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2009 London Marathon Women's Race Contenders
by Sharon Ekstrom
It's not that there is a drought of incredible female runners, but out of the select few who tackle the marathon distance, only one or two standouts highlight top marathon rosters worldwide. The London Marathon's organizers, known to bring together the best athletes in competition, have once again outdone themselves. These are a collection of the best female champions and marathon victors from around the world, who individually threaten any line-up. The women's race promises excitement. And perhaps with four of the five previous world records having been set by women on the London Marathon course, one can only imagine when the next time will be.
The Favorites: Catherine Ndereba | Irina Mikitenko | Zhou Chunxiu | Gete Wami
The Contenders: Constantina Dita | Svetlana Zakharova | Lyudmila Petrova | Kate O'Neill
CATHERINE NDEREBA (KEN)
At thirty-six years old Catherine "the Great" Ndereba remains an unstoppable force. With an impressive marathon resume spanning ten years, she has placed first or second at 17 of 21 career marathons - including four wins of the Boston Marathon, two wins of the Chicago Marathon, two silver medals from the 2004 and 2008 Olympics and three medals from the 2003 through 2007 World Championships (two gold and one silver) to mention a few. With so many top performances to her name, Ndereba's worst race could be her debut at the 1999 Boston Marathon, where she placed sixth, her lowest finishing rank in a marathon - which is not bad by any standard. This former world record holder was the first woman to break the 2:19 barrier and remains one of only two women in the world capable of that feat. Her best race was a 2:18:47 from the 2001 Chicago Marathon.
Ndereba returns to the London Marathon for the first time since 2003, when she finished second in 2:19:55. This race was more notably where she lost World Record status as Paula Radcliffe coasted to a 2:15:25 finish, toppling Ndereba's previous record by over three minutes. Although a rematch between the two fastest marathoners in the world had been in the works for 2009, Radcliffe is out of the race due to an injury. Ndereba, one of the fiercest competitors in the circuit, has a good shot to win if she can keep Zhou Chunxiu and defending champion Irina Mikitenko at bay.
IRINA MIKITENKO (GER)
Irina Mikitenko was 35 when she stole the show in 2008 with surprise wins of both the London and Berlin Marathons, the first marathon wins of her career. Originally from Kazakhstan, this 5000 and 10000 meter track star ran her marathon debut in Berlin in 2007 to a 2:24:51 finish, losing by only a minute to seasoned marathoner Gete Wami. At the 2008 London race, she was a strong competitor from the start never fading against the field of top veteran athletes. But her finish of 2:24:14 was one of the slowest finishes ever seen in the women's race at the London Marathon.
She ended 2008 with an incredible personal best of 2:19:19 in Berlin, shaving over five minutes off her previous marathon finishes. As a result, Mikitenko won the 2007/2008 edition of the World Marathon Majors after a tiebreaker decision was ruled in her favor (Wami and Mikitenko had accrued the same amount of points in the competition). Despite the string of successes, this defending champion has yet to be tested against such a high-caliber field as this 2009 London Marathon line-up. Still improving in the distance, this race will determine if the defending champion has what it takes to be a consistent top performer.
ZHOU CHUNXIU (CHN)
Zhou Chunxiu may not be a familiar name in the racing circuit in Europe or the United States. Remembered for an Olympic training regimen consisting of a marathon per day in altitude, she still remains a threat to any western field she participates in. This top Chinese runner debuted in the marathon distance in 2003, when veterans like Radcliffe and Ndereba already had a number of marathons under their belts. Chunxiu did not make a name for herself until a personal best finish of 2:19:51 at the 2006 Seoul Marathon, earning her ninth on the all-time fastest marathoners list. And she did not become a major threat to world-level competitors, until she stole the victory of the 2007 London Marathon in 2:20:38. Chunxiu followed that victory with a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, losing to Catherine Ndereba by eight seconds.
Chunxiu chose not to defend her title at the 2008 race, opting to stay in Asia to train for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Her hard work earned her a bronze medal, losing out on silver by a narrow margin of one second to Catherine Ndereba once again. In this Olympic Games redux, Chunxiu who tends to race only in Asia finds herself in one of the deepest women's fields ever battling over a win more tempting than Olympic gold.
