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Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya did it the hardest way possible, but after starting the 2021 Chicago Marathon at a blistering pace, she held on for the win on Sunday, finishing in 2:22:31. Emma Bates and Sara Hall placed second and third, respectively—the first time since 1994 that two American women finished the race in the top three.
Chepngetich, 27, was racing among some of the elite men in the first half of the race, touching a potential 2:11 finish time at one point (the world record is 2:14:04, set by Brigid Kosgei at the 2019 Chicago Marathon). She began to slow right before hitting 13.1 miles in 1:07:34 and faded drastically over the final miles, her slowest 5K split was her final one, 18:15, compared to her first, which was 15:37. It was Chepngetich’s first race in the United States and she was greeted with some steamy midwest conditions—at the start it was 70 degrees with 70 percent humidity.
The victory was a bit of a redemption run for Chepngetich, who dropped out of the Olympic marathon in August.
“The race was good; it was nice,” she said afterward, “but it was tough. To push alone is not easy.”
Bates, 29, executed an opposite race strategy, starting off conservatively and closing the last 10K with her fastest miles. It resulted in a personal best on two levels: her time, 2:24:20, and her first podium finish at a World Marathon Major event. Since placing seventh at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, then fourth in December at the Marathon Project (2:25:40), Bates moved from her base in Idaho to Boulder, Colorado, to join Team Boss, the training group coached by Joe Bosshard.
“I didn’t want to push too much, too soon, and so I went through halfway still feeling really, really good,” Bates said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh crap, I don’t know how far ahead all these women are.’ I was getting a little nervous and I needed to pick it up. I just started slowly and surely just like picking it up, just bit by bit.”
As Bates stepped it up, she was able to catch the U.S.’s Keira D’Amato, who ultimately placed fourth in 2:28:22, and Hall, as well as Vivian Kipligat, who had spent most of the race in second place but finished fifth in 2:29:14.
“Having all those people lining the streets again just really gave me the energy to press on and really pick up my legs faster,” said Bates, who is now the ninth-fastest American woman at the 26.2-mile distance.
It was the first major marathon held in the U.S. since the pandemic shut most events down for the past 19 months. The 2021 Boston Marathon, delayed from its typical April date, will also go off on Monday.
Hall, 38, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, was able to compete at an impressive level through the pandemic, becoming the second-fastest American woman in history when she finished the Marathon Project in 2:20:32. She had originally planned to go for the American record on Sunday, but changed her objectives because of the weather. Deena Kastor keeps that title for now, running 2:19:36 at the 2006 London Marathon.
It was Hall’s second top-three finish at a World Marathon Major event—she placed second at the 2020 London Marathon, out-sprinting Chepngetich in the final meters of that elite-only race around Buckingham Palace. On Sunday, Hall said she thought she had started the race at a conservative pace (she went through the halfway point in 1:11:37) but the humidity caught up with her over the second half. Still, she said she’s “in the best shape of my life” and will continue pursue that record if the opportunity presents itself—it’s a matter of having the fitness on the right day with the right conditions.
“I’m really excited to have a chance to go for [the American record] sometime. I knew today wasn’t going to be the day to do that,” Hall said. “I would have had to be in sub-2:18 shape to try for that today, maybe even faster. It’s going to take preparation meeting opportunity…hopefully in the near future I’ll get a stab at that.”
With all six major marathon events being held within a short window this season, the elite fields were spread thin between them, giving the American women a chance to showcase their talent in Chicago, placing seven in the top 10.
Chepngetich wins $55,000 for first place, while Bates takes home $45,000 for second place, Hall banks $35,000 for third, and D’Amato wins $25,000 for placing fourth.