For Wilson Kipsang, Sunday's TCS New York City Marathon marks a critical point in his career. After two marathon defeats already this year - the first when he finished a close runner-up to Eliud Kipchoge at the London Marathon, the second at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, where he dropped out shortly after 20 miles - never has it been more important for the former world record holder to remind the world just how overwhelming a force he can be at his best.
Kipsang was in relaxed mood in New York on Thursday, oozing the confidence of a man who believes he will successfully defend the title he won in a sprint finish last year ahead of Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa.
“I feel well prepared," he said. “When I compare my condition to last year, I think I can run faster.”
Though Kipsang, 33, returns to the race a year older and with a field of the very highest caliber in opposition, he’s also a year wiser, with the experience gained during last year’s race a crucial weapon in his armory.
“Last year I had not really known how the course would be,” he said. "This year I know how the course was and I have prepared very well, training for the course, doing much endurance and lots of speed. I think when you run a race, it’s in your memory and it's very easy to run it a second time because every session you can remember this is how it is.”
In last year’s race, Kipsang and Desisa ran shoulder to shoulder into the final mile in Central Park, with the Ethiopian bumping Kipsang slightly with 400m to run, which led to Kipsang taking a long look at Desisa before unleashing his finishing burst, which sent him clear to take victory in 2:10:59.
“I think that was a part of his tactics to try to show me he was very strong,” said Kipsang. “By running close to me, he wanted to make sure he would run at my pace and not drop off, but for sure, I could see he was straining very much, so I started to sprint. I think it's part of competition. Everyone has their own strategy.”
To prepare for New York, Kipsang has been repeating his usual training regimen, but with an extra emphasis on speed; one of his staple workouts has been 10 repeats of 1,000m in 2:45-2:48, and there have been many fartleks done over rolling hills in order to prepare for what's coming on Sunday.
The one big difference in his preparation this year is how abbreviated the build-up has been, given Kipsang competed at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing just 10 weeks ago, but he doesn't see it being an issue.
“Having not completed the race, I just counted [the World Championships] as a long run,” he said. “I think if it had been normal temperatures I would have run better. My body was really starting to strain at 30 kilometers, and I tried to handle it for the next 5K, but then I said it's not going to work. I just went and recovered a little bit then proceeded to train, so it's like I've been training all the way through for this race.”
Though Kipsang was keen to stress that Sunday’s race wouldn’t determine, either way, whether he makes the Kenyan team for the Olympics, he noted the importance of it in the build-up to April’s selection deadline. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m in a position to handle that kind of pressure,” he said. “The selection rules are not very clear. Maybe in February they should be selecting, so that when you're running in April, you know I’m on the team and try to prepare. If you're confirmed late, it’s not very good because [it's difficult] to prepare mentally.”
If Kipsang does get selected for the Kenyan Olympic team, he hopes to go to Rio de Janeiro and improve on the bronze medal he won in the marathon at the last Games in London. "I'm really looking forward to go for gold," he says. “I would love to go and compete.”
On Sunday, Kipsang has the chance to get one foot on the plane to Rio, along with taking another step towards becoming an all-time great of the marathon.
Few would bet against him.
by Cathal Dennehy, for RunBlogRun