The Queen and The Kid rule New York
Despite a 14-year gap in age, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie and Mary Keitany both came to New York chasing the same thing: a little history. On Sunday, they did just that.
They were running in a field of 52,049 people, the largest ever to run a marathon. But nothing else about them is commonplace. After the way they routed their respective fields in the 46th running of the New York City Marathon on Sunday, they should be called The Queen and The Kid.
Kenya’s Mary Keitany is 34 years old and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie of Eritrea is just 20. Both are fierce competitors. But they are at such opposite ends of their career, Ghebreslassie often dismisses prerace questions as if he doesn’t have a serious doubt in the world, whereas Keitany comically arched an eyebrow and laughed wearily when asked if she thinks she can match Grete Waitz’s three-decade-old record of five consecutive titles now that she just captured her third straight New York win by dominating the field.
“Maybe … yes,” Keitany haltingly replied, her tone prompting laughter.
This was Keitany’s first big event since Kenyan selectors left her off their country’s 2016 Rio Olympics team, a snub that she admitted had spurred her training since. Ghebreslassie might have never been an elite runner at all if his father had his way, but he defied his dad’s orders to stay in school, and his father got onboard once his son began excelling. Now, he is Eritrea’s first major marathon champion two times over and has the potential to trouble the likes of Kenyan champion Eliud Kipchoge and Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele well into the future. It could be dazzling to watch.
For now, Ghebreslassie knows his running career is unfurling all in front of him, and he speaks and acts as if he believes he can handle anything in his way.
The marathon is an event where conventional wisdom used to hold that better performances arrive later in a runner’s career, once you learn to manage yourself and the varying courses and the 26.2-mile distance. Many elite runners start out building experience and a mileage base at shorter distances, often in track races. But not Ghebreslassie. He’s a bit of an outlier.
Last year as a 19-year-old, he surprised the field in Beijing by becoming the youngest man to win the marathon world championship. Sunday, he also became the youngest winner in the history of the New York Marathon, beating Alberto Salazar’s and Sheldon Karlin’s previous record by two years. That makes him a wunderkind, not just The Kid. His winning time of 2 hours, 7 minutes, 51 seconds was just five seconds off his personal record, too, though he was running alone for the last five miles of the rugged five-borough course that has a reputation for being slower than other top marathons like London, site of his previous personal best.
When asked the biggest concern he had during Sunday’s race, Ghebreslassie said, “Only the wind. It was a little bit tough for me.”
Told he seemed supremely confident from the moment he hit town insisting that he wouldn’t be hampered by having run the Rio Olympics marathon in 70-some degree heat just 11 weeks ago (he finished fourth but compared the time there to “a training run”), Ghebreslassie gave a little insight into his philosophy.
He says it’s essential to run confident, and it’s essential to run with a little healthy respect for the fact that in a marathon, especially, anything can happen.
“In order to achieve what you need during the race and before, you must have full confidence,” Ghebreslassie said. “If you lose your confidence, then you are hopeless. If you lose your hope, you can’t do anything.
“When I took the lead the last couple miles, I was feeling all right, but if I told you I was feeling good and I was confident, I would be lying to you,” he added. “There’s nothing guaranteed until you cross that finish line. … I didn’t think I had it until I came to [Central] Park and then 400 meters and then 200 meters to go.”
Perhaps. But the path to victory just never looked like a struggle for him, or Keitany, for that matter.
Ghebreslassie, Kenya’s Lucas Rotich and Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa made their first break from the rest of the pack at about the halfway point of the race, but Desisa was dropped as they ran onto the Willis Bridge and mercilessly picked up the pace between Miles 19 and 20, at one point throwing down a 4:35 mile split. By mile 22, Desisa abandoned the race completely. By then, defending champ Stanley Biwott was long gone too, dropping out nine miles in and blaming a calf injury. Only Ghebreslassie and Rotich were now left, and Ghebreslassie noticed when Rotich couldn’t stay with him by the time he turned on First Avenue with about just five miles to go.
He stole a look over his shoulder and motioned to the 23-year-old Rotich with his left hand as if to say to “C’mon.” But Rotich couldn’t keep up.
“I was a little bit angry with him because we were helping each other,” Ghebreslassie said.
“Today was his — he was stronger than me,” Rotich said with a shrug.
Ghebreslassie, even in victory, remained enough of The Kid to be given some career advice at his victory news conference by 39-year-old Abdi Abdirahman of the U.S., the surprise third-place finisher among the men. He listened patiently as Abdirahman urged him to seek great results, not just fast cash. It seemed like good advice.
Keitany, meanwhile, probably doesn’t have as many miles or race days in front of her as Ghebreslassie does. But she was still on a record pace by the 20-mile mark though she had been running alone the last half of the race.
Her winning time of 2:24.26 gave her a 3-minute, 34-second margin of victory, the biggest in the New York women’s race since Waitz’s 1988 win. Joyce Chepkirui of Kenya was second (2:28:07), and U.S. Olympian Molly Huddle added to America’s recent uptick in distance running results with an impressive third-place finish (2:28:13) in her marathon debut.
Despite their 14-year gap in age, Keitany and Ghebreslassie both came to New York chasing the same thing.
Keitany said, “This was a chance to make history.”
Ghebreslassie added, “I’m very proud.”