Who will launch an attack on the king?
The men’s marathon will be held on Sunday, August 8th, in Sapporo - around 800km north of Tokyo. The course is identical to the one the women will run the day before - for that preview, you can click here.
There isn’t a heap of data available about the course - we know the route but the elevation profile hasn’t been as easy to get. From what I’ve seen, it’s not expected to be overly hilly - this is more London than New York. The average temperature range in Sapporo during August is 16-24 degrees, with low winds and around 85% humidity. Remember though, that’s an average range. There’s obviously a chance that race day could be significantly warmer, which is what many athletes have been preparing for.
Update: I found this sick video on YouTube outlining the course and some of Sapporo's sights so you can play along on race day.
Before we go any further, there’s no point reading this preview if you don’t believe, or aren’t at least willing to consider the idea that Eliud Kipchoge is beatable. I believe he is - that doesn’t mean he won’t win, but it’s less of a foregone conclusion that it may have been 18 months ago.
A strong case can be made for Eliud Kipchoge being the greatest distance runner of all-time. It’s not quite indisputable, as many will point to Keninesa Bekele’s impressive resume and rightly so, but in terms of modern marathoners at least, Kipchoge has well and truly earned his reputation.
Let’s go over his record. 14 official marathons for 12 wins, a 2nd, and an 8th. Olympic gold in Rio 2016, and the official world record of 2:01:39, set in Berlin in 2018. Course record holder at the London Marathon, set in 2019.
Kipchoge has of course also been the key figure in two exhibition events; Nike’s Breaking2 event in 2017, where he ran 2:00:25 over the marathon distance, and the Ineos 1:59 Challenge in October 2019, where Kipchoge ran 1:59:40 for the marathon distance.
Kipchoge has often toyed with his opponents - not in a disrespectful sense, but he’s been so far ahead of their level that it leaves you shaking your head in disbelief. We’ll never forget Berlin 2017, when in the latter stages of the race Kipchoge was running shoulder to shoulder with upstart Guye Adola. Seemingly untroubled by the company, Kipchoge pointed out the blue line to Adola, as if to say, ‘this is the shortest way home, if you want to beat me I suggest you stick to the line’.
Then there was the moment in London 2019, when a pack of 3 runners, which included Shura Kitata and Mosinet Geremew, were content to sit on Kipchoge’s heels for much of the race. Eliud appeared to turn and gesture to the pack, pointing to the road ahead, seemingly daring someone else to take up front position. None could, and Kipchoge went on to set a course record.
Then there’s some under-the-radar impressive performances, like when he won the 2015 Berlin Marathon in 2:04:00 with the inner-soles of his shoes coming out. I get a stone in my shoe and I’m ready to throw the whole thing into the lake.
Then there’s London 2020. Held on a modified loop course in quite frankly terrible conditions (rain and wind), Kipchoge...lost. Yes, he lost. He started to lose contact with the lead group around the 38km mark and didn’t factor in the finish.
I want to focus on this race for a moment. It was the first time ever that we’ve seen Kipchoge appear vulnerable. He has until that moment appeared invincible - capable of overcoming any challenge, so clearly the best marathoner in the world that he needed time trials set up for him to keep his interest.
When someone is so dominant, they begin to establish a psychological advantage over the competition before the ‘game’ even starts. Think of MJ in the ‘90s, or the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors, peak Barry Bonds, and so on and so on. There’s an aura about these players or teams - they constantly absorb the biggest hits and still come back and win, time after time. And that’s Kipchoge. We reached a point where a lot of the best marathoners simply dodged him - no doubt partly organised by NN Running Team to maximise exposure and prize money, but also because the idea of going up against Kipchoge and winning seemed inconceivable.
It’s partly fueled by the media and by the marketing machine of Nike - Kipchoge’s fame has gone well beyond that of previous world record holders in the marathon; he’s on a pedestal as this all conquering, invincible force (and rightly so!).
But now? Shura Kitata showed in London that the champ is beatable. Others had pushed Kipchoge before - Mosinet Geremew in London 2019, and Guye Adola in Berlin 2017, but there will now be a whole stable of competitors who believe they can topple Kipchoge.
That’s not to say Kipchoge won’t win the Olympic Marathon. He should be the favourite, and he is. We’re also likely to see different conditions to most of the majors that Kipchoge races, with Sapporo typically warm and humid (it will be the same for most of the top contenders - these conditions are not their typical race conditions). Everyone responds differently to different conditions, so it will be interesting to see how the field adapts.
Now, let’s look at some of the other top contenders, starting with Kipchoge’s Kenya team.
