When South Africa’s Ernst van Dyk tries to defend his TCS New York City Marathon title on Sunday, November 6, he’ll face an unprecedented challenge—an opponent who has won all five Abbott World Marathon Majors (AWMM) races in a row.
Marcel Hug, known as the “Swiss Silver Bullet” because of his can’t-miss chrome-plated helmet, is coming to New York City as the one to beat, having won the Boston, Virgin Money London, Rio Paralympic, BMW Berlin, and Bank of America Chicago marathons already this year. He sits atop the AWMM standings with 125 points, and with a win in NYC would clinch the title in the first series that includes wheelchair racers.
“When they announced our inclusion in the Abbott World Marathon Majors, we thought it was going to be very interesting because none of us had won more than one race in a season,” van Dyk said. “But somehow, Marcel has come and won every single race. So, it’s blown our theory out of the water.”
In a professional wheelchair athlete field that includes 27 Paralympians–17 of whom are Paralympic medalists–van Dyk and Hug are expected to bring the TCS New York City Marathon five-borough course its closest race.
Hug has taken all of his victories this year in the final sprint, including photo-finishes in both Boston and Chicago, winning each of those by a split second.
“It’s a marathon, but Marcel’s been winning with his sprint,” van Dyk said. “There hasn’t been a single victory where he’s run away with it. We’re all there in the end, he’s just got the single best kick. Something the rest of us really have to work on is that final sprint.”
Van Dyk holds victories from the 2005 and 2015 New York City marathons, having beaten American Josh George by one second last year in 1:30:54, the second-fastest time in event history. He’s also the two-time defending champion in the United Airlines NYC Half, has won the Boston Marathon a record 10 times, and has represented South Africa at every Paralympics since 1992.
At this summer’s Paralympics in Rio, he finished sixth in the marathon, but won gold in the 60-kilometer handcycling road race, prevailing in a close finish over former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi.
The Rio 2016 Games marked van Dyk’s final international cycling competition; he’s determined to finish his athletic career as a full-time marathoner.
“What the Abbott World Marathon Majors have brought wheelchair racing is very appealing,” he said. “I decided I would focus the last section of my career on the marathons and see how well I could do if I had that 100% focus.”
Hug is having a year that’s almost implausible. Confidence has challenged him in the past, but this year, his skyrocketed early on after winning the Boston and London marathons in a span of six days.
In addition to his five major marathon victories, he finally won his first Paralympic gold in Rio, taking the top spot on the podium in the 800 meters T54, before going on to do the same in the marathon T54. He won silver in both the 1500- and 5000-meter T54 events.
“I felt very relieved and very happy,” Hug said of his long-awaited Paralympic gold. “A childhood dream came true, and I finally achieved a long-term goal.”
“I think Tatyana McFadden is the most dominant athlete on the women’s side, but on the men’s side, there are several athletes who can be the favorite, and I am just one of them,” Hug said, humbly. “I expect a tough race in New York. I think Kurt is the favorite because he is a very good climber, and I expect him in good shape. If we can stay with him on the uphills, it might end with a close finish.”
Hug, the 2013 New York City Marathon champion, struggled with the hills in New York last November, finishing third behind Van Dyk and George in 1:34:05.
The men’s wheelchair race on Sunday, certain to be a battle of attrition, is likely to come down to the final sprint once again.
Stamina and vigor will be the ultimate decider.
“Everybody’s tired now,” van Dyk said. “We’re all tired. It’s been a really long season. It’s going to be about who can keep it together on the day in New York.”
By Stuart Lieberman
GET YOUR STORIES ON. Read more inspiring stories from runners chronicling their journeys to the TCS New York City Marathon starting line.
TUNE IN. The 2016 TCS New York City Marathon will be televised live on Sunday, November 6, on WABC-TV, Channel 7 in the New York tri-state area from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. ET, and for the rest of the nation on ESPN2 from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. ET.