On Sunday, when runners from more than 100 countries set off on the grueling 26.2-mile course through five boroughs that is the New York City Marathon, special attention will be paid to one athlete making her marathon debut: 2016 Olympic triathlon gold medalist Gwen Jorgensen.
Team USA’s first Olympic triathlon champion has yearned to run a marathon for years. Her interest was really piqued two years ago when she visited New York on marathon weekend and ran the “Dash to the Finish 5K” the morning before the marathon, defeating other prominent Olympians for the win.
“I couldn’t do a marathon leading up to the (Rio de Janeiro) Olympic Games, so it seemed like after the Olympics was the perfect time,” Jorgensen said.
The 30-year-old Wisconsin native, who makes her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, didn’t clear too much space in her schedule. She’s fresh off winning the Island House Triathlon, a grueling event this past weekend in the Bahamas. To add to her unconventional approach, she’s been training for the marathon as a triathlete, not as a seasoned long-distance runner.
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“I sat down with my coach, Jamie Turner, and we decided there’s no way in four or five weeks (after Rio) that we could just change everything we do and strictly become a marathon runner,” Jorgensen said. “So we’ve decided to continue swimming and biking.”
Leading up to Rio, Jorgensen said her longest run ever was about 12 miles, with two workouts per week. To prepare for a big hill on Rio’s bike course, she did “a lot of 2k efforts,” often on fatigued legs. Since Rio, she and Turner have slowly increased her runs up to 16 miles.
“I would say I’ve done four marathon workouts at 10 miles, and I’ve done three workouts where each one was three by 7k, and that’s been a new experience,” Jorgensen said.
Jorgensen was encouraged by her performance in the USA Track & Field 10-Mile Championships in Minneapolis and St. Paul early last month, where she said she was “incredibly surprised” to finish third in a strong field, clocking in at 53:13.
“I pulled up pretty sore after that race,” she said. “I think it showed me that the marathon is really going to be difficult on my muscles, but it also gave me a little bit of confidence, I’d say.”
Still, she goes into Sunday with no expectations or goals.
“For me, something that’s really exciting about the marathon is it’s not like any other race I’ve done for the past four years,” she said. “I feel like every race I go into, I have expectations and I know from training what I can accomplish. For the marathon, I just have no idea.”
More High-Profile U.S. Debutants In Women’s Field
Molly Huddle, who set a U.S. record in the 10,000-meter in Rio, and Kim Conley, a two-time Olympian (2012, 2016) in the 5,000-meter, also make their marathon debuts on Sunday.
Like Jorgensen, Conley has wanted to enter a marathon for years.
“It’s actually because I started to have more success on the track that I pushed off the debut until now,” she said. “Long runs, I’ve been doing that for the last six years as part of the training I am already doing. I’ve always been focused on my track goals, but with a long-term goal of making my marathon debut.”
The three Olympians, and top U.S. marathoners Neely Gracey, Sara Hall and Kellyn Taylor, are up against Kenya’s two-time defending champion Mary Keitany and her teammate Joyce Chepkirui, winner of the 2015 Amsterdam Marathon. Ethiopia’s Aselefech Mergia, second to Keitany last year, is also one to watch.
On Wheels: George Aims For Redemption, McFadden Aims For Continuation
Four-time Paralympian Josh George had heartbreak in New York last year, when he finished second to South Africa’s Ernst van Dyk by just one second in the men’s wheelchair race.
“On the one hand, it was the best I had ever done,” said George, the 2015 world champion in the marathon. “I’ve had some bad luck on this course, equipment issues, health issues. But at the same time, it was a head-to-head race with Ernst at the end, and you don’t get too many opportunities at winning a major, especially on this course.”
George plans to use his experience last year to make corrections on Sunday.
“This year, I didn’t make any major training changes, because of Rio, where I raced a lot of shorter stuff on the track,” said George, who competed in five events at the Rio Paralympic Games, from the 400 to the marathon. “Tactic-wise, I feel like last year I wasted energy at certain parts of the course. I used a little bit of energy coming up Fifth Avenue into (Central Park), thinking I would take advantage of my hill training. But I wore myself out a little bit. There are certain places in the race where I feel I can conserve a bit better.”
Van Dyk, as well as five-time New York winner Kurt Fearnley of Australia and six-time London Marathon champion David Weir of Great Britain, are also considered favorites.
Three-time defending champion Tatyana McFadden, who set an event record (1:43:04) in New York last year, is favored to take her fourth consecutive women’s wheelchair title. She will be challenged by last year’s runner-up, Manuela Schar of Switzerland, as well as U.S. teammate Amanda McGrory, who won New York in 2006 and 2011.
Feeling Confident, Cubs Fan Craig Leon Is Ready To Race
When Craig Leon met the press on Thursday afternoon, he was still coming off the high of watching his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series with an epic, 10-inning Game 7 triumph over the Cleveland Indians. It is the Cubs’ first World Series title since 1908.
Leon, who hails from Van Wert, a small town in Northwest Ohio, spent much of his youth watching Cub games at Wrigley Field with his dad, Larry Leon.
“I went to bed probably about 2:30, after watching the post-game and soaking it up a little bit,” Leon said. “I watched the game at a bar kind of close to my hotel, but left the bar during the rain delay. I’d kind of given up a little bit; I thought, ‘I know how this story ends.’ So I watched the rest at the hotel in my room, just talking with my dad on the phone… It made it that much sweeter when they turned it around.”
The former Ohio University track standout placed fifth at the 2015 Pan American Games marathon and ran eighth in New York last year. He has been doing 20-plus mile workouts every week since August to prepare, even training for two weeks in Asia this summer, when his job as an MBA program manager for the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center took him to China and Singapore.
“It gives me a lot of confidence, that if I can put in the mileage and workouts I need in places I’m not familiar with — even Beijing and Shanghai — I will be fine come race day,” Leon said. “I take a lot of comfort if I have certain key workouts and certain key metrics that go the right way, I will be ready to go.”
Four-time Olympian Abdi Abdirahman (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012), Matt Llano, Tyler Pennel, Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Vail are other top U.S. entrants. They will all chase defending champion Stanley Biwott of Kenya, who placed second at the London Marathon in April.
Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.