Kenenisa Bekele wins the Paris Marathon in a course record of 2:05:03 (© Jiro Mochizuki)
The Bank of America Chicago Marathon organisers are talking about course records – or better yet, a men’s world record – and, to fulfil those lofty ambitions, the IAAF Gold Label Road Race has signed up seven men with personal bests of 2:05 or better and five women who have or could dip under the 2:20 mark to be on the start line on Sunday (12).
Looking to break Dennis Kimetto’s 2:03:45 course record set last year, or his still-warm 2:02:57 world record, are Kenenisa Bekele, Eliud Kipchoge, Tadese Tola, Feyisa Lilesa, Bernard Koech, Sammy Kitwara and Dickson Chumba.
The most decorated of the contenders is Bekele, the three-time Olympic gold medallist and current 5000m and 10,000m world record-holder.
The Ethiopian made his highly anticipated transition from track to roads at this year’s Paris Marathon in April, winning in a course record time of 2:05:03. When the racing breaks out on Chicago’s historically fast course, the result of Bekele’s ramped-up long runs may become devastatingly clear.
“I might have over-trained for Paris," he said at Friday's press conference. "Chicago I did a little bit of different training. I got experience from Paris so that for this race I will be better than I was in Paris.
“Track and the marathon are very different. The marathon is a race by itself; it doesn’t matter about anything else, and it doesn’t matter if there is a strong competitor there or not. The only record I have left to break is the marathon, if I can do it, I can do it. If not, this is my second marathon. Of course I am happy if I do though.”
Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, also a fairly recent track-to-road convert, has three impressive marathons under his belt – between 2:05:30 and 2:04:05 – and the fastest personal best of the field.
Though Bekele emerged on top more often in their many track duels, Kipchoge has so far been successful in translating his sub-12:50 5000m speed to the 42km distance and might be considered the slight favourite in a direct head-to-head on the road.
"I believe in myself, I think on Sunday I am not going to compete with Kenenisa," said Kipchoge. "I will run my own race but I believe I have more experience because it is my fourth one and his second. I am in great condition to go under my personal best of 2:04:05 on Sunday."
Two recent entries, Ethiopians Tadese Tola (a best of 2:04:49) and Feyisa Lilesa (2:04:52), guarantee to add to the impressive depth of the Chicago elite field.
Tola has a run two good marathons this year – finishing second in Tokyo in 2:05:57 in February and then winning the Warsaw Marathon in 2:06:54 just two months later – but has apparently taken time since then to train hard, so he could be a real threat.
Can Lilesa, Koech or Chumba cause an upset?
Lilesa was a part of the dream field at the London Marathon in April and went with the suicidal pace but finished in 2:08:26. However, his best was clocked in Chicago and with prudent pacing, his talent may shine again.
Kenya’s Bernard Koech bested his training partner, Kipchoge, in the 2013 Rock ‘N’ Roll San Diego half marathon in 58:41, the fourth-fastest clocking in history. With careful pacing and company throughout the 42km, an improvement on his 2:04:53 personal best seems certainly possible.
Road specialist Sammy Kitwara has course knowledge on his side; this will be his third appearance in Chicago and his best at the marathon was set at the 2013 Chicago Marathon with 2:05:16.
A prolific marathoner, Kenyan Dickson Chumba is somewhat inconsistent but has run faster than 2:06 twice since 2012, most recently winning the Tokyo Marathon in February in a course record time of 2:05:42.
As leaders target the white-hot course record, the chasing pack will be ready to eat up the victims of a fast pace. Leading a closely matched seven-man Japanese contingent is Koji Kobayashi (2:08:51), with Bobby Curtis (2:13:24) the fastest seed of 13 elite US runners. Among those, Christo Landry’s recent US record 25km (1:14:18) suggests he might be ready for a breakthrough marathon performance.
Debut US marathon runner Matt Llano hopes to build on his 1:01:47 half marathon, set in January 2014, in his debut race over the classic distance.
Following in the footsteps of Ndereba and Radcliffe
Two of the four world record performances on the Chicago Marathon course were set by women.
In 2001, Kenya’s Catherine Ndereba lowered the then world mark to 2:18:47, which was smashed the following year by Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, who clocked a stunning 2:17:18.
Still the course record, Radcliffe’s time might appear unassailable, but this year’s field has at least three women who could make a legitimate run at it.
Defending champion Rita Jeptoo has course knowledge and the momentum of two recent sub-2:20 performances to her credit: 2:19:57 last year in Chicago and a course record of 2:18:57 at the Boston Marathon this past April.
The 33-year-old Kenyan will be pushed by her training partner, Jemima Sumgong, whose marathon has improved by eight minutes since 2011.
In December 2011, Sumgong won the Castellon Marathon in 2:28:32, again taking the top spot at the Rotterdam Marathon in 2013 in 2:23:27. In the autumn, she ran with Jeptoo in Chicago until 35km, posting a huge personal best of 2:20:27.
The dangerous Florence Kiplagat is the world half marathon record-holder, having crushed the previous record earlier this year with 1:05:12.
Two months later, she came a close second at the London Marathon in 2:20:24 so her stated goal of improving on her 2:19:44 best seems rather conservative.
Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba’s late entry may scuttle a Kenyan clean sweep of the podium. This past January, the 24-year-old won the Xiamen International Marathon in 2:21:36, running alone from start to finish.
She feels Chicago’s competitive field and fast course is the ticket to improving her 2:19:52 personal best, set in Dubai in 2012.
Though she’s only 20 years old, Ethiopian Birhane Dibaba has a best of 2:22:30 set this past February in Tokyo. Credibly, she’s announced dual intentions of going for the win and running 2:20 or faster.
Leading a deep field of US women, Amy Hastings hopes to take up where she left off two years and several injuries ago. Her recent win at the 2014 Peachtree 10K (32:16) and second place at the US 20km Championships (1:08:54) indicate she’s back to the form that saw her debut in an impressive 2:27:03.
US Olympian Lisa Uhl was persuaded to move up to the marathon by watching last year’s exciting race in Chicago and she appears ready to apply her 31:12.80 10,000m speed in her marathon debut.
Sarah Barker for the IAAF