Chicago Marathon Preview 2021

Welcome to one of the busiest marathon weekends in American history. Two of America’s “big three” marathons will be held on the same weekend for only the second time in history.

Yes, it’s the second time. Though, on October 21, 1979, when the New York City and Chicago Marathons were held on the same day, it was a stretch to term Chicago, which was just in its third year, a “big” marathon. While Bill Rodgers won in New York in 2:11:42 — a time most American men would be thrilled to run in New York — and Grete Waitz established a world record of 2:27:33, the winners in Chicago were the slowest in the event’s history: Dan Cloeter in 2:23:20 and Laura Michalek in 3:15:45.

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We’re doing it again this weekend, 42 years later, with the Chicago Marathon on Sunday (the regular date) and the Boston Marathon on Monday.

With Sara Hall and Galen Rupp leading the charge in Chicago, American viewers will have plenty to look forward to in the Windy City. Here are the six most important things to watch on Sunday.

Specifics about the race
What is the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 2021?
When: The elite races begin at 7:30 a.m. local time on Sunday, October 10. (8:30 am ET)
Where: Chicago, Illinois
How to watch: The game will be shown live on NBC Sports Network at 8 a.m. ET. The race will also be carried on NBC5 in the United States and Mexico; you can watch the NBC5 coverage from anywhere in the United States or Mexico.

1) Sara Hall is trying to break Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 American record

Hall ran 2:20:32 at the Marathon Project last year (photo by Kevin Morris)

This is the most important pre-race storey in either Boston or Chicago. Kastor’s record has lasted since April 2006, when she finished the London Marathon in 2:19:36. It was the eighth-fastest marathon ever run at the time, and Kastor won by over two minutes.

After fifteen years, Kastor’s time has dropped to a tie for 48th on the all-time list. Kastor would have finished sixth if she had raced her 2:19:36 at this year’s London Marathon last weekend. We live in a very different era of marathoning.

Nonetheless, Kastor’s American record survives. It wasn’t until Sara Hall ran 2:20:32 at the Marathon Project in Arizona last year that another American came within a minute of Kastor’s time.

All of this is to imply that this is a very difficult record to break.

Khalid Khannouchi’s men’s American mark of 2:05:38 has actually stood for longer — he set it in London in 2002 — but Kastor’s is stronger in comparison. Khannouchi’s time ranks 191st all-time; the 48th time (equal to Kastor’s) is 2:04:15.

Despite what Runner’s World said, Hall’s chances of breaking the record are slim. Last year, Hall ran a 2:20:32 on a course engineered to be as quick as possible while in the best form of her life. Almost single variable was tweaked to perfection. Yes, the gap between her runner-up performance in London and the Marathon Project was rather short (11 weeks), but Hall is known for her ability to recover rapidly. With a larger gap, she probably wouldn’t have run any faster.

Hall, 38, can only break Kastor’s AR in Chicago if she is in significantly better shape than she was at the Marathon Project. Recent evidence suggests otherwise. On August 21, she ran a half-marathon in 68:44 at the Row River Trail, a bike trail in rural Oregon that has become America’s trendiest racing venue during the pandemic. That’s a good outcome. However, it is 26 seconds slower than her time on the same course in August 2020. Hall then finished sixth in 52:43 at the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler on September 12, a result she described as “tough.”

2) The elite women’s field is not deep at all

In the women’s race in Chicago, just four women have broken 2:24 and five have broken 2:25:
If Chepngetich doesn’t run well, there aren’t many world-class women in Chicago to support her (Jed Leicester for Virgin Money London Marathon)
In fact, it’s one of the weakest elite women’s fields we’ve seen since we started tracking them in 2017. Only one race had fewer sub-2:24 women (3) than Tokyo in 2017, and no race had fewer sub-2:25 women. The incredible thing is that the field was significantly weaker when it was announced in August, with only three ladies clocking in under 2:25. However, it was confirmed today that Chicago has subsequently added Kiplagat and Belete to slightly bolster its field.

Of course, the shallow field is not completely the fault of Chicago. With all five majors and the Olympics taking place in three months, someone was certain to come up short (Berlin’s field wasn’t much deeper, either). With the additions of Galen Rupp and Hall, Chicago now boasts the nation’s fastest men’s and women’s marathoners.

