New York City Marathon 2017 men's preview, contenders - Sports Illustrated

New York City Marathon 2017 Men's Preview: Ghebreslassie Returns, Keflezighi's Final Race

Top storylines and men's runners to watch for the 2017 New York City Marathon.
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Sunday’s TCS New York City Marathon will have no shortage of storylines to follow. From the youngest champion in history returning to defend his title to one of the best American marathoners ever making a final push for 26.2 miles, this year’s race will be one to watch.

The men’s professional field is one of the best assembled of this year’s fall World Marathon Majors and includes five men that have run under 2:07, including former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang of Kenya. Last year’s champion, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea, returns to defend his title after winning in 2:07:51.

'My Story is the American Dream': Meb Keflezighi's Indelible Mark on U.S. Distance Running

The winner of the New York City Marathon takes home $100,000. The top American wins $25,000. If one of the first two runners runs under 2:05:30 or breaks the 2:05:06 course record, set by Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai in 2011, they would be awarded an additional $50,000.

Here’s an in-depth breakdown of the athletes to watch on Sunday.

The reigning champion

Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, Eritrea
Age: 21
Personal best: 2:07:46, 2016 London Marathon

Ghebreslassie broke out as a marathoner with his victory at the 2015 IAAF World Championships on a hot August day in Beijing. Last year was a great year for him. He clocked a personal best in April’s London Marathon, just missed a medal at the Olympics with a fourth place finish but then became the youngest winner in the history of the New York City Marathon. He’s raced sparingly in 2017 but finished sixth in April’s London Marathon in 2:09:57. Ghebreslassie is a natural racer. He fares better in races without a pace setter and that is partly why he’s been successful in a championship setting and New York. Only six men in history have won back-to-back New York City Marathon titles, with the most recent being Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya in 2011 and 2013 (2012 was cancelled due to the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy).

The Fastest Man On Paper

Wilson Kipsang, Kenya
Age: 35
Personal best: 2:03:13

Kipsang’s personal best is one minute and 32 seconds faster than the next-best competitor, Lelisa Desisa (more on him later). Kipsang was a late addition to the field after he ran about 30 kilometers of September’s Berlin Marathon—which went out ahead of world record pace—before dropping out. That day ended up being a very tough “long run” for him but he gets to recycle his fitness and race in New York eight weeks later. He certainly should be considered for the win and he’s done it in New York before. In cold conditions, he made his Big Apple debut in 2014 and won in 2:10:59. In 2015, he finished fourth in 2:12:45. He’s had better success at faster and flatter courses. In February, he won the Tokyo Marathon in 2:03:58, which added an eighth sub-2:05 performance to his career resume—the stat that he’s most proud of. If you consider Berlin as a public workout for Kipsang, he showed he can hang at an aggressive pace and since New York will presumably be slower in the first half, it could be the closing speed or surge that seals a second New York City marathon victory for him.

The Contenders

Geoffrey Kamworor, Kenya
Age: 24
Personal best: 2:06:12, 2012 Berlin Marathon

Kamworor returns to the New York City Marathon since his runner-up finish in 2015. He took 2016 to focus on the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, which he won despite falling at the start, and then 10,000 meters at the Rio Olympics, where he finished 11th in the final. In 2017, he didn’t run a marathon in the spring but won the IAAF World Cross Country championships and then competed in the 10,000 meters at the world championships to improve to sixth overall. With six marathons under his belt, he’s still just 24 years old and has made the podium in three of five world marathon majors. He will win a major marathon soon—and it could be Sunday.

Lemi Berhanu, Ethiopia
Age: 23
Personal best: 2:04:33, 2016 Dubai Marathon

Berhanu made a splash in his first marathon major by winning the 2016 Boston Marathon. He boasts a fast personal best of 2:04:33 from the Dubai Marathon in January 2016 and four of his 10 career marathons have been under 2:10, which is a good range to be in contention for the win in New York. This year, Berhanu will make his New York debut. He’s run without pacers at the 2015 world championships and 2016 Olympics, where he finished 15th and 13th, respectively. He started off 2017 with a 2:08:27 to win January’s Xiamen International Marathon in China but then dropped out of the Boston Marathon three months later. He could be one to watch as Ethiopia searches for its first champion since Gebregziabher Gebremariam in 2010.

