then worked with her fellow competitors for a fast tempo last year and won in 2:21:32. Her major move was from 30K to 35K when she ran a 16:17 5K. Her ninth place finish in April’s London Marathon snapped her streak of making the podium in three consecutive majors. If Kiplagat wins, she’ll be the first woman to win three Chicago Marathon crowns.
Jordan Hasay has chance to shine
Jordan Hasay has the best chance to become the first American woman to win Chicago since Deena Kastor won in 2015, but she’s the fourth-fastest woman on paper for the race. Hasay’s first marathon was a tremendous success as she ran 2:23:00 for third place at the Boston Marathon. It marked the fastest debut by an American woman for the marathon and the fourth-fastest performance by any American woman on the historic Boston Marathon course. It seems like a lot of pressure to put on a young U.S. star to expect a second marathon win, especially at a world major on a faster course than her first, but Hasay is a special talent.
Men’s winner: Stanley Biwott
Women’s winner: Tirunesh Dibaba
Men: Galen Rupp in third place
Women: Jordan Hasay in fourth place