In practise, the small field implies that Hall (or another American) has a much better chance of winning Chicago than in a regular year. Chepngetich is the best marathoner in the competition, and while she did lose to Hall last year in London (Chepngetich tried to keep up with Brigid Kosgei early in the race, but Hall ran her down late), she has also produced results that no one else in the field can equal. She won’t lose on Sunday if she runs as she did in 2018 Istanbul (2:18:35 victory), 2019 Dubai (2:17:08 win), or 2019 Worlds (win over a stacked field).

However, Chepngetich is racing just nine weeks after withdrawing from the Olympic marathon, and the results of the London Marathon suggest that this can be a difficult double. While Sisay Lemma won the men’s event after withdrawing from the Olympics, none of the six women who doubled back from Sapporo finished on the podium in London.

If Chepngetich falters, there aren’t many impediments in the way of a US triumph, since only two other international women in the race have run faster than 2:30. Meseret Belete of Ethiopia, whose personal best is 2:24:54, ran 2:28:31 in Prague in May. She is easily defeated.

Vivian Kiplagat of Kenya, on the other hand, is a danger. Kiplagat completed seven marathons in 2018 and 2019. She won six and finished second in the other, with victories in Milan (twice), Buenos Aires, Honolulu, Mexico City, and Abu Dhabi, the latter in a personal best of 2:21:11. Kiplagat’s main problem is that she has only run one marathon since 2019, and it was a disaster, as she finished 24th in Eldoret in 2:39:18. But, given that Kiplagat just ran a 66:07 at the Copenhagen Half on September 19, she appears to be in great shape right now. And, with Chepngetich out of the Olympics, Kiplagat may be the favourite in Chicago.

3) Other American women to watch in Chicago aside from Sara Hall

Bates, seen here winning 2018 CIM, was the top American in Chicago in 2019 (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Even in a somewhat thin Chicago field, Hall is the only American woman with a realistic chance of winning on Sunday, as the majority of the top American women will be running New York this fall. Having said that, with only three international women in the race under 2:30, simple math suggests that at least two Americans will finish in the top five – and possibly more if one of the international athletes stumbles. Hall is most definitely one of them, but what about the others?

Emma Bates is the most likely candidate to join Hall in the top five. Bates, who is now training with Joe Bosshard in Colorado, has ran four marathons in her career without a hiccup, including a 2:25:27 fourth-place finish in Chicago in 2019, which remains her personal best. This year, she has produced no results that indicate she is prepared for a major race in Chicago (she did run a pb of 32:04 for 10,000 this year, but was only 29th at the Olympic Trials in that event). In the marathon, though, she has been fairly steady.

There’s also Keira D’Amato, the seventh-fastest American woman of all time with a time of 2:22:56. D’Amato seemed set for even better things in 2021 after her breakout 2020 season, which she completed with a pb at the Marathon Project in December, but a hamstring injury and low cortisol levels mean she hasn’t competed since February. As a result, D’Amato, 36, told Runner’s World that she believes she is in mid-2:20s shape right now, which is good enough for the top five but won’t turn many heads.

Behind those two, Diane Nukuri has seven top-10 major results but only one top-five, and she hasn’t raced a good marathon in four years. Lindsay Flanagan has been in good shape in 2021 (32:04 10,000 pb, two 70:24 half marathons, 4th at US 20k nationals) and had a personal best in Chicago two years ago, finishing 7th. Sarah Pagano will make her debut and has good pbs (15:11/31:51/69:41).

4) Galen Rupp will take over as mayor of Chicago just nine weeks after the Olympics.

Rupp is the only American men’s star competing in Chicago, and it’s fair to ask what to expect from him given that he finished eighth in the Olympic marathon in Sapporo nine weeks ago. Outside of winning Prague three weeks after racing Boston in the spring of 2018, that’s easily the shortest turnaround for him — albeit he didn’t even make it 20 miles in Boston due to the poor weather.

Rupp is expected to perform well in Chicago, according to the odds. The fact that Rupp was able to run 61:52 at the Great North Run five weeks after the Olympics suggests that his run in Sapporo did not completely devastate him. And Rupp almost never runs a bad marathon. He has two DNFs in ten starts, however one was due to bad weather in Boston, when half of the elite field was forced to withdraw, and the other was in 2019 Chicago, when Rupp was plainly ill. The warm weather expected for race day in Chicago benefits Rupp in two ways: 1) He’s an excellent heat runner; 2) He won’t need to go as fast to win. Four of the competitors in this race have run 2:04 or quicker. Rupp’s personal best time is 2:06:07.