GETE WAMI (ETH)
Gete Wami won the won the inaugural 2006/2007 World Marathon Majors as a reward for her performances in major city marathons. Wami, who kick-started her career with a victory and the second fastest marathon debut in history at the 2002 Amsterdam Marathon in 2:22:19, has run sub-2:25 on five occasions and has consistently been a top-three finisher at the London and Berlin Marathons. In 2007, she ran the Berlin and New York City Marathons with only five weeks of recovery in between, placing first and second respectively. Wami was favored to win at the 2008 London Marathon; but fell hard at a water station at the 30K mile mark and limped to a third place finish.
Long-time rival to Paula Radcliffe in cross-country, track and roads, Wami will have to wait another year for a London Marathon rematch with Radcliffe now out due to injury. But the 2009 race is not without competitors for Wami - Chunxiu defeated her after mile 24 of the 2007 London race, Mikitenko beat the injured Ethiopian at the 2008 race and won the 2007/2008 World Marathon Majors, and Catherine Ndereba edged her out for fifth place at the 2008 New York City Marathon. Although she lacks the speed that others in the field have, Wami has placed in the top three at nearly all of the marathons she has participated in since 2006 and barring any mishaps will be right with the leaders.
CONSTANTINA DITA (ROU)
In a field rife with veteran marathoners, Constantina Dita returns to the London Marathon bringing with her over a decade of marathons racing experience. Dita, who can always be found in the lead pack, is an aggressive runner whose strategy has led to many career top ten finishes. Her struggle to compete well in world championship events ended in 2005, a stellar year for the Romanian. Following a second place finish after battling it out against top Kenyan Margaret Okayo at the 2005 London Marathon, she edged out top Kenyan Derartu Tulu to take the bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships, trailing world record holder Paula Radcliffe and former world record holder Catherine Ndereba. Dita won the Half Marathon World Championships later in 2005 and capped off the year with a second-place finish at the 2005 Chicago Marathon in a personal best time of 2:21:30.
A dark horse for the 2008 Beijing Games, Dita blew away the women's field. She charged at top speeds from the start and her competition never followed. This tactic has burned her in the past; but a mixture of timing, strategy and fortitude earned her a gold medal in a field deep with talent. At 39, Dita has worked hard and accomplished a great deal. It would be of no surprise if she steals the race once again.
SVETLANA ZAKHAROVA (RUS)
Runner-up from the 2008 London Marathon, Svetlana Zakharova returns for 2009. The 38- year-old is hardly the fastest in the field, having posted a 2:21:29 personal best finish from the 2002 Chicago Marathon; but her extensive resume boasts wins of the 2003 Boston and Chicago Marathons, three second-place finishes at the London Marathon, and a bronze at the 2001 World Championships among other top performances in a career spanning 13 years. Zakharova has run 28 career marathons, finishing in the top three nearly half the time. Although lacking the speed of her fellow competitors, Zakharova is a worthy competitor in this top field. And she will once again go head-to-head against Mikitenko, to whom she lost by eight seconds in the 2008 edition of the race to finish in a 2:24:39.
LYUDMILA PETROVA (RUS)
A veteran of the London Marathon course, Lyudmila Petrova has completed five London Marathons, always finishing in the top five, but has never won. What is most remarkable about this 40-year-old with nearly two decades of running experience is that she continues to race at high levels. She acquired her personal best finish at the 2006 London Marathon with a 2:21:29, stealing the Russian national record from Svetlana Zakharova, and in 2008, placed fifth in London in a 2:26:45 - the fastest finish for a 39-year-old. Just months later, Petrova was runner-up to Paula Radcliffe at the New York City Marathon. Petrova is no novice to the distance sport that incorporates strategy, skill and past experience. She and the other master's women in this field have proven that age is of no bearing in the marathon. Be sure to see Petrova in the lead pack.
KATE O'NEILL (USA)
Kate O'Neill is an American chasing the dream. This seven-time NCAA All-American at Yale University made her marathon debut at the 2007 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon in sweltering heat, placing third in a respectable time of 2:36:15. Many looked to O'Neill as being part of the next generation of American marathoners. She went on to win the 2008 USA Half Marathon title in Houston, posting a time of 1:11:57, beating a field heavy with Olympic Trials qualifiers. O'Neill, favored as a top contender for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon team, dropped out of the trials near mile 20 due to a knee problem.
O'Neill, a member of the Running USA group in Mammoth Lakes, trains with American marathon record holder Deena Kastor (née Drossin). Kastor, who placed third at the 2003 London marathon, returned in 2006 to win in 2:19:16, becoming the fifth fastest woman in the world and the only American woman to win the event. O'Neill's fortitude is to be respected as she has some fast women to chase; but one can never predict a marathon.