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American Women to Watch in the Chicago Marathon

A cast of promising and interesting characters who are sure to make this year's race a good one

From left: Blake Russell, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Deena Kastor, and Magdalena Lewy-Boulet at the finish of the 2008 women's Olympic marathon trials—Benoit Samuelson's last. (AP)
Photo: AP olytrials2008

A cast of promising and interesting characters who are sure to make this year's race a good one

This Sunday, October 11, will mark the 39th running of the Chicago Marathon. The course of this World Marathon Major is a favorite among those looking to run their fastest 26.2 miles for its distinct lack of elevation gain.  Over 45,000 runners are expected to participate, but it’s the elite American women, representing three generations of top caliber U.S. distance running, who will be the ones to watch. They won’t be competing for the win. They won’t even necessarily be competing against each other. But for Sara Hall, Blake Russell, Deena Kastor, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, Chicago is the perfect stage to display their collective prowess.  

Sara Hall: The Newbie

While her husband Ryan, once the great hope of American running, has been having a tough season, Sara Hall is just getting started. Chicago will be her second attempt at the marathon distance, after she ran an unspectacular debut of 2:48 is Los Angeles last March. However, in L.A. Hall battled cramps and stifling heat, so Chicago should be a better venue for the 32-year-old former Stanford cross-country star to test her mettle. Her half-marathon PR of 1:10:49 means that she has already qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials next February. Sunday’s race will help Hall make a more informed decision about whether the marathon should be her focus for 2016. 

Blake Russell: The National Champ

This year’s L.A. Marathon may have been a disappointment for the Hall family, but for Blake Russell the race was a career highlight. She finished third overall and first among Americans, which made her the national champion a few months shy of her 40th birthday. Considering she was able to clock 2:34:57 in sweltering conditions in Los Angeles, there’s an outside chance Russell will approach her 2:29:10 PR on Sunday. When she ran that time exactly ten years ago, it was on the streets of Chicago, so she knows this is a good place to go fast. 

Deena Kastor: The Master

How remarkable is Deena Kastor? Thrice an Olympian, and once an Olympic medalist, she is the American record holder in both the full and half marathon. Perhaps even more impressive, the 42-year-old, who trains out of Mammoth Lakes, California, has continued to push herself even though her fastest days are behind her. Last year, she set a world masters record in the half-marathon, running 1:09:36 at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half in Philadelphia. On Sunday, she intends to break the U.S. marathon masters record by going sub 2:28:40, almost five minutes faster than she ran last fall in New York. That won’t be easy, but Kastor has a good history in the Windy City—this is where she achieved her first overall marathon victory in 2005.

Joan Benoit Samuelson: The Legend

If Deena Kastor is an auspicious example for those who wonder if it’s possible to be a world-class marathoner in your 40s, Joan Benoit Samuelson should be the patron saint of athletes in their 50s. The 58-year-old is easily the most successful marathoner in U.S. history, with an Olympic gold medal and victories at Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles on her resume. Rather than retreat permanently into some lighthouse sanctuary of her native Maine, Benoit has continued to make headlines in the distance running world, founding the prestigious Beach to Beacon 10K, and outperforming youngsters in high profile races like the NYC Marathon. (Benoit ran her last U.S. Olympic Trials race in 2008. At age 50!) On Sunday, she is looking to run within 30 minutes of her lifetime best, which means she’ll be shooting for 2:51:21. That, needless to say, would be an age group world record

Filed To: Road Running / Events / Women’s