Viola Cheptoo was deep into the New York City Marathon on Sunday when she peered over her shoulder and made a plea to Peres Jepchirchir. The two Kenyans were leading the women’s race in a tight pack with Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia, and Cheptoo desperately wanted to stay at the front for as long as possible.
“Could you please help me until at least 35K?” Cheptoo recalled asking Jepchirchir, referring to a checkpoint less than five miles from the finish. “She was really nice enough to just go with me.”
A former miler, Cheptoo was making a bold statement in her marathon debut. Jepchirchir, on the other hand, had arrived as distance-running royalty. Just three months removed from winning a gold medal in the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics, she now had history within reach: She was hoping to become the first Olympic champion, male or female, to add a New York City Marathon title to her résumé.
So Jepchirchir kept encouraging Cheptoo — to stick tight, to fight hard — as they ran side by side into Central Park, where thick crowds cheered for them. In a display of athletic prowess that seemed almost inevitable, Jepchirchir pulled away for the win in 2 hours 22 minutes 39 seconds, finishing ahead of Cheptoo in second and Yeshaneh in third.
“My preparation was short,” Jepchirchir said, “but I tried my best.”
As the city welcomed the marathon back to the five boroughs for the first time since 2019, it was a day full of toughness. The toughness of Jepchirchir to win two marathons in a span of 92 days. The toughness of Cheptoo to wade into uncharted waters just weeks after the death of a friend and as her older brother, Bernard Lagat, the five-time Olympian, watched from the broadcast booth.
The toughness of Albert Korir, the men’s champion, to train through the pandemic at home in Kenya as he sought to build on his runner-up finish in 2019. The toughness of Eyob Faniel of Italy, who placed third in the men’s race after enduring 56 hours of travel — and various travel fiascos — from his training base in Kenya last week. (“That was crazy,” he said.)
The toughness of Molly Seidel, who finished fourth among the women in an American course record about a month after breaking two ribs. (“I hope there’s a beer waiting for me at the hotel,” she said.)
The toughness of some 30,000 other marathoners who took to the streets on a brisk, sun-splashed day. And the toughness, of course, of the city itself, which rejoiced in the race’s long-awaited return.
“The people were wonderful,” said Elkanah Kibet, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who, at 38, placed fourth in the men’s race as the top American — a surprising result, even to him. “I wasn’t expecting this, but I just went for it, and I was hanging as much as I could with the lead group.”
Korir’s winning time was 2:08:22. It was his first major championship. He was followed by Mohamed Reda El Aaraby, who was 44 seconds behind. Faniel was third, then Kibet.
If Kibet was little-known, Seidel toed the start line as a crowd favorite after winning the bronze medal in the women’s marathon at the Olympics. Though celebrated for being brash, candid and something of a social media bon vivant, she was also harboring a secret on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge: She had been training in recent weeks with broken ribs.
After the race, Seidel declined to disclose how the injury had occurred, but said she had considered dropping out of the marathon as recently as two weeks ago.
“It was extremely painful, and it was hindering my ability to do anything,” she said.
On the course, she appeared fit and pain-free as she kept up with the leaders until Jepchirchir, Cheptoo and Yeshaneh worked to separate themselves with about six miles to go. Still, Seidel came through the finish in 2:24:42, the fastest time ever for an American and a personal best in just her fourth marathon.
Seidel said she had been dreaming of competing in New York since she began collecting state high school championships in Wisconsin.
“It was so cool going from neighborhood to neighborhood,” she said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”
She also said she was grateful that her family was able to watch her run in person for the first time since she placed second at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in 2020.
Yet there was an air of solemnity to the race, too. Cheptoo and Jepchirchir were competing together less than a month after Agnes Jebet Tirop, a fellow Kenyan, was found stabbed to death in her home on Oct. 13. Her husband was later arrested in connection with her killing as he tried to flee to a neighboring country. Tirop, who was 25, was a rising star in the running world and fresh off a world-record performance at a 10-kilometer race in Germany. Cheptoo had traveled home from Germany with Tirop, who had kept any personal problems she was having to herself, Cheptoo said.
“It’s been really hard on me, because I kept thinking, ‘What could I have done?’” said Cheptoo, who has spent recent weeks raising awareness of domestic abuse issues through the creation of foundations in Tirop’s memory. “We want women who are going through these situations to be able to speak up, and we know a lot of athletes are suffering in silence.”
On Sunday, many of the elite athletes wore patches to commemorate Tirop. And as Cheptoo closed on the finish, she thought of Tirop often. With her loping stride and charming personality, Tirop could have been a star on the streets of New York.
“When it got really tough,” Cheptoo said, “I just kept thinking, you know, Agnes would’ve been running in New York in a year or two.”
So Cheptoo ran for Tirop on Sunday instead.