Keitany wins third straight NYC Marathon

Mary Keitany, a 34-year-old mother of two, went out for a run on Sunday morning.
Mary Keitany of Kenya crosses the finish line of the New York City Marathon on Sunday in Central Park.
Mary Keitany of Kenya crosses the finish line of the New York City Marathon on Sunday in Central Park.

Mary Keitany, a 34-year-old mother of two, went out for a run on Sunday morning. She started at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island and worked her way through the city.

About 10 miles into her run, in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Keitany picked up the pace, the first signal to those running with her that she was not in the mood for a group run. She soon surged again, effectively saying, “Goodbye, everyone, I’ll see you at brunch.”

It was no ordinary weekend run. Keitany, a marathon dynamo who trains at 7,500 feet in Kenya’s western highlands, put on a virtuoso solo performance that is uncommon for the streets of New York. It resulted in her third consecutive New York City Marathon title.

She was so far in front of her competitors that she could have taken a stroll through the Sheep Meadow in Central Park on her way to the finish line. Instead, Keitany took the most direct path, at a punishing pace that no one else could maintain, her 5-foot-2, 93-pound body gliding along for 26.2 miles without any apparent struggle.

Keitany finished in 2 hours, 24 minutes, 26 seconds, with the second-place finisher nowhere in sight.

“I was not planning to do this, but I had a time I wanted to run, and I needed to keep the pace,” Keitany said of her breakaway. “I’ve run alone many times, and I trained well. And if anyone caught me, I was going to chase them.”

A 20-year-old from Eritrea, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, won the men’s race. He emerged from a tight pack of three at Mile 20 and blew kisses at onlookers as he won in 2:07:51. He is the youngest winner in race history.

Ghebreslassie, who won the world championship in Beijing in 2015 at 19, took fourth place in the Rio Olympics. He was followed Sunday by Lucas Rotich of Kenya (2:08:53). Abdi Abdirahman, a 39-year-old Somali-born American who is based in Arizona, finished in third (2:11:23).

Keitany’s unexpected break from the lead pack threw the women’s race into early upheaval, as her competitors stretched out one by one along the course, jockeying for the remaining two podium spots. Sally Kipyego of Kenya, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters, placed second in 2:28:01, more than 31⁄2 minutes behind Keitany, and Molly Huddle of the United States, in her marathon debut, was third in 2:28:13.

Keitany’s push so early in the race seemed to wreak mental havoc among her competitors, as they were forced to either try to keep up or hope that she could be caught later.

“On the breakaway, I had to decide if I go or stay,” Huddle said. “I kind of went a little harder around Mile 8 and was alone for a while. Then slowed down a little bit too much on the bridge at Mile 15, and I think that just — I need to measure myself a little better.”

Huddle held back, but that meant Keitany’s lead would grow. Joyce Chepkirui, also from Kenya, chose to follow. But that proved fatal; she was unable to sustain the pace and fell back before the halfway mark. Overtaken by Huddle, she faded to fourth.

Taking off alone is a risky move, particularly early in a race, when a chase pack has more than an hour to band together in pursuit. In this case, Keitany’s strategy led to the largest margin of victory in the women’s race — 3 minutes, 34.98 seconds — since Grete Waitz won in 1980.

Breakaways in this marathon are common, but early ones can ruin a front-runner as often as they carry her to victory. Many make their moves at Mile 16 when they’ve safely cleared the Queensboro Bridge and are in Manhattan — and they are often overtaken in wild chases through the final miles of Central Park.

In 2000, Abdelkhader el-Mouaziz of Morocco ran away from the Kenyans chasing him far earlier than he was supposed to, leaving even the pacesetter behind and causing an upset. And in 1988, Steve Jones of Britain ran alone to set the fastest time in seven years, with a 3:21 margin of victory that almost rivaled Keitany’s.

Meb Keflezighi, then 38, used the tactic in the 2014 Boston Marathon, when at Mile 11 he eluded a formidable field of younger athletes, who figured the aging athlete would fade back. Other Americans, including Ryan Hall, said they realized Keflezighi had an opportunity to win and slowed the pace of the chase pack. By the time his younger, fitter rivals realized his lead was insurmountable, it was too late. Keflezighi became the first American to win the race since 1983.

Frank Shorter pulled away just beyond nine miles to take gold in the 1972 Munich Olympics. And at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Joan Benoit Samuelson took the lead early on as well, at Mile 3 in the first Olympic women’s marathon, heading to her historic victory.

“I tell people all the time, you need to run your own race,” Benoit said Sunday. “That’s what Mary did; if you play into somebody else’s hands, especially early on, it can foul your plans.”

Benoit’s decision to take the lead was spontaneous.

“I didn’t want to take the lead that early, but I knew what I was capable of running and I went with it,” she said. “You’ve got to go with what you know.”

It has grown less common for women to risk taking off alone in the New York City Marathon, especially after the race switched to the separate start for the women’s professional field in 2002.

In a pack, runners can take turns keeping a pace and blocking headwinds. But running together often leaves the race decided by decisive breakaways in the final miles. So if a marathoner is confident that she can maintain the pace while running alone, absorbing all of the wind, she might try to break away from the pack early to avoid a tactical sprint near the finish.

In the 2011 New York City Marathon, Keitany broke away but was overtaken by two Ethiopians who steadily reeled her in. Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia, who lives in the Bronx, ran nearly the entire course minutes ahead of the rest of the professional field with her friend and teammate Tigist Tufa through bracing wind in 2013 before Priscah Jeptoo of Kenya caught her in Central Park. Deba finished second.

Keitany said she did not plan to challenge the field so assertively. But of the women on the podium, she was the only one who had run a marathon before Sunday.

Kipyego, who dropped out of this race last year, said: “I wanted to run within myself and stick to something that I felt was more conservative. I kind of came in thinking that I’d rather run a much more conservative race, hold something back, and be able to have a good experience just because this a new distance for me.”

Huddle agreed.

“I was kind of just surviving at the end and looking ahead and really trying to catch Joyce and trying to catch Sally, but you were too fast,” Huddle said to Kipyego. “So just kind of flailing the last 10K probably, well probably the last 10 miles.”

Keitany became the first woman to win New York three times in a row since Waitz won five from 1982 to 1986.

As her orange sneakers bounced steadily off the pavement through the five boroughs and into Central Park, Keitany showed that she has no problem running alone — provided she has a chance to start at all. Though she is the second-fastest woman in history and her country’s record-holder (2:18:37), Kenya left her off its Olympic team this year.

The snub left her to focus on her fall race. She chose to execute a bold maneuver against a weak field, vacated by those who had already spent themselves at the Olympics in August or at other fall marathons.

Keitany acknowledged the risk in her race strategy Sunday.

“Sometimes if you break off and you’re not ready to follow through, they will catch you,” she said. “But I was ready.”

Categories: Sports

Leave a Reply