Craig Leon proudly donned his Cubs T-shirt as he walked up to the podium at the New York City Marathon pavilion Thursday, still glowing from the end of one of the cruelest droughts in sports.
And while it’s pretty unlikely that another sports drought will end this coming Sunday, you can hardly blame him for being excited. After all, it’s been seven years since an American man won the New York City Marathon, and while the competition is stiff, Leon and a bevy of other professional runners make up a strong local contingent — one that promises to at least be in the mix.
“I trained for this race two weeks in Asia” during a work trip, he said Thursday during media availability for a handful of professional American runners (international runners will speak Friday). “Beijing and Shanghai aren’t the most runner-friendly cities but at the same time, it gives me a lot of confidence that if I can put in the mileage and workouts that I need to do in places that are unfamiliar, I’ll be fine on race day . . . And after running for two weeks in China, when you’re surrounded by millions of people, it’s nice to run on a bike path.”
Granted, he’s still going to be surrounded by a million or so people. But this time, they’ll be spectators scattered all over the five boroughs. More than 50,000 runners are expected to participate in the 46th New York City Marathon on Sunday, possibly eclipsing last year’s record of 50,740 finishers, but Leon and pros like Dathan Ritzenhein and Abdi Abdirahman will be in rarefied company.
Those last two are perhaps the United States’ best chance at unseating defending champion Stanley Biwott of Kenya. Biwott is coming off a personal best 2:03.51 at the London Marathon this year and has an Olympic-sized chip on his shoulder: He had to drop out of the Rio marathon at about the halfway point.
“I really think I’d like to be on the podium and have a good chance to win it,” said Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian who thinks he may be able to eclipse his personal best of 2:07.47, which he ran in the 2012 Chicago Marathon. “I meant to put myself in that position. There’s some very good upfront runners in this race, but it’s also not quite as deep as some years either . . . I think getting on the podium might be easier than some other years, but winning is no easier than any other year.”