The Wildcard

Lelisa Desisa, Ethiopia
Age: 27
Personal best: 2:04:45, 2013 Dubai Marathon

Desisa came close to winning New York City in 2014 but was dusted by Kipsang after trying to sit and kick on the Kenyan star in the closing meters of Central Park. He finished third in 2:12:10 in 2015 but then dropped out of last year’s race. He hasn’t completed a marathon in 18 months, since his runner-up finish in the 2015 Boston Marathon, but Desisa didn’t totally disappear. He decided to bypass the spring marathons in 2017 to participate in Nike’s Breaking2 attempt. He maintained sub-two hour pace for the first half of the race but fell behind the leaders by the 28 kilometers, and he limped his way to the finish line in 2:14:10—nearly 10 minutes slower than his personal best. Throughout the experiment, it appeared he was the least adaptive to some of the changes and may have been injured in the early build-up. It will be interesting to see how he fares, after learning lessons from Breaking2 and returning to his regular training regimen. There have been mixed results for other runners: 2016 Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya came the closest to the sub-two with his 2:00:25 run. He won September’s Berlin Marathon in 2:03:32. Zersenay Tadese of Ethiopia ran 2:06:51 in Breaking2 (3:50 better than his personal best) but then ran 2:12:19 in October’s Chicago Marathon.


The Top Americans

Meb Keflezighi, USA
Personal best: 2:08:37, 2014 Boston Marathon

All eyes will be on Meb Keflezighi as he races in his final marathon. The 42-year-old made his marathon debut in New York City in 2002 and vowed never to do it again. Now 25 marathons and 15 years later, he is wrapping up a career that includes a 2004 Olympic silver medal, the 2009 New York City Marathon title, the 2014 Boston Marathon title (one year after the bombings that left three people dead and many other injured) and four trips to the Olympics—two for the marathon in 2012 and 2016. Keflezighi is without a doubt one of the greatest American marathoners of all-time and very deserving of the farewell that he will get in New York. At his age, coming off some average races by his standards, he may not be favored for the victory or the top American finish. In 2015, he was the top American and finished seventh place overall in a then-masters record of 2:13:32, which he later lowered at the Boston Marathon. It should be noted though that some of Keflezighi’s best performances have come at times when he’s been most doubted. He will never say that he’s not going for the victory but we have to recognize how much better the rest of the field looks. Sunday will be a day to celebrate Keflezighi and he hopes to be competitive one last time.

Abdi Abdirahman, USA
Age: 40 years old
Personal best: 2:08:56, 2006 Chicago Marathon

Abdirahman’s personal best is from 11 years ago and he’s 40-years-old, but the man nicknamed “The Black Cactus” isn’t ready to call it a career like Keflezighi will on Sunday. When I spoke to him over the phone on Tuesday, he says that he plans to run for the next couple years and was confident that he could have made the 2016 Olympic team for the marathon if he wasn’t sidelined by injury. Abdirahman had been discounted in recent years but saw a resurgence last year with a third place finish in 2:11:23. Abdirahman says that he had a workout on the track recently that left his coach surprised and thought he’s looked better than he has in recent years. He’s followed a similar race schedule to last year and run faster in each race, which bodes well for him again in New York.

Jared Ward
Age: 29
Personal best: 2:11:30, 2016 Olympics in Rio

Olympic bronze medalist Galen Rupp is head and shoulders above the rest of the U.S. marathoners right now after his victory in Chicago. Many professionals in the marathon believe that just one Olympic team spot may be available in 2020 because Rupp will occupy one and Ward could be the other. That’s high praise for the former star from BYU. Ward’s personal best of 2:11:30 was run in soggy and warm conditions in Rio but it got him a sixth place finish. He has the potential to drop under 2:10 but Sunday may be the day, because of New York’s tough course. He’ll look to better his sub-par performance at the Boston Marathon, where he ran 2:15:28 for 10th place. You can’t count him out because of his credentials as an Olympian and rising star.

Shadrack Biwott
Age: 32
Personal best: 2:12:01, 2016 New York City Marathon

Abdirahman’s resurrection may have overshadowed a breakthrough by Biwott at last year’s New York City Marathon. He was able to drop his personal best from 2:12:55 to 2:12:01 and finished fifth. He proved that performance was not a fluke in April when he finished fourth at the Boston Marathon in 2:12:08. Had Rupp not finished second in that race, maybe he would’ve received more fanfare for knocking on the door of the podium at a major marathon. He signed a contract with Brooks Running after Boston, which resulted in a coaching change that has been altered his marathon build-up this year. Biwott became an American citizen in 2012 and has slowly worked his way into the upper ranks of U.S. distance running. He finished seventh at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials and his recent progression could signal that he’s finally due for a podium finish at a major.

You can watch Sunday’s race on ESPN2 and online with WatchESPN with live coverage from 9 a.m. to Noon ET. The professional women’s race will start at 9:20 a.m. The professional men and Wave 1 will start at 9:50 a.m.