CHICAGO — This city lived up to its billing as host of America’s fastest major marathon on Sunday as Brigid Kosgei of Kenya set a women’s world record.
A day after Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier for the 26.2-mile distance, albeit in an event that did not count as a world record, his countrywoman Kosgei shattered Paula Radcliffe’s world marathon record, which no woman had come close to in the past 16 years.
The two achievements made the weekend one of the most memorable in the modern history of long-distance running, with Kenya asserting its supremacy as the heartbeat of the sport, in case there was any doubt.
Kosgei said she had Kipchoge on her mind ever since she saw that he ran a marathon in Vienna on Saturday morning in the once-inconceivable time of 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds.
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“I kept saying, ‘Tomorrow is my day,’” she said. “I wanted to be the second Kipchoge — the Kipchoge for women. I focused on that.”
Kosgei even made a last-minute decision to switch her shoes to match the ones Kipchoge ran in, the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT%. She had planned on wearing an earlier version of the Nike Vaporfly shoe.
Kosgei, who also won in Chicago last year, ran 2:14:04 on Sunday. Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 at the 2003 London Marathon, and the record had long seemed untouchable. For years, she was the only woman to have run a marathon in under 2 hours 17 minutes. Not only did Kosgei run under 2:15, she was close to breaking 2:14. And at age 25, she could have a long career in front of her.
“I was not expecting this,” Kosgei said of the world record. “I was expecting to run 2:16 or 2:17. It’s amazing to run 2:14, but the world record was in my head. When I started the race, I was thinking I need 2:15 for Paula’s record.”
Organizers had their eyes on Kosgei all week. She had run a blazing half-marathon at the Great North Run in September in northern England, where she finished in 1:04:28. She also won the 2019 London Marathon with a time of 2:18:20. She ran the second half of that race in a searing 66:42.
On Sunday, Kosgei ran the first half in 66:59 and never looked back. She had planned to run the first half in 68 minutes, but on a cool, breezy day near Lake Michigan, Kosgei jumped at the opportunity.
On the marathon course, spectators were spotted holding signs pointing to Kipchoge’s catchphrase: “No human is limited.”
“People were cheering, you are running the world record! World record!” she said. “I felt their energy, and they inspired me.”
Kosgei made a statement in her first five kilometers, running a time of 15:28, a pace of 4 minutes 58 seconds per mile. To beat the world record, her average mile time would need to be under 5 minutes 9 seconds. She ran an average of 5:06 per mile.
And for the most part, she ran alone. The only runners alongside her were her pacers.
Selecting the pacers for Kosgei was a challenge in itself. Ideally, pacers running at Kosgei’s desired speed should be able to run 2:10 or 2:11 themselves to comfortably (relatively speaking, here) sustain a pace for much of the race. Both Geoffrey Pyego, who trained with Kosgei, and Daniel Limo ran close to 24 miles with the Chicago Marathon winner.
Kosgei’s world record is the fifth set at the Chicago Marathon, and the first since Radcliffe set a world record here in 2002. In 1984, Steve Jones broke the men’s world record with a 2:08:05. In 1999, Khalid Khannouchi became the first runner to break 2 hours 6 minutes in the marathon with a time of 2:05:42. In 2001, Catherine Ndereba broke the women’s record in 2:18:47, and Paula Radcliffe ran 2:17:18 the next year.
In late September, Carey Pinkowski, the Chicago Marathon’s race director, had high hopes that Kosgei would be the newest name on the list. “Paula’s event record is vulnerable,” he said of Radcliffe’s 2002 performance. “Is it out of the question for her to run 2:15? No, I don’t think it’s out of the question.”
After the world record was shattered on Sunday, Pinkowski said: “She was on an amazing trajectory, and she just stayed on that course. She was very relaxed all week.”
The second-place finisher was six minutes behind Kosgei, a fairly uncommon margin when it comes to an elite field. Ababel Yeshaneh finished with a time of 2:20:51, and Gelete Burka finished third in 2:20:55. Emma Bates was the first American to finish, running in 2:25:27.
Lawrence Cherono won the men’s race in 2:05:45. Ethiopia’s Dejene Debela was second in 2:05:46 and Asefa Mengstu was third in 2:05:48. Jacob Riley was the first American to finish in 2:10:36.
When it was over, Kosgei was at a loss for words.
“I don’t know how to explain how it feels to run a world record,” Kosgei said. “I am so happy.”