Who is the greatest female marathon runner of all time?

With the news this week of the retirement of marathon supremo Mary Keitany we ask ourselves the perennial question, who is the greatest female marathon runner of all time? Here’s our top five. In deciding the list we’ve taken into account times run (for their era), major marathons won, global titles and the length of their dominance.

5. Brigid Kosgei

Brigid Kosgei’s 2.14.04 run in Chicago 2018 makes her place on this list hard to refute but she will need to do more to nudge herself to the top.

Kosgei made her marathon debut back in 2015, running 2.47.59 to take the win in Porto. She has since racked up wins in Milan, Honolulu, Chicago and London (both twice). Her second place to Peres Jepchirchir in the Tokyo Olympics means she will have strong competition for the best in her era, though the two may well end up top of the all-time pile.

2015

  • Porto Marathon – 1st – 2.47.59

2016

  • Milan Marathon – 1st – 2.27.45
  • Lisbon Marathon – 2nd – 2.24.45

2017

  • Boston Marathon – 8th – 2.31.48
  • Chicago Marathon – 2nd – 2.20.22
  • Honolulu Marathon – 1st – 2.22.15

2018

  • London Marathon – 2nd – 2.20.13
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.18.35

2019

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.18.20
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.14.04 (World Record)

2020

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.18.58

2021

  • Tokyo Olympics – 2nd – 2.27.36

4. Rosa Mota

Rosa Mota may not have ever broken the world record in her time competing but she did put together a series of performances that few in history have rivalled. A winner in Rotterdam, Chicago (2), Boston (3) Osaka and London, the Portuguese star also won two European titles, Olympic gold and bronze and a World Championship triumph in 1987. It is enough to make her fourth on our list.

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Such a body of work alone edges her ahead of Joan Benoit and on to my all-time list. Given Mota’s fastest time came in a third place finish to Benoit and Kristiansen I know that is not without controversy.

Rosa Mota’s Career Marathons

1983

  • Rotterdam Marathon – 1st – 2.32.27
  • Helsinki World Champs – 4th – 2.31.50
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.31.12

1984

  • Los Angeles Olympic Marathon – 3rd – 2.26.57
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.26.01

1985

  • Chicago Marathon – 3rd – 2.23.29

1986

  • European Champs – 1st – 2.28.38
  • Tokyo Marathon – 1st – 2.27.15

1987

  • Boston Marathon – 1st – 2.25.21
  • Rome World Champs – 1st – 2.25.17

1988

  • Boston Marathon – 1st – 2.24.30
  • Seoul Olympics – 1st – 2.25.40

1989

  • Los Angeles Marathon – 2nd – 2.35.27

1990

  • Osaka Marathon – 1st – 2.27.47
  • Boston Marathon – 1st – 2.25.24
  • European Champs – 1st – 2.31.27

1991

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.26.14
  • Tokyo World Champs – DNF

3. Mary Keitany

Mary Keitany’s marathon debut came back in London in 2007 when the twenty-five year old Kenyan failed to finish. A half marathon star, Keitany won the World Half Marathon Champs in 2009 before giving the marathon a second shot. Third in the New York City Marathon of 2010 (2.29.01) a solid performance but short of the standard she was to set.

Keitany’s emergence as the heir apparent to Radcliffe only made itself clear in 2011 when the largely unfancied Kenyan ran one of the fastest times in history. In running 2.19.19 to claim the London title she became the fourth fastest female of all time.

By the end of her career she had three London wins and four New York City titles. Though she never won a global title Keitany’s position on this list is cemented by virtue of her 2.17.01 in London in 2017, at the time a women’s only world record.

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Mary Keitany’s Career Marathons

2011

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.19.19
  • New York City Marathon – 3rd – 2.23.38

2012

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.18.37
  • Olympic Games – 4th – 2.23.56

2014

  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.25.07

2015

  • London Marathon – 2nd – 2.23.40
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.24.25

2016

  • London Marathon – 9th – 2.28.30
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.24.26

2017

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.17.01 (Women’s Only World Record)
  • New York City Marathon – 2nd – 2.27.54

2018

  • London Marathon – 5th – 2.24.27
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.22.48

2019

  • London Marathon – 5th – 2.20.58
  • New York City Marathon – 2nd – 2.23.32

2. Ingrid Kristiansen

Look at the first half of Ingrid Kristiansen’s career and you probably wouldn’t have her in an all time top ten, let alone second. From 1984, however she slowly turned the screw. Nine wins in her next twelve marathons the Swede set the world record in London in 1984, a record that would stand for almost thirteen years.

Unbeaten from 1986 to 1989 wins at Boston, Chicago, London and New York cemented her place as one of the greatest of all time.

Ingrid Kristiansen’s Career Marathons

1980

  • Stockholm Marathon – 1st – 2.38.45
  • New York City Marathon – 3rd – 2.34.25

1981

  • Stockholm Marathon – 1st – 2.41.34
  • New York City Marathon – 2nd – 2.30.09

1982

  • Osaka Marathon – 6th – 2.36.33
  • Stockholm Marathon – 1st – 2.34.26
  • European Champs – 3rd – 2.36.38
  • New York City Marathon – 5th – 2.33.36

1983

  • Houston Marathon – 1st – 2.33.27

1984

  • Houston Marathon – 1st – 2.27.51
  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.24.26
  • Los Angeles Olympics – 4th – 2.27.34
  • Chicago Marathon – 3rd – 2.30.21

1985

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.21.06 (World Record)
  • Chicago Marathon – 2nd – 2.23.05
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1986

  • Boston Marathon – 1st – 2.24.55
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.27.08

1987

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.22.48

1988

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.25.41

1989

  • Boston Marathon – 1st – 2.24.33
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.25.30

1991

  • Boston Marathon – 6th – 2.29.24

1. Paula Radcliffe

Paula Radcliffe’s dominance of the world of marathon running may have been briefer than some but at her best the Briton was untouchable. The World Champ from 2005, three times a winner of both London and New York she also boasted a Chicago win in 2002.

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Her 2.15.25 from London in 2003 remains to this day the second fastest marathon ever run, and is more staggering given most of the rest of the all-time list come in the era of super-shoes. With three of the top eight times in history, despite her Olympic failures Radcliffe has to go down as near enough the greatest female marathon runner in history.

Paula Radcliffe’s Career Marathons

2002

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.18.56
  • Chicago Marathon – 1st – 2.17.18 (World Record)

2003

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.15.25 (World Record – Mixed Race)

2004

  • Olympic Games – DNF
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.23.10

2005

  • London Marathon – 1st – 2.17.42
  • World Championships – 1st – 2.20.57

2007

  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.23.09

2008

  • Beijing Olympics – 23rd – 2.32.38
  • New York City Marathon – 1st – 2.23.56

Notable mentions

Joan Benoit and Catherine Ndereba can both count themselves highly unfortunate not to make the list.

Ndereba broke the world record in winning Chicago in 2001, and won Boston three times. Two World titles and a two Olympic silvers make a highly compelling case, only decided against due to the relative brevity of her dominance.

Benoit announced herself on the scene by breaking the course record at Boston in 1979 (2.35.15). Her win in the 1983 edition was the fastest marathon ever run by a woman. Olympic gold followed in 1984 (2.24.52) . The American also won Chicago in 1985 (2.21.21), beating both Kristiansen and Mota. She can county herself highly unlucky not to make the list.

Fancy someone else as the greatest female marathon runner of all-time? Let us know in the comments below.

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