The headlines out of London this week have centered on Emmanuel Mutai, the defending Virgin London Marathon men’s champion who announced on Tuesday that he is not yet 100-percent healthy after a recent bout with typhoid. But let’s not forget Mary Keitany, the defending women’s champion.
Last year, Keitany scorched the London field with a time of 2:19:19 before attempting to run even faster last fall in the ING New York City Marathon. Keitany, a 30-year-old from Kenya, went out on world-record pace, building a lead of more than two minutes on the chase pack. But by mile 17 Keitany had begun to fade; she was caught in Central Park and finished a disappointed third in 2:23:38, behind winner Firehiwot Dado (2:23:15) and runner-up Buzunesh Deba (2:23:19).
“I think we were on the verge of seeming something absolutely awesome in New York in the autumn, where of course she went off at a ridiculous pace as it turned out,” said Dave Bedford, race director of the London race, earlier this week. “But she looked very comfortable for some time, and if the wheels hadn’t fallen off I think we would have seen a time very similar to that of Paula Radcliffe [a 2:15:25 world record].” The takeaway lesson, said Bedford, is that Keitany is obviously a woman who believes she can run 2:16 or even 2:15 and isn’t afraid of going for it.
“We shouldn’t think it was naivety,” said Bedford. “I think it was a big heart and a great ambition to be the greatest ever.”
Keitany says that she has no plans to change her fearless approach, but acknowledged that she came away from New York realizing that, despite being one of the fastest marathon runners in the world, she still has a few things to learn as she embarks on only her fourth marathon.
“I have to better understand tactics, to know the tactics of running and handling a race,” said Keitany, who says she arrives in London as fit as she was last year at this time. “Maybe it was a mistake to go so fast in New York because I missed it, but I was just running how I felt in myself. I felt good up to 30 kilometers but then felt a pain in my right leg and I faded. Sometimes your body can cheat you and tell you that you are OK when you fail to understand your body is having problems.”
Keitany comes to London after winning February’s RAK Ras Al Khaimah Half-Marathon in the United Arab Emirates in 1:06:49, more than two minutes ahead of runner-up Georgina Rono, who took third place on Monday in the Boston Marathon. Her challengers in London, however, include three women—two-time London winner Irina Mikitenko, 2011 BMW Berlin Marathon champion Florence Kiplagat, and reigning world champion Edna Kiplagat—who have also run under 2:20, and both Kiplagats are among her rivals to make the Kenyan Olympic marathon team.
“I think it is important first of all to win the London Marathon,” said Keitany, “but it will be good to be selected for the Olympics because then I will be running for myself and my country.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg