Road Running

Six thoughts on the Chicago Marathon

Mission Accomplished for McCormack

As good as it was to see Fionnuala McCormack run well below the qualifying time for next year’s Olympic Games, it would be an insult to both her ability and attitude to pretend it was a performance that will have left her delighted. McCormack, 31, appeared to set off with a sub-2:30 goal in mind, passing halfway in 75:09, but slowed considerably in the latter half to finish in 2:33:15, 89 seconds behind her personal best of 2:31:46, which was run in her debut marathon at the European Championships last year when she was training for the 10,000m.

American dream: Fionnuala Britton secured qualification for her third Olympic Games at the Chicago Marathon. Image: @blockic

American dream: Fionnuala McCormack secured qualification for her third Olympic Games at the Chicago Marathon. Image: @blockic

Undoubtedly, the race will have taught her a lot about just how much work there’s left to do if she is to transform her outstanding form at cross country — where she is a two-time European champion and consistently among the 20 best in the world — to the roads. If she needed inspiration that she has plenty of time to accomplish the task, then it was there in Chicago, with 42-year-old Deena Kastor running a phenomenal 2:27:47. McCormack’s run marked her down as the second fastest Irishwoman to qualify for the Olympics — behind just Lizzie Lee, who ran 2:32:51 in Berlin — and short of any miraculous performances over the next nine months, it will be enough to punch her ticket to Rio. In that sense, it was mission accomplished in Chicago, but McCormack, more than anyone else, will know that she is capable of much better.

Kiplagat becoming the complete package

Earlier this year, Kenya’s Florence Kiplagat set the world record of 65:09 for the half marathon, but two months later, she could only manage fifth at the London Marathon. Though the 28-year-old was twice a former champion at the Berlin Marathon, there was a danger that she would become known as a half marathon specialist who never quite realized her full potential over the full 26.2 miles. Today, taking her third marathon title in nine attempts, Kiplagat proved she’s well on her way to conquering the full distance.

The first half was run in a swift 70:25, especially speedy given the absence of pacemakers, and Kiplagat was always towards the front, responding to every move or athlete who dared to run alongside her with a surge of her own. It was only in the 25th mile that she finally made a decisive move, though, racing clear of eventual runner-up Yebrgual Melese. At the finish, which she reached in 2:23:33, she had 10 seconds to spare over the Ethiopian. Kiplagat will undoubtedly have to improve again to reach the top step of the podium in Rio next year, but she proved today she’s well on her way to mastering the marathon.

Champion in Chicago: Dickson Chumba came home an easy winner of the men's race. Image: PhotoRun

Champion in Chicago: Dickson Chumba came home an easy winner of the men’s race. Image: PhotoRun

Chumba: a worthy champion

The time may have been forgettable, but for men’s champion Dickson Chumba of Kenya – who came home an easy winner of the Chicago Marathon in 2:09:25 – the performance itself will never leave his memory. The former gardener – who became a professional runner in 2008 – came into the race as one of the leading contenders and established himself towards the front through a slow opening half of 1:05:11, but he kept his powder dry until the 20th mile, the point where it is so often said the real race begins.

It was then that Chumba – with Sammy Kitwara and Abera Kuma for company – threw in a 4:35 mile and the damage was considerable. In the end, he came home 25 seconds clear of Kitwara to take his second win in a marathon major – his first coming in Tokyo last year. Before today, Chumba’s best result in Chicago was his third place in last year’s race in 2:04:32, and though he was over five minutes slower than that this year – an inevitability given the absence of pacemakers – there’s little doubt that this is the day he will remember most.


Puskedra’s persistence pays off

The first American home in Chicago was Luke Puskedra, who carved almost five minutes off his personal best when running 2:10:24. In some ways, it was unsurprising; after all, Puskedra has long been touted as the next great thing in American distance running, and ran a 61:36 half marathon back in 2012 at the age of just 21. However when you consider that Puskedra gave up the sport late last year, gained 23lbs, and only returned to the sport this summer, his run was nothing short of phenomenal.

Puskedra finished fifth yesterday, less than a minute behind race winner Chumba, and showed impressive courage by running with the leading group through the first 20 miles. With that run in the bag, the 23lbs long-since shed, the 25-year-old can now turn his attention to the Olympic Trials in LA early next year. There, he will face the more established names in American marathon circles such as Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein, but with this run to his name, he has little to fear.

Kastor’s class is permanent

Sometimes, you’d wonder why she does it, what motivation there could possibly be for Deena Kastor – an Olympic bronze medallist and American record holder at the marathon – to put her body through the ringer once at the age of 42, but then she comes to the Chicago Marathon and runs 2:27:47, breaks the US Masters record, breaks into tears of joy, and suddenly, it all makes sense.

Kastor passed halfway in a relatively conservative 1:14:03 and came through the field steadily over the closing miles to finish as the top American, seventh overall, and only four minutes behind race winner Kiplagat. The crowning moment of her career – that Olympic medal in Athens – was over 11 years ago, yet here she is, still competing with the best marathoners in the world, just four months shy of her 43rd birthday. “Today, it was just putting my head down and grinding through it,” said Kastor afterwards. It was a performance filled with both her renowned racing sense and typical grit, and it was also proof, if it were needed, that class is permanent.

A return to real racing

There had been much discussion in the build-up to Sunday’s race about the absence of pacemakers, with claims that it would accomplish everything from making the race far more appealing as a spectacle to reducing the temptation for athletes to take performance-enhancing drugs. So, with the benefit of hindsight, did the decision of Carey Pinkowski and his team to ditch the rabbits in Chicago pay off?

To gauge the reaction of those on social media – the easiest way for us to assess audience satisfaction – it was a great idea. With the women’s world record still in unreachable territory and the men’s record becoming monopolized by Berlin in the last decade, Chicago and the other majors have to think of other strategies to create memorable elite races, and this was a good first step. The women’s race produced the 11th fastest time in 38 runnings of the race – proof that elite athletes still have an insatiable desire to run fast regardless – and both events boiled down to cat-and-mouse, 26.2-miles games of chess. “”I like the fact we saw a real race today,” said lead NBC commentator Tim Hutchings. “It’s what the trials are going to be, it’s what the Olympics are going to be.”

In that sense, the race did a service not just to fans, but also to the athletes, who got a golden opportunity to practice not just their racing legs, but also their racing brains. As for the spectators, it was enjoyable to again watch a race filled with uncertainty. If the audience is expected to hold its attention to a marathon for more than two hours, then this is the right way to go about it.

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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

1 Comment

  1. Brendan
    October 13, 2015 at 9:07 pm — Reply

    “through the wringer”.

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