The customary major marathon schedule has a symmetry to it — three races in late winter/early spring and three in autumn, with the Olympics or world championships in between. Not so, though, when a pandemic is turning the planet topsy-turvy.
Last year four of the Big Six, including the three American races, were canceled because of COVID-19 and London was moved from April to October, held on a different course amid a chilly rain. This year, before Tokyo was scrapped because of the state of emergency there, all of the World Marathon Majors were slated to be held within six weeks, three of them within nine days.
“It’s going to be exciting in a grand way that we’re all back,” said Carey Pinkowski, the Chicago Marathon’s longtime race director. But the unprecedented logjam of 26-milers created a unique challenge for Pinkowski and his peers to assemble their usual elite cohorts of top-shelf professional runners, a significant number of whom competed in the summer Games in August.
Fortunately there are dozens of elite athletes to go around, many of whom haven’t run a major race in two years and who are eager to have at one another for a hefty paycheck. “There is so much depth around the globe and in the US that we really embraced putting the field together,” said Mary Kate Shea, professional athlete program manager for the Boston Marathon, which will be held for the 125th time on Monday morning. “We knew this was going to be a major celebration.”
Shea recruited a balanced blend of eight former champions, previous top-five finishers, competitive Americans, and up-and-comers. “The champions are the foundation,” said Shea. “They’ve become part of our Boston family. They know what they’re doing, they’re highly accomplished, they know the course.”
In an ordinary year Boston would have had both of its defending champions in the fold. But Worknesh Degefa is taking a maternity break and Lawrence Cherono, who missed the Olympic bronze by two seconds in draining heat, needs more time to recover. But Boston did get Lelisa Desisa, the two-time champion who was iffy after dropping out of the race in Tokyo. “We just had to be patient,” said Shea. “As defending world champion, Lelisa was a very important athlete for us to have. He would be the first Ethiopian man to win here three times.”
Boston traditionally has attracted a particular athlete who is drawn to the race’s unmatched tradition and the challenge of its quirky suburban/city layout. “We want to see that grit and hunger,” said Shea. “We want to see someone who can take on the world’s most difficult course and not be intimidated.”
The runner who opts for Boston likely is less suited for a flat and fast course like London, which holds its race around the same time. London, as it usually does, stacked its field last Sunday with Ethiopia’s Sisay Lemma and Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei breaking the tape.
Chicago, which offers a similar course profile, lures athletes who want to beat the clock. “I always like to have that track speed, that raw talent, that aggressive style,” said Pinkowski, who lost two-time defending champion Brigid Kosgei to London — where she had a previous agreement as the two-time defender there — but landed Kenyan world champion Ruth Chepngetich. “Great competition produces fast times.”
In marathoning, as in thoroughbred racing, there are horses for courses. “It comes down to what those athletes’ goals are,” said Sam Grotewold, the New York Marathon’s director of professional athletes. “Some are going to want to run 2:04. That’s hard to do in New York. Some athletes are better suited for New York’s course. It depends on what the focus of everybody’s year is.”
This year the focus for most of the top stars like Kenyan world record holders Eliud Kipchoge and Kosgei was the Olympics, where they won gold and silver, respectively. That event, held after a year’s postponement, largely determined where the top contenders would compete this fall or whether they would compete at all. The biggest beneficiary was New York, which will hold its event on Nov. 7, nearly a month after Boston and Chicago and three months after the Games.
“New York is really well-positioned for athletes coming off the Olympics because we’re last,” said Grotewold. “There were athletes who wanted to or had to come to New York who couldn’t run Berlin or London because of the turnaround time. That was something that benefited us this year in a way that it wouldn’t have benefited another race.”
So New York landed Peres Jepchirchir and Molly Seidel, the Games’ women’s gold and bronze medalists, as well as Abdi Nageeye, the men’s silver medalist. It also signed Aliphine Tuliamuk — who has since withdrawn with a hip injury — and Sally Kipyego, Seidel’s US teammates as well as alternate Desiree Linden, who’s also running Boston.
Given COVID-19 travel restrictions, the American marathons have loaded up on domestic runners. Besides Linden, the 2018 victor here, Boston has Jordan Hasay, the second-fastest American ever and Molly Huddle as well as eight of the top 12 finishers at the men’s Olympic trials, including Tokyo qualifier Abdi Abdirahman and Scott Fauble, the top American male in Boston in 2019.
Chicago, which will hold its race on Sunday, will feature Rio medalist Galen Rupp and Sara Hall, who was runner-up in London last fall. “It’s a special edition for us,” said Pinkowski. “It’s a transition year as we get back to normal.”
The compressed calendar allows for Guinness Book bids. Marblehead native Shalane Flanagan, the 2017 New York victor, came out of retirement at 40 to try to make history by running all six races in the same year, replacing Tokyo with a virtual race in Portland, Ore.
After a year and a half of deferral and denial, the desire to eat the entire buffet at once is understandable. After 30 months without champions being crowned in Copley Square, the city is ready to party like it’s 1897.
“Everybody is so eager to race,” said Shea. “The fact that Boston has made the careers of so many pros and that the city loves this race, we are in a great position to put on an amazing race.”