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.

Interview with Justin Gillette

Justin Gillette is a busy man. When he isn’t taking care of his four children and spending quality time with his wife he is winning marathons, coaching runners and being featured in Runners’ World. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

What is your proudest running achievement, and why?

I often get asked what is my favourite running accomplishment. I have won 100 marathons so I could easily point to any of those. Perhaps winning the Kona Marathon in Hawaii five times, or the Bahamas Marathon twice would impress people. The reality is I am most proud of using running as a means to beat generational poverty. I used running to get myself a college degree, then continued running to make an income to put my wife through her Masters and PhD programs.

What has running taught you about yourself?

Running taught me that you cannot set limits on what goal setting and hard work can do. My biggest year I ran 25 marathons and won 19 of them. I never would have guessed my body could handle that volume, but by focusing forward on the next goals it went well.

What is the most ambitious running goal you’ve ever considered? 

In 2011 I wanted to try to win a marathon on back to back days. I ran a 2:35 marathon on the first day and a 2:40 on the second day to accomplish this. It was a mental and physical battle.

How far in advance do you plan your running races? 

My wife works full time and we have four children so sometimes I have to cancel races I want to run and sometimes I get to jump into a race at the last minute. I always try to maintain race-ready fitness so I can jump into a marathon anytime there is an opening in our family schedule.

What is the most miles you’ve ever run in a week? 

In college I averaged 15.5 miles per day. Post-college I thought it would be neat to hit a 140-mile week, but I only managed 137. I still have a bucket list goal of getting in a 168-mile week – one mile for every hour there is in a week.

What is the longest period you’ve ever trained for a race? 

In college I would do the traditional 12-16-week buildup for races. Once I got into frequent marathon racing I now train in mini-cycles so that I am never too drained from training and can run any marathon with just a week or less adjustment to my training.

What has been your most serious running injury? 

In 2013 I got plantar fasciitis. This was due to over-training. I would suggest that people be more eager to take a day off when needed instead of being addicted to making the training log look impressive. Once I became more liberal with days off I have been better able to prevent injuries.

What cross-training exercises do you commit to? 

My main core workouts are planks and lunges. I try to plank 5 minutes a day. I do lunges back and forth in my house while the children are taking naps. Post runs I like the Roll Recovery tool to massage my legs. Like most runners I have a love/hate relationship with the foam roller.

What would persuade you to work with a (online) running coach? 

I’m an online coaching too. I would suggest an online coach to anyone who has goals they are trying to achieve. It really helps to have someone keeping you accountable to do the work when it’s hard to be motivated. Anyone can run on the perfect days with good weather. A good online coach can get you excited to run in any weather regardless of the workout.

In one sentence, what does running mean to you? 

Running to me is the difference between being in poverty and enjoying a good life.

Stanford Diamond League 2019 Overview

Instead of Oregon’s city Eugene playing host to the seventh Diamond League meeting of the season, Stanford University in California was the location for the (Steve) Prefontaine Classic. Notable athletes shone in the sun at the halfway stage of the annual elite series.

Top Honours for American Men

Unsurprisingly there was much anticipation for how those on home soil would perform. Christian Coleman stormed to 100m victory in 9.81 seconds. Michael Norman extended his unbeaten form in the 400m race, by maintaining his speed during the last 100m, with compatriots completing the top three. Paul Chelimo’s effort in the two-mile event was also impressive, storming to second place in the last 150m to almost take victory. 

But it was Raj Benjamin who made the most impact on the Cobb Track. His consistency over the hurdles and strength over the final bend and straight meant he won the single-lap event by almost two seconds. Interestingly, he spoke post-race about focusing on technique rather than speed. For him, he proved that both are intrinsically linked.

New Sprint Name Emerges

Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare surprised an astonishingly fast field to win the 200m women’s race, in a season’s best of 22.05 seconds. Dina Asher-Smith, Elaine Thompson and Dafne Schippers could only watch on. The former Commonwealth Games 100m and 200m champion maintained a strong upright posture, and, with a high knee lift, broke the tape in lane eight. 

However, it was not as shocking as first thought. Okagbare’s 100m victory two weeks previous in Rabat against another sprint legend Marie-Josée Ta Lou showed her capacity to beat the best. These performances only add more intrigue to the upcoming World Championships in Doha.

Semenya Proves Her Dominance Again

The famous South African Caster Semenya extended her four-year winning streak at 800m races. It was her 31st consecutive victory over the two-lap event. She accomplished it with apparent ease. She lead from the front and even overtook the pacemaker early in the second lap.

Despite the ongoing controversial legal case with the governing body of the sport her athletic performances have been outstanding. Her 1:55.70 was almost three seconds quicker than anyone else and was a new meeting record. Afterwards it appeared as if she hadn’t even exerted herself that much. She remains the gold standard at the distance and it will be a massive shame if she doesn’t compete at the 2019 World Championships.

