NEW YORK — Peres Jepchirchir made her case as the best marathoner on the planet, while Albert Korir announced his return on the streets of New York City.
The Kenyans swept the titles at the 50th running of the marathon, which returned to the five boroughs after a year-long absence because of the pandemic.
Jepchirchir, the Olympic gold medalist, became the first athlete to double back from gold at the Games to win New York just over three months later. After a slow start, she hammered the last eight miles under 5:20 pace, outkicking fellow Kenyan Viola Jeptoo in the final half-mile. Her winning time of 2:22:39 barely missed the course record and netted her $100,000.
Korir, who was second in New York in 2019, won his first major marathon handily, crossing the finish in 2:08:22. He theatrically chopped the tape, celebrating a grinding victory in Central Park.
Americans finished fourth in both races. Molly Seidel’s time of 2:24:42 was the fastest ever by an American woman on the famously difficult course.
It was a perfect day for marathoning, with clear skies and temperatures at the start of the professional races in the low 40s. That showed with quick times in both races.
The men’s race was a series of surprising gambits, with Danish medical student Thijs Nijhuis briefly opening a huge lead in the very early miles into southern Brooklyn. The pack quickly swallowed him up, but that was followed by another surprise: Mohamed El Aaraby of Morocco and Eyob Faniel of Italy broke away, establishing a fast pace and sending reporters and race fans scrambling to the internet.
The pack they dropped was far more credentialed, featuring all-time legend Kenenisa Bekele and half marathon world record holder Kibiwott Kandie. El Aaraby and Faniel took turns pushing the pace, opening up a lead of nearly a minute by the time they crossed the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan.
Heading up Manhattan’s First Avenue toward the Bronx, the pair were greeted by raucous crowds and another, more unpleasant surprise. Kenyans Albert Korir and Kandie had reeled them in. Korir soon took a lead he would not relinquish, plowing through the final miles through the Bronx and back into Central Park. But El Aaraby and Faniel were rewarded for their gutsy move, finishing second and third. The unlikely duo were just 11th and 20th, respectively, at the Olympic marathon in Sapporo this summer.
Faniel’s third-place finish marked the first time on the podium for an Italian since 1997. Faniel, who trains in Kenya, said flight delays and cancellations meant it took him 56 hours to travel from Kenya to New York for the race.
It was an impressive return to marathoning for Korir, who has competed sparingly since finishing second in New York two years ago. “It was not an easy race,” he said. “But I enjoyed it.”
The women’s race was off to a slightly slower start, but American Annie Frisbie kept it honest through the miles in Brooklyn and Queens, pushing the race past the halfway point in 1:12:43. Jepchirchir and Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga accelerated away from the pack in the 18th mile, cranking the pace down with a 5:13 mile and beginning the racing in earnest. Viola Cheptoo, making her marathon debut at age 32 after a long career on the track, belatedly broke free of the pack and joined Jepchirchir and Ethiopia’s Ababel Yeshaneh.
The three flew through the Bronx and upper Manhattan, cranking out sub-5:20 miles and dropping Seidel, the American who was left alone between two packs in fourth.
The race came down to Jepchirchir and Cheptoo, and the marathoner had more speed than the veteran miler at the end, throwing down a sudden burst on the small hill about half a mile before the finish. “After I won the Olympic marathon, I was not expecting to win,” Jepchirchir said on the broadcast, “but I prepared well and I’m so pleased, so happy.”
The three were rewarded for their efforts, turning in the third, fourth and sixth fastest times in course history. Jepchirchir’s 2:22:39 missed the course record by eight seconds, and Cheptoo’s 2:22:44 was the fastest runner-up time in race history. Cheptoo’s brother, longtime star runner Bernard Lagat, was an analyst on the ESPN broadcast.
Madison de Rozario of Australia won the women’s wheelchair race in 1:51:01, while Marcel Hug won the men’s race in 1:31:24, a six-minute blowout over the field. De Rozario said she was a last-second entrant, only able to compete in New York because of recent changes in Australia’s pandemic travel restrictions.
Because of the pandemic, race organizers limited the field to 33,000 runners, far below the record-breaking 53,627 who finished in 2019. They also spread out the start, adding waves and spacing them out more, with the last runners embarking from Staten Island starting at noon.
Seidel’s time was a full minute improvement over the previous fastest time by an American on the course, Kara Goucher’s 2:25:53 in 2008. “I have never experienced anything like that,” she said of the atmosphere in New York. “That was incredible. ... Really a testament to the city being able to come back after a really, really tough year and be able to show that the New York Marathon is back. That was something that I will never forget.”
She revealed after the race that she broke two ribs a month before coming to New York and would not say how the injury happened when asked by reporters. “Probably two weeks ago it was extremely painful and hindering my ability to do anything,” she said.
The top American in the men’s race, 38-year-old Elkanah Kibet, ran 2:11:15 to improve his personal best, which dated back to 2015. The veteran marathon is an active duty first lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He said after the race that he worked as a financial management technician full-time in Fort Carson, Colo. in 2020.
Running for Agnes
Kenyan running has been rocked in recent weeks by the killing of Agnes Tirop, a world-beating runner who was murdered by her husband in October. “It’s been really hard on me,” Cheptoo said after the race, “Because I keep thinking what I could have done.”
“Most of my time before and after the funeral I was focused on bringing awareness to gender-based violence. ... When it got hard, I thought of Agnes, she would have been running in New York in a year or two.”
Women’s Top 10
Men’s Top 10