5)Who is the favourite of the men?

There isn’t a lot of star power in the men’s field in Chicago. The main name is Rupp, but the other athlete recognised to US fans is Dickson Chumba, who won Chicago in 2015 and Tokyo in 2014 and 2018 (he also finished third in Chicago in 2014 and second in 2016). However, a lack of star power does not imply a lack of quality, since there are five sub-2:05 men in the field, the majority of whom have recently been in good form.

We only found out today that Kenya’s Reuben Kipyego, the fastest man on paper at 2:03:55, is in the race, but he is the clear favourite given that he ran that time in May to come second in a deep field in Milan and has run 2:05:18, 2:04:40, and 2:04:12 in his other three marathons. The 25-year-old has completed four marathons, the worst of which was a second-place finish in 2:05:18.

Suzuki is the fastest non-African-born man in history

There are three additional guys in the field that have done well this spring:Seifu Tura, Ethiopia (2:04:29 personal best): Tura finished sixth in Chicago in 2019 and has run 2:04 twice, most recently in Milan, when he finished fourth, 34 seconds behind Kipyego.
Kengo Suzuki, Japan (2:04:56 pb): Suzuki finished seventh at the Japanese Olympic trials in 2019, but shocked everyone by breaking the Japanese record in February by running 2:04:56 at Lake Biwa. Yuki Kawauchi is the only Japanese guy to have won a major marathon during the WMM period… However, no other Japanese man had ran 2:04 until Suzuki did. In reality, Suzuki is the fastest non-African-born man in history, outrunning American Ryan Hall by two seconds.

Chalu Deso, Ethiopia (2:04:53 pb): Deso ran his 2:04:53 pb in Valencia last year, then finished fourth at the Ethiopian Olympic trials, almost missing out on a seat on the team. Given that the third-place finisher in those trials (Sisay Lemma) recently won the London Marathon, Deso must be regarded a significant contender here.

Eric Kiptanui of Kenya is another player I’ll be keeping an eye on. Kiptanui, a 31-year-old Kenyan coached by Renato Canova, was a runner growing up but joined the Kenyan military at the age of 20 and didn’t resume running until he was 25 in 2015. He had success in the half marathon, winning in Lisbon, Barcelona, and Berlin, the latter in 58:42, before making his marathon debut in Dubai in 2020, finishing two seconds behind the winner in 2:06:15. He set a personal best of 2:05:47 in Tuscany this spring and says he intends to run 2:03/2:04 and win the race in Chicago. That timing may need to be adjusted if it’s warm on Sunday, but he’s certainly in shape.

6)Who will be the best American man (apart from Rupp)?

In his ten career marathons, no American has ever finished ahead of Galen Rupp — Rupp has either finished first or last. On Sunday, don’t expect anything to change. Either he’ll finish as the top American or, if recovering from the Olympics proves too difficult, he’ll likely withdraw.

But he isn’t the only American in the pros. Ian Butler, a LetsRun cult icon, is the fastest non-Rupp American. Butler, who struggled with learning impairments as a child after suffering two traumatic brain injuries, ran at DII Western State and is now a full-time teacher. Butler entered the Marathon Project last year with pbs of 65:22/2:16:26, but ran out in 64:28 for his first half and finished in 2:09:45. Coached by a blue-collar veteran in Steve Jones, the Colorado-based Butler frequently awakens before 5 a.m. to get training in before class, and based on his performance at the Marathon Project last year, he has the potential to do some damage in Chicago.

Following Butler, there are a number of Americans who have either run in the 2:11-2:12 area (Colin Mickow, Wilkerson Given, Tyler Jermann, and Chris Derrick) or have shown the potential to do so (Colin Mickow, Wilkerson Given, Tyler Jermann, and Chris Derrick). Nico Montanez (2:14:07 pb) has run 61:38 in the half and finished third in both the US 15K and 20K championships this year; he appears to be ready for a major race. Clayton Young, another BYU product, flopped in his marathon debut at the Olympic Trials (finishing 136th), but won the US 15K championships and finished fifth at the 20K championships.

The ideal situation is something like what happened in Chicago in 2019, when a large group of Americans began out on a 2:10 pace and 10 of them ended up breaking 2:12. With the conditions, a few more men may end up blowing up than two years ago, but there are enough bodies that one or two 2:10s shouldn’t be a surprise on Sunday.