Ruth Chepngetich winning the 2019 World Athletics Championships Women's Marathon in Doha, Qatar (photo by Getty Images for World Athletics)
DOHA, QATAR - SEPTEMBER 27: Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya celebrates winning the Women's Marathon during day one of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 on September 27, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2022 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, with permission to use

EUGENE (15-Jul) — Unlike the Olympic Games, the World Athletics Championships has had a place for the women’s marathon since inception.  At the very first World Athletics Championships in Helsinki in 1983, both the men’s and women’s marathons were contested and a total of 59 women took to the starting line and 51 finished. 

The late Grete Waitz of Norway, who would become a nine-time New York City Marathon winner, became the first woman to win a world marathon title, clocking 2:28:09 and beating American Marianne Dickerson by exactly three minutes.

Since then, a total of 1010 women have started World Athletics Championships marathons, and 803 have finished, a 79.5% finisher rate.  On average, 59 women started and 47 finished each of the 17 previous editions.  The largest women’s field was 91 starters and 78 finishers in London in 2017, when the women’s race was nearly as large as the men’s which had 98 starters and 71 finishers.

But here in Eugene next Monday when the 18th edition of the World Athletics Championships Women’s Marathon is contested, only about half the number of women will be running compared to London five years ago.  According to the official entry list published by World Athletics, there are just 48 athletes entered from 26 countries.  That’s the smallest number since 1995 in Gothenburg when just 43 women started, and less than half the 88 who started the Olympic Marathon for women last August in Sapporo.

“I think it’s really said,” said Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian who finished ninth in the 2009 World Championships Marathon in Berlin.  Goucher, who is here as the distance running analyst for NBC Sports continued: “I don’t know if it’s tighter standards due to (shoe) technology, or if it’s the combination of Commonwealths and Europeans, but the men are having a full field.  So, it just feels like the women got a little lost in this.”

Indeed, the unprecedented summer “triple” of the World Athletics Championships Marathon, Commonwealth Games Marathon (July 30, in Birmingham, England) and European Championships Marathon (August 15, in Münich) has given qualified athletes a broad choice of where to compete.  Some athletes, like Great Britain’s Charlotte Purdue who was left off the Tokyo Olympic team, qualified for all three of those championships by running 2:23:26 at the London Marathon last October.  Although her chances of winning a medal at either the Commonwealth Games or the European Championships were surely higher, she chose to run here in Eugene, instead, where she’ll be joined by teammates Jess Piasecki and Rose Harvey.  Hers was a deeply personal choice.

“Obviously the World Championships is a great honor to represent G.B.,” Purdue told Race Results Weekly last April just before she ran the Boston Marathon.  “So for me, the world champs didn’t go so well for me in Doha because in 2019 I dropped out because of the heat.  So I really wanted to go back to a world championships and show that I can still run well for Great Britain, and improve on my 13th place from 2017 (when the race was held in London).”

Great Britain is the only European country which will have three women competing here in the marathon.  Overall, just 10 European women decided to compete here, and countries with a long tradition of marathon running for women –like Germany, Italy, and Spain– have entered no athletes at all.  An Italian agent, who did not wish to be quoted by name, explained that the Italian federation, FIDAL, decided to emphasize the European Championships Marathon because of the team competition there and the fact that it would be more important for fans.  The agent said that if an Italian athlete wanted to prepare for the World Athletics Championships Marathon she would not receive the customary training stipend.

“They could run but they wouldn’t pay for the training,” the agent said.

For Goucher –who noted that the very top women’s entrants like reigning world champion Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, 2019 Berlin Marathon champion Ashete Bekere of Ethiopia, and 2021 Osaka Marathon champion Mao Ichiyama of Japan are truly top class– the small field sends the wrong message.

“When I saw the entries I was very surprised,” Goucher said.  “You know, it doesn’t mean that it’s not an incredibly great field, but why are we having less opportunity for women at a world championships?  Why aren’t we getting them qualified and getting them here?”

Hewing to tradition, the United States is fielding a full team of three women despite the fact that 2021 Olympic bronze medalist Molly Seidel had to withdraw from these championships on July 2, with a hip injury.  Seidel was replaced by national marathon record holder Keira D’Amato who will be competing on Monday off of her regular 10-K training with a few tweaks.  At 37 years old, D’Amato had never competed at an Olympic Games or World Athletics Championships and jumped at the chance.

“I’m beyond thankful for this opportunity to represent my country at Worlds,” D’Amato wrote on her Instagram page the same day Seidel withdrew.  She continued: “This is my first time representing my country at a world competition. I get teary eyed just saying that because for a while I thought that dream had pasted [sic]”

For both the men’s marathon on Sunday and the women’s on Monday, the athletes will run on a three-lap course with starts and finishes adjacent to Autzen Stadium, the home of the University of Oregon football team.  Both races will start at 6:15 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time (9:15 a.m. EDT/14:15 BST/15:15 CEST).  Temperatures will be very cool by summer championships standards, about 58F/14C at the start and 63F/17C at the finish.  Race winners will earn USD 70,000 in prize money.

PHOTO: Ruth Chepngetich winning the 2019 World Athletics Championships Women’s Marathon in Doha, Qatar (photo by Getty Images for World Athletics)

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