Amos Kipruto is a 2:03:30 marathoner, set in Valencia 2020 (4th place). He ran the Tokyo Marathon in 2020, finishing 18th in 2:08:00. Shoutout to KT News Kenya for this report and interview on Amos, who mentions the late great Sammy Wanjiru as an inspiration.
One of my favourite athletes is Lawrence Cherono. This bloke is clutch. He won both Boston and Chicago marathons in 2019 in sick sprint finishes. When it’s ride or die time, Cherono is your guy. He boasts a 2:03:04 PR. Keep him in mind if he’s still in the lead group with a couple of km left.
The Ethiopians love their marathoning, you know that. They’re led by the Kipchoge-killer, Shura Kitata. KItata had a great year in 2018 when he finished 2nd in both the London and NYC Marathons, before finally breaking through and winning a major in 2020 with the London win we’ve spoken about. His PR is 2:04:49, from a warm day in London 2018. He’s not a flat out speed guy, but the Olympic Marathon is unlikely to play out that way anyway. It’s worth keeping PR’s in perspective too - people who race NYC Marathon aren’t going to run as quick as people who win in the middle east, but that doesn’t mean they’re not better athletes.
One of my favourite names in marathoning is up next, Lelisa Desisa. I was super high on this Ethiopian back in 2018 after he won NYC, but he’s been up and down since. He won the World Championships in Dubai 2019, then DNF’d NYC Marathon a few weeks later (of course, it was a wild short turnaround). I think Desisa’s best running is behind him - he’ll factor here but won’t be a winner.
How about the locals? The one you’re most likely to know is Suguru Osako, more commonly known as ‘Sugar’. Osako trains in the US with Pete Julian’s group (the same group Aussie Jess Hull is part of). Sugar previously held the Japanese National Record for the marathon, which he set in Chicago 2018 when he ran 2:05:50. That mark has since been eclipsed, but Osako has also lowered his marathon PR to 2:05:29. He’s the most likely of the Japanese athletes to be visible in the main pack for the longest.
Japan’s other competitors are Shogo Nakamura and Yuma Hattori, who went 1-2 at Japan’s Marathon Grand Championships selection event in 2019. They’re both ‘slower’ than Osako, but could well factor late in this race. Expect all 3 of the Japanese athletes to turn themselves inside out in this race; whatever else is happening, keep an eye on what these fellas are up to.
Other athletes you’ve likely heard of and who may be involved in the action include Belgian Bashir Abdi. Abdi, who was born in Somalia but grew up in Belgium, has a 2:04:49 PR from 2020, and is a hugely popular character on the world stage.
Galen Rupp is of course competing here and will likely be in the front pack for much of the race. Rupp’s marathon PR is 2:06:07 from 2018. His performance in the US Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta 2020 was nothing short of spectacular; on a hilly, windy course he simply ran away from the field at a moment of his choosing, and not a single person could do anything about it.
One thing I appreciate about Galen is his potential to show up in some kind of crazy modified race kit (and the man stays dripped with that long gold chain swangin’ - ya gotta love it). Not saying he will roll a race kit with holes in it, but I hope it happens. Also, his Twitter. You’re welcome.
The Aussies are well documented. Liam Adams is the quickest on paper with a 2:10:48 PR, followed by Brett Robinson (2:10:55) and Jack Rayner (2:11:06). All have good experience in Japan - Liam set his marathon PR there in 2020, while Brett broke the national record in the half marathon (59:57) at Marugame in 2020, and Jack placed 3rd in the same event in 2019.
Do I think the Aussies will be involved in the race? It really depends on what the East Africans decide to do at the front. If it’s warm, I don’t see Kipchoge pressing for a 2:02 from the gun - we know it won’t be paced so we’re unlikely to see a super fast time. The fastest winning time ever in the Olympic marathon is 2:06:32 (Sammy Wanjiru in 2008), so if we see a time closer to 2:08-2:10, it’s conceivable that the Australians are in it for longer.
I don’t think we’ll see an Australian medallist, but I do think we’ve got guys who will out-perform historical averages. That is, there’s very little improvement left in many of the top guys in this race, whereas I would argue guys like Jack Rayner, who’s just 25 years old, are still on an upward trajectory and will therefore close the gap. I don’t think anyone in this race should be evaluated on the time they run in Sapporo, more on their positioning or the way they close out the last 10km. Don’t look for PR’s from our guys here.
Callum Hawkins will get some attention representing Great Britain. Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich is also in the race - a former winner of this event back in 2012 but probably no longer in the top tier of marathoners.
It’s most likely that Kipchoge wins, and he might be surrounded by athletes like Osako, Desisa, and Cherono.