The fastest Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners will clash on the streets of London on Sunday.
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London Marathon race organizers received a lot of credit for last year’s women’s elite field that was billed as the “Fantastic Five” and the fastest women’s field ever assembled. This year’s race is no different.
Last year’s race was won by Ethiopia’s Tigist Tufa, who upended the Fantastic Five, in her first run on the course. This year’s race will feature seven women that have run under 2:21 – including four that have gone under 2:20.
Olympic team spots are on the line for the Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes. The track and field governing bodies for their respective countries subjectively select the three men and three women that will represent them in Rio de Janeiro.
For Ethiopia, the women’s marathon picture looks crowded as Tirfi Tsegay won the Dubai Marathon in 2:19:41 before finishing second in Boston on Monday. Atsede Baysa claimed the Boston Marathon crown, but it all depends on much weight the Ethiopian federation puts into a single majors victory. At least one but maybe two Ethiopian Olympians may come out of London.
Mary Keitany finished fourth at the 2012 Olympic marathon in London and may get a shot at redemption in Rio, if she can muster a top five finish in London. Since coming back from her second child, Keitany has won New York twice and finished second in last year’s London Marathon. Her 2:18:37 personal best also puts her above the rest of the competition and No. 2 all-time. The other two spots may depend on who finishes ahead or close to her on Sunday.
The London Marathon will award $55,000 each to the female and male champion.
The race will be broadcast live at 5:00 a.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.
Here’s a look at whom to watch on Sunday:
Mare Dibaba, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:19:52, Dubai 2012; Xiamen 2015)
Dibaba was honored as the AIMS Marathoner of the Year for 2015 after running 2:19:52 (equaling her personal best) to open the year at the Xiamen Marathon in China, finishing second in Boston and capturing world championship gold. The 26-year-old finished 22nd at the 2012 Olympics in London after having run her first 2:19:52 earlier in the year, so running fast in January is no guarantee of a medal. Since 2014, Dibaba only knows what it is like to win (four times) or finish on the podium (second once; third once) in a marathon. In four head-to-head contests, she has never defeated Mary Keitany.
Mary Keitany, Kenya (Personal best: 2:18:37, London 2012)
As mentioned before, Keitany, 34, has not shown any signs of slowing down in her return from giving birth in 2013. One advantage that she has over Dibaba is her experience on the course, given that she has won twice and was last year’s runner-up. Her second consecutive New York City Marathon victory in November appeared to be a solo stroll through the Big Apple as she ran alone for a majority of the second half before crossing the finish line in 2:24:25. She has not raced since her win but told reporters at the press conference that she hopes to run faster.
Keitany could become the fourth woman to pull off the London Marathon hat trick, after Ingrid Kristiansen (1984, ’85, ’87—plus ’88), Katrin Dorre-Heinig (1992, ’93, ’94) and Paula Radcliffe (2002, ’03, ’05).
In the United Kingdom, it is legal to bet on the marathon. At the moment, Keitany is the favorite with 5:4 odds. Tufa’s chances of repeating are at 100:30, according to Betfair.
Defending champion returns
Tigist Tufa, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:21:52, Shanghai 2014)
The hype surrounding the Fantastic Five last year was well-warranted but it was Tufa who spoiled the party and upset Keitany and the stellar field. Tufa and Keitany battled for the first 23 miles before the relatively unknown Ethiopian broke the two-time London Marathon champion. Tufa’s victory was the first by an Ethiopian since 2010 and now the 29-year-old looks to become the first to go back-to-back. Tufa struggled to a sixth-place finish at the world championships before taking third at the New York City Marathon, which was won by Keitany.
Fantastic Five Remnants Try Again
Florence Kiplagat, Kenya (Personal best: 2:19:44, Berlin 2011)
Kiplagat, 29, owns the half-marathon world record of 1:05:09 but has backed off a fast time to open the year in hopes of properly peaking in London. She ran 1:09:19 for a win in Barcelona on Valentine’s Day. She is hoping 2016 can be the year she finally captures the elusive London title. She finished fourth in 2012, sixth in ’13, second in ’14 and fifth last year. She rebounded with a 2:23:33 win in October’s Chicago Marathon.
Priscah Jeptoo, Kenya (Personal best: 2:20:14, London 2012)
Jeptoo is one of the strongest marathoners of recent years but 2015 was a year to forget. She was seventh in London and sixth in New York. Her season’s best for 2012 and ’13 were in the 2:20 range and she notched a third-place finish in her first London Marathon before returning to England a few months later to win a silver medal at the Olympics. She won the London Marathon in 2013. A podium finish would signal a return to form. Finishing outside of the top five may point toward a regression for the 31-year-old.
Asefelech Mergia, Ethiopia (Personal best: 2:19:31, Dubai 2012)
Mergia, 31, is technically the 2010 London Marathon champion since Russia’s Lilya Shobukhova was banned for using EPO. Less attention has been on Mergia than on Keitany and Dibaba but her 2015 was quietly a very successful one. She ran 2:20:02 to win the Dubai Marathon, took fourth in London and placed second in New York. Mergia definitely can make her case for an Olympic team spot.
An American Abroad
Sara Hall, U.S. (Personal best: 2:31:14, Chicago 2015)
Hall made a push at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles when she saw eventual-Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Amy Cragg pull away from the competition. She followed in pursuit but soon succumbed to the heat and dropped out of the race. Hall, whose husband is America’s fastest marathoner Ryan Hall, has pushed aside plans for the 2016 track season to give the marathon another crack in London. London marks her second marathon in the last seven months as she redeemed herself from a DNF in her debut at the 2015 LA Marathon with her 10th-place at Chicago. Hall, 32, will not be up front with the East Africans, but it is good to see an American making use of her fitness from trials to run a spring marathon.