Chicago Marathon Preview - Elite Men's Race

The 2010 Chicago Marathon has the potential to be one for the ages.  The men's field* is certainly the best Chicago has ever assembled and is one of the best (if not the best) in history.  The four runners that I think will feature most prominently in the race are Sammy Wanjiru, Tsegaye Kebede, Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, and Deriba Merga.  Two other runners with notable personal records are Vincent Kipruto and Feyisa Lilesa.  With Ryan Hall having dropped from the race, the top American hopeful has to be Nick Arciniaga.  Adding drama is the World Marathon Major series, with another two-year cycle ending with this year's fall marathons.  Its half-million dollar winner's prize will almost certainly be decided on Sunday.

World Marathon Majors
Every year, the World Marathon Majors (a partnership of five races: Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York) awards $500,000 to both the top male and female over the previous two years.  The winners are decided based on cumulative point totals from the following scoring system: 1st - 25 points, 2nd - 15 points, 3rd - 10 points, 4th - 5 points, 5th - 1 point.  Points are, of course, awarded in each of the five yearly majors, but also in all Olympic and World Championship Marathons.  The 2009-2010 series is currently tied up, with Wanjiru and Kebede each having 50 points.  Merga is not far behind with 35 points.

With such a quality field, it is almost a guarantee that there will be a fast and thrilling race.  But what really makes the race interesting is looking beyond the numbers and knowing the athletes as individuals—the past, struggles, and current trajectory of each.

Sammy Wanjiru (Kenya, 2:05:10 PR) - It's hard to bet against the reigning Olympic Champion and defending Chicago Marathon Champion.  In 2008 in Beijing, Wanjiru broke the Olympic Marathon record by nearly 3 minutes in brutally hot and humid conditions.  Last year in Chicago, Wanjiru raced very aggressively from the gun, ultimately clocking a 2:05:41, the fastest marathon ever recorded on U.S. soil.  The fast early pace took its toll on Wanjiru's competitors, as they dropped away one by one.  And despite his course record, Wanjiru almost certainly could have gone faster if he had run a more even pace.  Since last year, Wanjiru has only attempted one marathon, London in April 2010.  He dropped out with knee trouble mid-race.  On paper, Wanjiru's record is still virtually flawless.  However, Chicago 2009 notwithstanding, he has not recently seemed as on form as he was at the Beijing Olympics and at London the following spring.  His training situation has also changed.  He is no longer living a monastic life of training in Japan, but has moved back to his native Kenya.  One can't help but wonder if the current Sammy Wanjiru can still measure up to his former self.

Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia, 2:05:18 PR) - Hailing from Ethiopia, the 23-year-old Kebede has been the most consistent marathoner of the last few years.  His impressive resume has unfolded as follows: 2008 - Paris Marathon (1st), Olympics (3rd), Fukuoka (1st); 2009 - London (2nd), World Championships (3rd), Fukuoka (1st); 2010 - London (1st).  Perhaps even more impressive than these finishes, Kebede has run 2:05:20 or faster in three of his last four marathons.  No current marathoner, and perhaps no marathoner in history has strung together a streak comparable to Kebede's current run.

Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot (Kenya, 2:05:52 PR) - While lacking Kebede's consistency, the young Cheruiyot (22 years old) has one incredibly impressive, recent statistic on his resume.  He won the 2010 Boston Marathon in 2:05:52, shedding 1:22 from the old course record in the process.  This is a time that not many thought was possible on the hilly Boston course.  For this reason alone, Cheruiyot must be considered a substantial threat.

Deriba Merga (Ethiopia, 2:06:38 PR) - While lacking the top-notch PR of many of Chicago's elites this year, Merga is still a force to be reckoned with.  His aggressive style may be the reason he has never run a low-2:05 time in the marathon, but it has also led to some impressive races.  In 2008, Merga was the only runner to truly challenge Sammy Wanjiru in the heat of Beijing.  The weather and pace finally took its toll as Merga faded to 4th place in the final quarter mile.  However, Merga went on to win both the Houston and Boston marathons in the following 8 months.  After dropping out of the 2009 World Championships, Merga appears to be back.  In Boston 2010, if it weren't for the incredible race of Robert Cheruiyot, Merga likely would have won.  Instead, Merga's bold move after 18 miles was covered by Cheruiyot, and after a 6 mile duel, Merga faded to third place.  It is clear from Merga's races that he runs to win, no matter what (and when he doesn't win, he often pushes others to incredible performances).  This racing philosophy has left Merga with an inconsistent record, but he is a dangerous competitor when fit.  If there were any doubt of Merga's current fitness, one need only look to the Bogota Half Marathon in August, where he set a course record and dismantled world record holder and world champion Zersenay Tadese. 

Vincent Kipruto (Kenya, 2:05:10 PR) - With only one international win to his name (Paris 2009), the 23-year-old Kipruto can't be considered a top tier marathoner yet, but he does have two 2:05 marathons under his belt, and with a breakout race, he could contend for the win. 

Feyisa Lilesa (Ethiopia, 2:05:23 PR) - The youngest of the elites, Lilesa is 20 years old.  He won the Dublin Marathon (2009) and the Xiamen International Marathon (2010) in relatively slow times before bursting onto the scene with a 3+ minute PR in Rotterdam in April.  In Rotterdam, Lilesa finished fourth, just behind Vincent Kipruto.  Like Kipruto, Lilesa is still a bit unproven, but with a low-2:05 to his name, he cannot be counted out. 

The Americans - With Ryan Hall out, there are no U.S. runners who can realistically contend for the win.  The top entries are Nick Arciniaga (2:11:46 PR) and Jason Hartmann (2:12:09 PR), who have both posted their personal bests recently.  They are joined by another ten or so Americans who could potentially run in the 2:12-2:16 range. 

Even with forecasting temperatures in the seventies on Sunday, the race should be quick.  There are simply too many fast athletes (many of them proven competitors in the heat) for hot temps to take them all out.  It is possible the race could be tactical and thus a little slower, but this is unlikely, especially since Chicago is a rabbited race.  Even un-rabbited affairs like Boston and New York are typically fast races these days.  In addition to the race prize money and the World Marathon Majors purse, the runners will want to take advantage of a flat course and chase the $100,000 course record bonus.

My pick for the win is Tsegaye Kebede in a new PR of 2:05:14.  He's been nothing short of remarkable the last few years, and he's proven he can win a major marathon.  I think Sammy Wanjiru is the best marathoner in the world when on top of his game, but I don't think he is quite the same runner as he was in Beijing 2008 and London 2009.  Addtionally, Wanjiru, like Deriba Merga, has not always shown the ability to race patiently.  Both of these athletes are so good that they can sometimes get away with aggressive tactics; the surging and fast early paces hurt everyone, and both Wanjiru and Merga have sometimes won these self-inflicted battles of attrition.  However, this is a risky game.  Kebede on the other hand has shown patience and consistency in his numerous marathons.  He is well-rested for this race, and I think he has the best shot at coming out on top.