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There has been much in the way of prognostication and speculation about the elite field competing in the 2021 New York City Marathon, Sunday, November 7. And rightly so, as the top-end of the field includes an interesting mix of athletes who may make Gotham another iconic happening in the pantheon of big city marathons. It is also the finalé of the two-year cycle of the Marathon Majors competition.

The men

There are several men in the field that will contend for the top-five positions, but the most interesting race may come between Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele and Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie.

The first name that will likely come to mind for NY may be Bekele’s. Here is an athlete who was a sure bet to win the World Cross Country Championships for nearly a decade as well as any 5000m (pb: 12:37.35) and 10,000m (pb: 26:17.53) race that he would enter. He held the world record for both distances for 16 and 15 years, respectively, before super spikes. Then he took up the marathon.

Kenenisa Bekele. Photo NN Running Team

In 2019, he quietly ran within two seconds of Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, in less than ideal conditions in Berlin. He clocked 2:01:41.

His reliability (as a sure bet) waned a little with the marathon. His mystique in the marathon so far isn’t at the level of his cross-country running or that of Kipchoge’s aura of greatness. In the marathon, he seems to suffer from the classic case of the anonymous second-best athlete. Outside of serious athletics fans, he is just another fast East African athlete. He may just change all that in New York on Sunday. Bekele may win, and he may set a new course record. At age 39, it will be one of his final chances to gain some of the glory back that he so rightly deserves.

Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai set the latest course record in 2011 at 2:05:06. Mutai’s best is 2:04:15 from the 2012 Berlin Marathon.

Bekele will have to contend with Kibiwott Kandie though. The 25-year-old owns the half-marathon world record at 57:32 from Valencia last year. However, perhaps Kandie toeing the line for the first time at the distance may be exactly what Bekele needs; a fast debutant to go with him. There are no pacers in New York and part of its magic is in its hills, turns and emphasis on the athlete taking care of their own pacing and effort — NY is a race of character, it’s not a time trial.

The women

There are several other competitive women in the field, but Kenyan, Peres Jepchirchir, the Tokyo Olympic gold medallist and half-marathon record holder (women’s only race), and two-time World Athletics Half Marathon champion (2016, 2020) will likely take the win. She owns a marathon personal best of 2:17:16 from Valencia in 2020, which is the fifth-fastest marathon of all time.

However, Ethiopian Ruti Aga may have something to say about that. She owns a best of 2:18:34 from the 2018 running of the Berlin Marathon. She has run three other times in the 2:20-range and owns a half-marathon best of 66:56.

For Americans, to see what Molly Seidel can do after surprising everyone including herself with the Tokyo Olympic bronze medal in the marathon will be of interest, especially after a somewhat short turnaround before having to recover and begin training for NY.

She entered the Olympic Marathon with a 2:25:13 personal best. Good for sure, but just a handful of seconds in front of her was Brigid Kosgei, the world record holder with a 2:14:04 marathon to her credit. On paper, they are not even close. Tokyo (Sapporo) was a tremendous showing for Seidel.

Likewise, American Sally Kipyego owns a marathon personal best of 2:25:10 from the 2019 running of the Berlin Marathon. At the Olympics, she finished 17th and in the time of 2:32:15. Not what she was looking for. After all, her 10,000m best is 30:26:37 from the 2012 London Olympic Games, where she won the silver medal.

When asked about running New York, Kipyego told Athletics Illustrated, “Yes, I’m in New York and ready to race this year’s historic marathon. Training has been short but a solid buildup. My coach and I had to adjust our training to make sure that I was fully or at least reasonably recovered from the Tokyo Games. My body adapted and got better as the training progressed and I hope Sunday is a successful outing to end my season.”

She may not run much faster than her personal best, but who knows, she could, but a victory can come not so much from how fast she runs, but how she tactically deals with her competition. It’s a racer’s race. Kipyego may be due.

SHOESTRINGS: It should be interesting to see where Alexi Pappas is in the training. She authored the best-selling book Bravey, is an actor and poet. The Greek-American has run a 2:34:26 at Houston 2020. Although raised in the US, she has Greek citizenship and owns the national record for the 10,000m at 31:36.16. If she can match her Rio Olympic 10,000m performance, she should run a new personal best by approximately five minutes. The World Athletics Championships and Olympic standard has been as fast as 2:29:30. She could, in theory, make the team from her performance in New York.

Also of interest is American Shalane Flanagan running her sixth marathon in 42 days. The marathon maniacs may not be impressed with the volume, but the speed at which she is doing all six Marathon Majors at age 40 is impressive.

The Tokyo Marathon (not Olympics, one of the six Majors) was cancelled. Flanagan ran a virtual race instead, at 2:35:14. So far she has run Chicago in the time of 2:46:39, Boston in 2:40:34. Her Sept. 26 Berlin time this year was 2:38:32, which was followed up by a 2:35:04 London Marathon. Her personal best is 2:21:14. She won New York in 2017.

To see the entire elite field for New York, click here>>

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