John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Can Des Linden and Yuki Kawauchi defend? Will inclement weather be a factor? Breaking down 2019 Boston Marathon top storylines and contenders.

By Chris Chavez
April 11, 2019

BOSTON – Rain and wind appears to be in the forecast for Monday’s running of the 123rd Boston Marathon, which has runners preparing for the worst conditions after last year’s 30-degree weather and a torrential downpour resulted in one of the most improbable and unforgettable races in history.

Des Linden became the first American woman to win the race in 33 years after contemplating dropping out of the race, assisting her Olympic teammate who took a 15-second bathroom stop and then breaking away at the 22-mile mark. Japan’s Yuki Kawauchi entered with a 2:08:14 personal best had broadcasters thinking he was crazy for his aggressive start to the race. However, Kawauchi reeled back and caught Kenya’s Geoffrey Kirui with about a mile to go to win in 2:15:54—the slowest winning time since 1976.

(Larry Rawson’s “Somewhere, I would say, within 5K or maybe 10, somebody is going to hand this gentleman a piano to carry...This is too fast” is one of the best Old Takes Exposed of 2018.)

Despite their many career accomplishments and accolades, Linden and Kawauchi were considered longshots to win heading into the race. Both will return to defend their titles on Monday in Boston. If the weather forecast holds true and decides to open the floodgates on 30,000 runners again, will Linden and Kawauchi be considered favorites?

Let’s take a look at the professional fields for both elite races:

WOMEN

The returning champion: Des Linden, USA (Personal best: 2:22:38)

No woman has defended her Boston Marathon crown since Catherine Ndereba of Kenya won back-to-back titles in 2004 and ’05. (Note: Kenya’s Rita Jeptoo won in 2013 and ’14 but was stripped of her second title after testing positive for EPO.) At age 35, Linden will be running her sixth Boston race and while it might be hard to top last year’s victory, her attitude has improved since the win. Ever since her runner-up finish in Boston in ’11 (where she lost by two seconds to Kenya’s Caroline Kilel) Linden had been chasing a major career victory. Now that weight has been lifted and she’s taking a more selective approach to her races to test tactics and sharpen her speed. After her win in Boston, she parted ways with coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson to reunite with her college coach Walt Drenth. In her first marathon under his tutelage, she finished sixth in 2:27:51 at the New York City in November. Most recently, she was fifth at the NYC Half as a tune-up for Boston. For ’19, she can rely on her vast experience in Boston, less pressure to win and a full year under her new coach. An assist from Mother Nature would also help for the title defense.

The Contenders

Worknesh Degefa, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:17:41)

Degefa became the fourth-fastest woman of all-time at the Dubai Marathon when she ran 2:17:41 but didn’t win the race. She finished second to Kenya’s Ruth Chepngetich by 33 seconds. A fast time at Dubai does not always translate to a Boston Marathon win, but she’s more than two minutes faster than the next-fastest woman and the Ethiopian national record holder. It’s an interesting choice for her to opt for Boston’s hilly course as opposed to possibly chasing a world record in London.

Edna Kiplagat, Kenya (Personal best: 2:19:50)

The two-time world champion was a surprising winner in 2017 but did not cooperate with the rain and finished ninth last year in 2:47:14. In September, she bounced back with a 2:21:18, which shows that even at 39 years old, she can’t be counted out. Only one American in the field has ever run faster than that.

Mare Dibaba, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:19:52)

Dibaba has fared well in Boston with a third place showing in 2014 and then a runner-up finish in ’15. In 2016, ’17 and ’18, she opted to run the London Marathon in the spring. She did not run very well last year with a 2:25:24 finish for 11th place at the Frankfurt Marathon. Her last quality performance was a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics. But given her history with Boston, she can’t be totally discounted.

Betsy Saina, Kenya (Personal best: 2:22:56)

Saina was a track star at Iowa State and finished fifth in the 10,000 meters at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. The following year she had a rough transition to the roads, as she failed to finish at the Tokyo and New York City Marathons. For 2018, she worked with coach Patrick Sang, who also coaches world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, and she finally figured out the marathon. Saina won the Paris Marathon in 2:22:56 and then finished eighth in 2:24:34 at the Frankfurt Marathon last year. She opened the year with a half marathon personal best of 67:49 in Japan in February and then finished seventh at the NYC Half in March. We’ll see if she can redeem herself on the world major stage.

The Other American

Jordan Hasay, USA (Personal best: 2:20:57)

On the day before last year’s race, Hasay pulled out of the race due to a stress reaction in her heel. A broken bone in her left heel also knocked her out of the Chicago Marathon. On March 10th, she made her return to racing with a 61:06 half marathon in Rome. Boston is the site of where Hasay clocked a 2:23:00 in 2017 for the fastest-ever debut by an American woman. She followed it up by becoming the second-fastest woman of all-time with a 2:20:57 at the 2017 Chicago Marathon. On paper, Hasay could be the top American but the biggest question marks around her focus on whether there’s any lasting sign of the foot injury and how her body remembers handling Boston’s tough course. Boston’s race will also provide more clarity on whether she’s possibly the top American marathoner heading into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

The United States will also be represented by Sara Hall (2:26:20), Sally Kipyego (2:28:01), Lindsay Flanagan (2:29:25), Becky Wade (2:30:41), Sarah Crouch (2:32:27) and Sarah Sellers (2:36:37).


Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

MEN

The defending champion: Yuki Kawauchi, Japan (Personal best: 2:08:14)

Last year, Kawauchi ran 12 marathons but none was more significant than his win in Boston, when he became the first men’s champion from Japan since Toshihiko Seko in 1987. This year, he’s already run three marathons, including a 2:09:21 at Lake Biwa. His official website lists eight marathons scheduled for 2019 so not a whole lot has changed. He is now a full-time professional runner after balancing a competitive running career with a government job for nearly a decade.

Contenders

Lelisa Desisa, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:04:45)

Desisa pulled away from fellow Ethiopian Shura Kitata in the final 800 meters of November’s New York City Marathon and won by just two seconds. It marked his third world marathon major victory after his Boston wins in 2013 and ’15. It also got the monkey off his back in New York, where he had been second in ’14 and third in ’15 and 2017, respectively. Last spring, Desisa was a DNF in Boston but he can’t be knocked for it since only elite East Africans finished in the stormy conditions. If he can extend his consistency of faring well on the world major stage, it would come as no shock for him to add a third title.

Geoffrey Kirui, Kenya (Personal best: 2:06:27)

Through 25 miles, it looked like Kirui was going to go back-to-back. He dismantled most of the field with an aggressive surge through the Newton Hills at the 18-mile mark. The move and the weather took its toll on him in the final mile, which he ran over seven-minute pace. He was able to hold onto second place but lost out on becoming the first man to win back-t0-back Boston titles in a decade. Kirui rebounded with a sixth place finish at the Chicago Marathon in 2:06:45. A course like Boston, with no pace setters, suits his championship-racing style since he has a 2017 world championship gold medal and 2017 Boston title to show for it. If the rain comes down hard on Monday, expect Kirui to play it a little more conservative after last year’s lesson. A podium finish should have him in the conversation for one of three Kenyan Olympic team spots, which are really tough to land.

Lawrence Cherono, Kenya (Personal best: 2:04:06)

Cherono holds the fastest personal best of the field after his 2:04:06 course record at the Amsterdam Marathon in October.

Lemi Berhanu Hayle, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:04:33)

Berhanu won the 2016 edition of the Boston Marathon, so he can’t be counted out. But he failed to finish in Boston in ’17 and ’18. Last fall, he clocked a 2:08:51 at the Henshui Marathon in China, which seems much slower than his personal best but doesn’t rule him out of contention on a course like Boston. He could still be in the mix.

Dark Horses

Hiroto Inoue, Japan (Personal best: 2:06:54)

Inoe is one of the most intriguing entries in the field. Japanese distance running has been rising over the past four years as the country vies for an Olympic gold in the marathon when they host in 2020. Inoe ran his personal best of 2:06:54 for fifth place at last year’s Tokyo Marathon and then won gold at the Asian Games in 2:18 in August. Inoue may have an outside podium chance.

Solomon Deksisa, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:04:40)

Deksisa is 25 years old and just finding his footing in the marathon. Last year was a breakout year for him with three sub-2:10 performances including a third place finish at the Amsterdam Marathon in 2:04:40. He’s been running on the roads for a while–can he make noise in Boston?

The Americans

Last month, the International Association of Athletics Federation announced the new standards for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Many athletes voiced their concern on social media at the faster standards and the qualifying window of time. The American field should be gunning for a top 10 finish in Boston because it would qualify them for the 2020 Olympics without having to hit the 2:11:30 standard, which is faster than many of their personal bests.

Dathan Ritzenhein, USA (Personal best: 2:07:47)

He’s 36 years old. He has not finished a marathon since his seventh place finish at the 2015 Boston Marathon. However, he’s still going. Ritzenhein told LetsRun.com that he’s heading into this race with a shorter buildup but believes he could win the race. His personal best of 2:07:47 is the fastest among Americans, but it was set in 2012. It’s a longshot for Ritzenhein to win but his performance could tell what he’s got left ahead of the 2020 trials, where he’s vying to make a fourth Olympic team.

Shadrack Biwott, USA (Personal best: 2:12:01)

Biwott was last year's top American in Boston with his third place finish in 2:18:35, which was just 12 seconds behind Kirui. He finished ninth at the 2018 New York City Marathon in 2:12:52. Since the 2016 Olympic Trials, three of his five marathons have been between 2:12:01 and 2:12:52.

Jared Ward, USA (Personal best: 2:11:30)

Ward was an Olympian in 2016 and then battled injuries the following year. In ’18, his top American and sixth overall finish at last year’s New York City Marathon was a good sign for his return to full health. He’s been vocal about his goal of breaking 2:10, which should be good enough for a possible top 10 finish in Boston.

Scott Fauble, USA (Personal best: 2:12:28)

He finished just four seconds behind Ward for a personal best. The 27-year-old has taken well to the marathon and is putting himself into the conversation as a possible contender for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials.

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