Interview with Kay Drew

Kay Drew has been running since the late 1980s, and ran her first marathon in 1994. She has completed a marathon in every US state, and qualified for the Boston Marathon more than once. To encourage new runners, she started a running group. It still meets weekly 19 years later, although they run less than they used to. She documents her journey through her Twitter account.

What is your proudest running achievement?

I’ve got two achievements that I am truly proud of: setting an even speed as a pacer to help runners overcome their mental blocks, and bringing new runners into the sport. 

What has running taught you about yourself?

Running has taught me that following a plan, step after step, will get you to where you want to be. It may not lead to consistent, steady progress, but the overall trajectory will be improvement in either speed or endurance, or both. For example, you have to knock off today’s three-miler in order to cross the marathon finish line four months from now.

What is the most ambitious running goal you’ve ever set?

There was a time I considered building up to a 100-miler, but I no longer think that’s for me.

How far in advance do you plan your running races?

When I was running all the states in the USA, I sometimes had to plan up to a year or more in advance. 

What is the most miles you’ve ever run in a week?

I came close to 70 miles one week, but only because my schedule caused me to run two long runs in a shorter time. Training for a 100km race would make me complete a long run followed the next day by a medium-distance run.

What is the longest period you’ve ever trained for a race?

I talked five runners into running their first marathon with me at my last US state marathon. We trained for a full 20 weeks with a slow build-up. I did that for my first marathon, and probably for the Pikes Peak Marathon. Otherwise, I run marathons often enough that I don’t change much other than building up my long-run distance.

What has been your most serious running injury?

I have been incredibly lucky. I’ve only had a couple of falling injuries. I was out for four weeks with a broken wrist in 2018 when I slipped on ice on a trail run. I also tripped on an uneven sidewalk in January 2019 and required some stitches and new teeth. But it was a terrible Wisconsin cold snap that kept me from running rather than my broken face.

What cross-training exercises do you commit to?

I commit to swimming, yoga and cycling – one of those activities once each week.

What would persuade you to work with a running coach?

I’m still happily running at 56 years old, but after 25 years of marathons I think most of my “things to train for” are behind me. Maybe I would look to a coach if I wanted to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon in my next age group, or take on a Half-Ironman.

What does running mean to you?

Running has become so much a part of my identity that I don’t know what it will be like when I have to start saying “I used to”.

Discover the World through Running

Run the World (2016) by Becky Wade


Year-long Adventure

In 2012, Becky Wade, a top university track runner from Texas, wins a fellowship to travel across the world. She uses the experience to learn different running practices to incorporate in her own training. She uses public transport to get around, and does not race seriously.

She aims to discover the most effective running plan, balancing the need for freedom and flexible with a demanding volume.


England

Inspired as a spectator at the women’s 2012 Olympic marathon, Wade learns that elite runners do not train and race hard all of the time, but are strategic in their surges.

She also meets Jamaican sprinters, including Usain Bolt, and discovers the fierce and long-standing cross-country rivalry between the Cambridge and Oxford Universities. A positive team spirit is essential to build the necessary relationships to run for others as well as oneself.

Switzerland

Wade explores the beautiful natural landscape of luscious forests and mountain trails in a running-friendly nation. She adjusts to become light and nimble on her feet as she copes with not always knowing her pace and distance.

She discovers that the country has no professional running groups, and yet host unique track events, where athletes run back-to-back events in which they only discover the distances during the last lap.

Ethiopia

Wade learns that this East African country, like Kenya, harbours a culture of qualities perfect for long-distance running, including discipline, resilience and ambition.

During her training she is surprised that runners sometimes cut their runs short, opting to walk for miles back home if they do not feel fully fit. They exercise a heightened awareness of their bodies, encompassed by Haile Gebrselassie, who Wade finds is a rather entertaining dancer.


Other countries Wade discovers include Japan, where she finds the pavements and language difficult to overcome, Australia and New Zealand, where she wins a minor 5k race, whilst training with an athletic club that celebrates varied training and hard efforts, and Sweden and Finland, where she runs with her brother and discovers orienteering.

Recipe for Success

Wade’s journey is also defined by each of her hosts’ choice of diets and cooking rituals. She shares a diverse range of recipes including ugali, kolo, anzac biscuits and ozoni soup.

Through food as much as running, Wade develops close relationships with knowledgeable and humble runners. Her unstructured training of over 550 miles during the year ultimately leads Wade back to the United States, where in December 2013 she runs her first marathon, the California International Marathon. She beats the women’s field in an impressive time of 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Quote from Becky Wade audiobook