U.S. wild cards could end New York City Marathon drought

Dathan Ritzenhein
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A U.S. male or female runner hasn’t finished in the New York City Marathon top three in the last four editions, but Sunday’s race may be ripe for a change.

The international fields lack stars from the Olympics. Many sat out the fall season rather than attempting a pair of 26.2-mile races in a three-month stretch.

All six U.S. marathoners from Rio also chose the rest route, but the New York City fields include arguably the next-best Americans.

Molly Huddle tops that list. The two-time Olympian on the track is making the most anticipated American female marathon debut since Shalane Flanagan in 2010.

Huddle, 32, broke the American record in the 10,000m at the Rio Olympics, where she finished sixth. She took that mark from Flanagan, who broke the American 10,000m record at the Beijing Olympics (bronze medal) and made her marathon debut in New York City two years later, placing second.

No U.S. male or female runner recorded a New York City podium result since Flanagan in 2010.

Huddle’s chances to finish in the top three are complicated by the international women’s field of experienced marathoners. There’s a clear top tier of three or four women, three of whom have broken 2 hours, 20 minutes.

The fourth-fastest personal best in the field is 2:24:11. The fifth is 2:27:50, so if one of the top three or four underperforms, the door opens.

Kenyan Mary Keitany is looking to become the first men’s or women’s runner to win three straight New York City titles since Norwegian Grete Waitz took five straight from 1981-86.

Ethiopian Aselefech Mergia took second to Keitany last year. Another Ethiopian, Buzunesh Deba, has run the most recent sub-2:20 of the New York field, at the 2014 Boston Marathon.

Huddle said it’s not reasonable to expect her to win against that field. In fact, she would “love to be in the top five or six.”

“I will stick my nose in it, but I think there’s three or four 2:19 and under women,” Huddle said Thursday. “I’ll never put it out of my mind, but I don’t think it’s reasonable for me to be unhappy if I don’t win kind of thing.”

The third-place finisher in recent years ran the following times:

2013 — 2:27:47
2014 — 2:26:00
2015 — 2:25:50

Huddle isn’t the only intriguing U.S. woman making her marathon debut Sunday. Kim Conley, another two-time Olympian on the track, said she hopes to go sub-2:30.

Then there’s the complete wild card, Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen, who has no idea what to expect.

Sara Hall is coming off a personal best at the London Marathon on April 24, a 2:30:06 on a faster course than New York City.

In the men’s race, three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein contests his first marathon since he dropped out of the Olympic Trials around mile 20, the first time in 10 marathons that he failed to finish.

Ritzenhein was the fastest American at the 2015 Boston Marathon and has the fastest personal best of any active American, a 2:07:47 from Chicago 2012.

He ranks fifth in personal-best times among Sunday’s field.

In Ritzenhein’s favor: Only six in the field have gone 2:10 or faster (which Ritzenhein has done four times). Two out of that top group are on short rest after racing the Rio Olympic marathon on Aug. 21, and another is Abdi Abdirahman, whose only finished marathon since the 2012 Olympic Trials was a 2:16:06.

The four favorites:

Kenyan defending champion Stanley Biwott (DNF at Rio Olympics)
Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa (runner-up to Biwott in 2015)
Kenyan Lucas Rotich (sub-2:08 in 2014 and 2015; debuting in NYC)
Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (fourth at Rio Olympics; 20 years old)

Ritzenhein’s downfall in recent years has been his health. The 34-year-old said on Thursday that he’s “fresh-ish” going into this race.

Like Huddle, a strong Ritzenhein is right in the podium mix, and especially if one or two of the international headliners has a bad day (which almost always happens). Unlike Huddle, Ritzenhein openly talked about a top-three on Thursday.

“I’d like to be on the podium and have a good chance to win it,” he said. “There’s some very good upfront runners in this race, but it’s also not quite as deep as some years either. I think getting on the podium might be easier than some other years, but winning is no easier than any other year.”

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