The women: Shobukhova and a hungry pack
Shobukhova, 34, went into the 2012 London Olympics as a favorite in the Marathon, but would drop out around the half, making her the first big upset of the race.
Citing stomach cramps and a hamstring injury for the disappointing result, she returns to Chicago not fully confident in her buildup to the race, but with the weight of history behind her, having won the last three years consecutively. Her 2011 performance of 2:18:20 in hot conditions made her the second-fastest woman ever in the event to England’s Paula Radcliffe.
Before her 2012 Olympics experience, the Russian has been remarkably injury-free. The injury, which necessitated three weeks of easy running after London, has therefore been a learning experience. While she says that training for Chicago has not been as ideal as in past years, she remains confident of her chances for a four-peat in the race.
"An athlete is never a hundred percent healthy," she says with a laugh. "It’s a difficult time, but you just continue. You keep trying."
If Shobukhova proves vulnerable, there are a pack of women waiting in the wings to take her crown. Chief among them is Lucy Kabuu of Kenya.
Kabuu, who has a 2:19:34 best from her debut at the 2012 Dubai Marathon, was fifth in London this year as well.
"I’m going to run my pace," the 28-year-old says. "I’m always aggressive, whether I’m in good shape or not."
And is she in good shape?
Yes, she says, without question.
Kabuu and Shobukhova are joined by eight other women with bests under 2:27:00. Ethiopia sends a strong contingent, with five of those eight, and led by Atsede Baysa, the 2010 Paris Marathon winner with a 2:22:04 best. Kenya, led by Kabuu, has three. The stage is set up for a battle between the East African powerhouses.
Merima Mohammad, one of the Ethiopians, has the fourth-fastest Marathon best in the field with her 2:23:04 at the 2010 Toronto Marathon. With cool temperatures forecasted, she says Chicago and her home in Addis Ababa have a similar feel weather-wise and feels confident approaching Sunday’s race.
"My preparations have gone very well. I’m not concerned about anyone else, just myself," she says.
The U.S. is led by Dot McMahan of the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, who has a 2:31:48 best from 2011. She, with 2012 USA 20K champion and debutante Renee Metivier Baillie, will look to cut into the top 10.
The men: Korir v Kebede
While there are men in the field faster, all eyes look toward Wesley Korir, the Kenyan expatriate with a 2:06:15 best who was the runner-up in Chicago in 2011.
Since then, Korir, who lives and trains in the U.S. in Louisville, Kentucky, has since distinguished himself from his countrymen by racing well -and smart- in less-than-ideal conditions.
Allowing the early leaders to burn out in an unseasonably warm day, Korir came from behind for his first World Marathon Majors win in the 2012 Boston Marathon in 2:12:40.
"I’m a student of the sport. I’ve learned how to run in the hot weather, so now it’s my turn to learn how to cope with the cold weather," he says. "I think this will be an opportunity."
The athlete most likely to battle with Korir on Sunday is Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, who has a 2:05:18 best set in Fukuoka, Japan, in 2009.
Kebede’s times are deceiving. While there are men with better credentials on paper, few in the world can match his consistency in competition. He has placed in the top three 10 of his last 11 marathons, most recently finishing third in the London Marathon earlier this year.
But in Chicago, Kebede, the runner-up in 2010, is most remembered for the epic battle he waged with the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya. Their chess match was further heightened by the heat of the day and the fact that the winner would take home the World Marathon Majors crown. Kebede was the runner-up in that race, too.
With conditions predicted perfect, Kebede is happy to be able to focus solely on the matchup with Korir.
" was a little bit hot. I ran 2:06:43. This year I come again, and it is better. I am ready to run well," he says.
The pair lead a deep field of nine athletes with bests under 2:10:00. Adding to the intrigue are debutantes Sammy Kitwara of Kenya and Tilahun Regassa of Ethiopia, both of whom have half marathon bests under 60:00 (58:48 and 59:19, respectively).
Leading the Americans is Dathan Ritzenhein, who has a 2:09:55 best set in the U.S. Olympic team trials in January, and was the bronze medallist in the 2009 World Half Marathon Championships. Returning to the track for the summer, he was 13th in the London Olympics 10,000m.
Approaching Sunday’s race, he says, "I’m confident that my training has gone well. I don’t feel like I’m lacking anything."
Jon Gugala for the IAAF