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2012 Olympic Games - London - Women's Marathon Preview
by Sharon Ekstrom
The starter list for the 2012 Olympic Women's Marathon showcases a new generation of young marathoners together with veterans of the 26.2 mile distance. Six of the eight fastest women ever to have run a marathon and a total of nine women who have run sub-2:20 will be at the 2012 Olympic Marathon in London.
"Masters" Women (over 35):
Note: Women in the USA are considered "Masters" at 40, whereas the age cutoff for women is 35 in most of the world.
The career length of top runners is expanding and more women over 35 are signed up for the marathon at the London Olympics that for any previous Olympic Marathon.
We'll note that the Gold and Silver medals at the Beijing Olympics went to women over 35 - and while we won't expect quite as good a showing by the Masters women in London; we are heartened by the number of women who are running at the world-class level and that age may not need to equate to slowing down.
The Masters Women (oldest to youngest):
Constantina DITA (42)
Ivana SEKYROVA (40)
Irina MIKITENKO (39)
Maria Elena ESPESO (39)
Mara YAMAUCHI (38)
Lidia SIMON (38)
Paula RADCLIFFE (38)
Samira RAIF (38)
Lornah KIPLAGAT (38)
Bahar DOGAN (37)
Soumiya LABANI (37)
Erika OLIVERA (36)
Natalia CERCHES (36)
Leena PUOTINIEMI (36)
Valeria STRANEO (36)
Tanith MAXWELL (36)
Aniko KALOVICS (35)
Albina MAYOROVA (35)
Evelin TALTS (35)
Beata RAKONCZAI (35)
Olivera JEVTIC (35)
Fast Track to London
A marathon time of sub-2:20 has been run only 23 times by a total of 16 distinct women, and nine of these women will be at the 2012 Olympic Games: Paula Radcliffe (GBR), Liliya Shobukhova (RUS), Mary Keitany (KEN), Tiki Gelana (ETH), Irina Mikitenko (GER), Aselefech Mergia (ETH), Edna Kiplagat (KEN), Chunxiu Zhou (CHN) and Mare Dibaba (ETH). Never before has a marathon had this many women of this caliber.
While speed was clearly the defining factor for selection to the marathon teams, experience will likely play a part. Many of the wome will be competing in their first Olympics, including the entire Kenyan and Ethiopian women's teams: Half Marathon World Record Holder Mary Keitany, (KEN, PR 2:18:37), 2011 World Champion Edna Kiplagat (KEN, PR- 2:19:50), 2011 World Championship Silver Medalist Priscah Jeptoo (KEN, PR 2:20:14), Tiki Gelana (ETH, PR 2:18.58), Aselefech Mergia (ETH, PR 2:19.31) and Mare Dibaba (ETH, PR 2:19.52). While many marathoners have traditionally transitioned from track to the roads later in their running careers, these young upstarts were fast tracked to the roads early in their careers and at 22, 24 and 27 years old, the three Ethiopians are indicative of the new trend and seem to have plenty of time to excel at their distance.
Other "older" women have run at the Olympics on the track and proven themselves at the marathon, but will be running their first Olympic Marathon. Among the most promising are Liliya Shobukhova, Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Kim Smith. Meanwhile, others will be returning to the Olympic Marathon with true experience on their side: Paula Radcliffe, Chunxiu Zhou, Benita Willis and Constantina Dita among others.
A potential play-by-play
Without a doubt Mary Keitany is a favorite on paper, yet she has not proven herself successful racing without a pacemaker. The Half Marathon record holder seems incapable of holding back unless paced by others - so if she blasts off at the start, watch for her to fade as she did at the 2011 New York City Marathon. Compatriot Edna Kiplagat has proven that she can stay on Keitany's heels, but has also shown that she can handle strategy without a pacer with her wins at the 2010 New York City Marathon and 2011 World Championships Marathon. Beyond this Kenyan duo, Priscah Jeptoo, the Ethiopians previously mentioned, Liliya Shobukhova, Paula Radcliffe, Kim Smith, Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila will likely hold near the front. If the race is slow and Keitany holds to a strategy, she can easily win in the second half of the race - if she pushes the pace from the start, there will be carnage on the course as those who go out with her, and she herself, will be hard-pressed to finish. A reckless strategy will have its price, but a cautious race will favor Keitany and the young Ethiopians.
While Africans are normally strongly favored - no one should discount Radcliffe who will be racing her last Olympics on home turf. She will be seeking redemption - despite still carrying the title of WR holder three times over with an untouchable 2:15:25, she has never won a medal at the three Olympics she competed in. Shobukhova who took spring marathon season off could very well be in medal contention if her fitness is there. Zhou Chunxiu (CHN) has proven herself with wins at the London Marathon and her bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics. Kim Smith (NZL) ran the fastest Half Marathon ever run in North America and took a solid lead at the 2011 Boston Marathon before a calf strain forced her to drop from the race. Less experienced at the marathon distance than some of the others, her performances show that - if she can finish - she could medal.
The Strongest American Field in History
It was not so long ago that women's marathon was added to the Olympics. Nearly 30 years have passed since the introduction of the Olympic Marathon in 1984 and the USA's sole Gold medal at the distance for women (Joan Benoit). For 2012, the USA has three of its strongest distance runners of all time representing the nation: Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Desiree Davila; all hoping to repeat the feat of Deena Kastor, American Record Holder (2:19:36) who received the Bronze medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Shalane Flanagan has taken on some of the fastest African distance runners in the world and earned a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics 10,000m. She is relatively new at the marathon distance - but has the training, speed and natural ability to have a true breakthrough at the London Olympics. She has only two marathons under her belt: her debut runner-up finish at the 2010 New York City Marathon (2:28:40) and her seemingly effortless win at the 2012 USA Olympic Team Trials in 2:25:38.
Desiree Davila ran her first marathon at the 2007 Boston Marathon - a mediocre 2:44:56. She followed that with a 4th place finish at the 2010 Chicago Marathon (2:26:20) and was runner-up at the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:22:38 after running a courageous race. At the USA Trials, Davila ran a solid 2:25:55. While she does not have the raw speed of the Africans, she is one of the toughest runners of any. In the week before the race, a decision was being made of whether a hip injury as of press time may force her from racing at the Olympics, so we won't really expect a medal performance...
Kara Goucher had several years racing 5,000m and 10,000m on the track before debuting in the marathon at the 2008 New York City Marathon, finishing in a 2:25:53 (3rd place). Since then she has proven that she can easily run in the low 2:20s in any situation. After some tough races, Goucher retooled her training, changed coaches and made a comeback with a third place finish in the marathon at the 2012 Olympic Trials (2:26:06). She tells us that she is in the best shape of her life and is poised for a personal best.