Chicago Marathon 2019 – Review

The Bank of America Chicago Marathon is one of six World Marathon Majors and has one of the flattest courses. On Sunday 13 October 2019, the American city was host to a new women’s world record and a highly competitive men’s race. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 Chicago Marathon?” and what lessons all runners can learn from this major race.

What happened in the elite women’s race?

The elite women’s race was dominated by one woman. Brigid Kosgei. She intended to break the marathon world record. With no other athlete in the field capable of running that fast, she would spend much of the race with her personal male pacemakers, never needing to look back down the road. 

Kosgei set her pacemakers to run 68 minutes for the half marathon. She comfortably slotted behind them and had dropped her competitors by 5 kilometres. She maintained a strong, fast high arm drive throughout. Her face was a picture of concentration. Her head remained still and her posture was strong, proving her superior core strength.

Some watching would have been sceptical of her fast early 5 kilometre splits, especially when she was 38 seconds faster than Radcliffe’s world record at 10 kilometres. Gaps only formed when she retrieved her bottle at the aid stations. Otherwise it was as if she was glued to her personal pacemakers.

At the halfway mark she was 63 seconds ahead of Radcliffe’s record, in a time of 1:06:59. Her 5 kilometre splits remained under 16:08, with no sign of slowing. Even when the pacemakers stopped running Kosgei kept her composure, finishing in 2:14:04. She had broken the world record by 1:21, when no woman had even got within a minute of Racliffe’s mark before this. To add to her incredible performance she also finished the race in 23rd position overall, showing there’s more to come from this special athlete.

Even though Kosgei is only 25 years old, her impressive running record had already showed that this performance was possible. She proved again why she is world number one in the women’s marathon.

What happened in the elite men’s race?

The elite men’s race was packed with great athletes. The battle seemed to be whether Mo Farah could defend his title, or whether an East African would prove once again their dominance of the 26.2-mile course. The race finished with two Kenyans and two Ethiopians sprinting for the tape. Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono, the 2019 Boston Marathon champion, executed the most savvy of race strategies to win by a second. 

Despite having two pacemakers, the lead pack continued to stretch out then bunch together during the first seven miles. From there, gaps started to appear. Six men emerged as the lead group. Mo Farah, the defending champion, his training partner Bashir Abdi, and the 2017 champion Galen Rupp had fallen significantly behind. One of the pacemakers also couldn’t keep up with the pace, falling away before the halfway mark.

Dickson Chumba surged multiple times but could not shake off his competitors. Stronger winds soon became a factor. The six men ran in single file behind the pacemaker for several miles. Surprisingly, Chumba was the first man to drop off the lead pack just after 30 kilometres. Then the pacemaker left his position and the real racing began. Karoki ran at the front then Cherono took his turn. Ethiopia’s Seifu Tura was dropped at 1:53. Debela then led the race.

Into the last mile, Cherono and Dejene Debela surged. Asefa Mengstu gritted his teeth to stay with the group. Cherono soon found himself at the back of the group. Debela appeared to push on as he kept looking at his watch. But Cherono’s final sprint proved too strong; he was crowned champion.

Abdi finished in fifth place, less than 30 seconds behind the winner, whilst Chumba faded into seventh position. Farah also had a disappointing race, crossing the line in 2:09:58 for eighth place. It was his slowest time since becoming a marathoner.

Running lessons from the race

There were three obvious running lessons on display at the 2019 Chicago Marathon; 1. you should run fast if you feel good on race day; 2. reduce pre-race distractions where possible, and 3. never ignore injuries regardless of where you are in a race.

Run fast if you feel good on race day

Kosgei’s fast running was a testament to her feeling good and making the most of her current form. Her attempt at breaking Paula Radcliffe’s world record was still very ambitious. Her recent block of training must have gone well. Ultimately, she was coming into the race with many factors in her favour.  Her previous personal best of 2:18:35 was more than two minutes faster than the next best athlete. As defending champion she was the clear favourite for the race. 2019 had already been a stellar year for her. She had won six of her six races, including the Virgin Money London Marathon and the SimplyHealth Great North Run. Perhaps it was inevitable that one day she would become the world record holder.

Reduce pre-race distractions where possible

Professional athletes are primed to focus on their training and racing. But distractions can still be unproductive at best and frustrating at worst. Sadly, three prominent athletes found themselves questioned by the media pre-race about the recent doping ban of famous running coach Alberto Salazar. Top US athletes Galen Rupp and Jordan Hasay had been coached by Salazar. Neither finished the race despite high expectations of performing well. Even Mo Farah, who had been coached by Salazar during his track career, did not perform at his usual high standard. These pre-race distractions would not have relaxed their minds going into an important race of their seasons. As none of them have been accused of doping, this would have been an unfortunate and saddening moment in their careers. Hopefully, they will bounce back stronger.

Don’t ignore injuries however close to the finish 

Aside from the negative media attention, pre-existing injuries would not have helped athletes competing. Galen Rupp found himself running alone in the top ten for much of the race. It was his first race since the 2018 Chicago Marathon. An Achilles injury and subsequent surgery meant that most of his year was focused on recovery. He had withdrawn from the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon in September. His morning ended just before the 23-mile mark. Despite being so close to the finish line, it remains a sensible decision to drop out of a race to receive medical attention rather than push through an obvious injury. The consequence of ignoring such pain could be that more recovery time is needed. The medium- to long-term is always crucial for professional athletes.

Jordan Hasay could not finish the race either, dropping out early in the race after suffering from a hamstring injury in the first few miles of the race. It was another disappointment for the USA team, but again she made the right decision. 

Conclusion

The 2019 Chicago Marathon was packed with exciting racing and fast times but also disappointing performances. Brigid Kosgei smashed the course and world record, proving her current dominance of the event. Whilst in the men’s race, the sprint finish between four athletes reminded audiences again of how East Africans are simply unstoppable. But the race was nonetheless overshadowed in part by the ban of Alberto Salazar. Although coaches exist to support their athletes, in extreme cases like this they can also hinder. Especially when the mass media become interested.

Read the report of the 2018 race in which Mo Farah won his first marathon.

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