Winning any title in sports twice in a row is a challenge. The element of surprise is gone. Expectations rise. The rest of the field is out to topple the champion. It’s one reason so few men have won back-to-back titles at the New York City Marathon.
Geoffrey Kamworor isn’t taking the challenge lightly. The 25-year-old Kenyan, who won last year’s race by three seconds, is back in New York aiming to become only the second male runner in the past two decades, and the seventh in the 48-year history of the race, to win consecutive titles. He knows the field, stacked with other Olympians and major marathon winners, will be gunning for him.
Kamworor has a secret weapon though: His training partner. Six days a week for most of the year, he runs stride for stride in Kenya with Eliud Kipchoge, the world-record holder in the marathon and the greatest marathoner ever.
In many ways, the runners have a mentor-protégé relationship. Kipchoge is older by eight years and has already made the progression from the track to road racing and marathons. Over time, he has focused on fewer races with bigger impact, something Kamworor is starting to do.
In their camp in Kaptagat, at more than 7,200 feet, Kipchoge is also the elder statesman, inspiring younger runners with his work ethic, modesty and results, which include two Olympic medals at 5,000 meters and marathon wins in Chicago, London, Rio de Janeiro and, in September, in Berlin, where he ran 2:01.39.
“Eliud is a humble guy. He’s focused, hard-working and self-disciplined,” Kamworor said a few hours after arriving in New York on Wednesday. “We have learned a lot from him. He’s like a big brother.”
The men are also there for each other. Last year, Kipchoge was at the finish line when Kamworor crossed in 2:10.53, beating fellow Kenyan Wilson Kipsang with a ferocious sprint down the stretch. But Kipchoge will not be in New York this weekend. Some say that won’t matter, and that Kamworor is the strong favorite.
“Outside of his training partner, he’s the best in the world,” said Sam Grotewold, the director of professional athletes for New York Road Runners, a nonprofit running group that organizes the marathon.
Kamworor speaks with the confidence of an athlete who has a diverse and growing resume. He has won three consecutive world half-marathon championships, two straight world titles in cross country, and the silver medal at the World Championships in 2015 in the 10,000 meters. Kamworor won his first major marathon in New York last year after podium finishes in Berlin.
Still, he is taking nothing for granted, and for good reason. The New York City Marathon is a notoriously unpredictable race, in part because of the many hills, a windy and often chilly start, and unforgiving turns. Unlike Berlin and Chicago, which are flat and designed to produce world-record times, New York is more of a tactical race. There are no pace setters who run next to the leaders in those races and keep them at a certain speed before dropping out.
The competition this year will be stiff. The men’s elite field includes Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, who won Boston in 2013 and 2015; Shura Kitata, a runner-up in London; and Daniel Wanjiru, another Kenyan who won London in 2017. There is also American Abdi Abdirahman, who is 41 but also a wily four-time Olympian who knows how to race, and is still fast. For good measure, Bernard Lagat, the American long-distance great, is making his marathon debut at 43.
“Everyone is prepared to win, so everyone can be a challenge,” Kamworor said. “For me, I run my own race, and may the best man win.”
As young as he is, Kamworor has a lot of marathons under his belt. This is his third race in New York, and he has run four times in Berlin, including his personal best of 2:06.12, set six years ago. He also ran the Rotterdam and Tokyo marathons.
At an age when other elite distance runners start to focus on a handful of longer events, Kamworor still competes at a high level on the track, in cross country and in the half-marathon.
Patrick Sang, his coach, is reluctant to trim any of his student’s ambitions. By his reckoning, Kamworor is a late bloomer who is still learning how far and wide he can go. Many elite runners in Kenya are discovered in high school or even younger, Sang said. Kamworor was different. In high school, his goal was to win a scholarship to an American university so he could study law. One of Sang’s assistants found Kamworor running a half-marathon in Kenya to improve his chances of going overseas. Impressed with Kamworor’s strength, he told Sang, who invited Kamworor to train at his camp in Kaptagat in 2010.
The following year, Kamworor won a cross country title. “The guy from nothing was suddenly a world junior champion,” Sang said.
Kamworor was the focus of a Dutch documentary called “The Unknown Runner,” which was released in 2013. The filmmakers followed him as he trained on the red dirt trails in Kenya, and featured his races and work as a pacer for Haile Gebrselassie, the Ethiopian marathon star.
Those days as an unknown are long gone. The big challenge now is finding the right mix of track and cross country races, and half and full marathons. Each requires its own training and scheduling requirements. His consistent success is turning on its head the prevailing logic that elite runners must focus early on fewer and fewer events as they get older.
“We’re learning that an athlete can possibly do all these things if they have their minds right,” Sang said.
Of course, any Kenyan’s success unfortunately raises questions about performance-enhancing drugs. In 2016, Kenya was nearly banned from the Rio Games after the World Anti-Doping Agency said the country’s testing regimen was noncompliant. Dozens of Kenyan track stars have failed drug tests in the years since the London Games.
Had Kamworor failed any tests, he would have been disqualified from running in New York. New York Road Runners has some of the strictest requirements in the sport. All athletes are given a blood test before the race, and some runners are randomly selected to be tested after the race. They all must attend an antidoping educational session, as well.
If all goes well, Kamworor hopes to continue returning to New York. Sang said Kamworor will phase out racing on the track and will run fewer cross country and half-marathon races over the next two years, so he can concentrate more on marathons, which offer more prize money.
Kamworor said he has no problem with that strategy. He said he loves the city’s energy and the course, with its hills, sharp turns and varied landscape. The route suits his background as a cross country runner, even though it’s on pavement.
He said his preparation for the race, which began about three months ago, is identical to what he did last year, which included about 150 miles a week, with most of the training at altitude. There will be no world record here, but in time, he would like to aim for his mentor’s standard.
“Of course, my goals are very high,” he said. “Maybe one day, one time, I will break it.”
And maybe Sunday he will repeat as the king of New York.