2008 London Marathon
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London Marathon - The Men's Race
by Sharon Ekstrom and John Elliott
London After 2007
Following a disappointing - by London Marathon standards - 2007 race, organizers prepared for a different story for the 2008 London Marathon. The story for the 2007 marathon was supposed to be a world-record attempt for Haile Gebrselassie and one of the deepest fields ever assembled. Instead, warm weather in 2007 caused nearly half of the men's field, including Gebrselassie, to drop out and ended with the second slowest winning time in a decade - although a 2:07:41 winning time would be great for any other marathon, for London it was an embarassment. When Gebrselassie set the world record later in 2007 - in Berlin, there was more pressure on London to build something for the 2008 race.
London is About Speed
London is about speed, and for the 2008 marathon, the pacemakers were instructed to go out at a 2:05 pace - something that could set the runners up for a world record and/or course record attempt. The field consisted of at least three runners who could approach the world record if the conditions allowed: Martin Lel, the 2005/2006 champion who had been defeated only once in a marathon since 2002; and two men who had debuted at the marathon in 2007, but had the potential to improve on those times in their second year of marathoning: Sammy Wanjiru, the Half-Marathon world record holder who had run a 2:06:39 in 2007, and Emmanuel Mutai whose 2:06:29 marathon was the second fastest of 2007 behind only Gebrselassie's world record. Rounding out the field were two others who had started marathoning in 2007: Abderrahim Goumri whose two marathons were both runner-up finishes to Martin Lel and Ryan Hall whose debut at London and convincing solo win of the USA Marathon Trials showed that he had strength to step up for a near-World record performance.
Temperatures at the start of the marathon were 51 fahrenheit and the stormy weather of the previous days looked to hold off - the weather seemed to be willing to cooperate with the runners and race organizers.
The Incredible Start
With pacemakers - Cuthbert Nyasango and Dieudonne Disi - leading the race in their uniform of black and white striped singlets, the runners went off at the allotted 2:05 marathon pace, actually faster! American Ryan Hall had told MarathonGuide.com that he was looking forward to this type of rac and that he wanted to go out fast and break the other runners in order to avoid a final 10k sprint. Hall recalled Khalid Khannouchi's world record strategy at the 2002 London Marathon - a fast start. At that pace, the lead pack was smaller than might be seen in the first miles of many major marathons - just the two pacers and ten others. In the front group were the pacers, Luke Kibet - the world marathon champion; Martin Lel; Hendrick Ramaala; Sammy Wanjiru; Abderrahim Goumri; Deriba Merga; Yonas Kifle, Felix Limo (the 2006 London champion) and Ryan Hall wearing sunglasses and his lucky running uniform from the US olympics trials.
After 5K, the leaders were clearly on world record pace - hitting the mark in 14:21 and continuing to the 10K mark in 29:10. In an interesting situation, the pacemakers seemed to understand that the pace might be too quick and at the water station just past 5K almost stopped to look around and make sure the others were with them - but Martin Lel blasted past them almost saying: "let's go, this will be a fast race." Luke Kibet was the first to drop from the pack around 8K, realizing that he was not up for a world record pace...
With a world or course record looking like a possibility - one might think that race organizers would be excited, but unknown to almost all spectators and the athletes themselves, news was coming to organizers that there was a gas leak on the course and that it was likely the route would need to be diverted. Initially indications suggested that an alternate course might add up to 200 yards to the distance - something that would certainly derail any world or course record attempt. What a waste of this sort of field and day if the problem could not be corrected. A better course alternative that would add only a few yards to the distance was found, but in the end the problem was fixed and no change in course was required. But we'll use this as a chance to remind our readers of the things that might happen in a race and that organizing a marathon is not as easy as it might seem...
After 10K, all still looked strong with Eritrean Yonas Kifle leading the pack with the pacemakers. The pack crossed the Half-Marathon mark in 1:02:13 - 17 seconds ahead of schedule and well on pace for a world record. Nine runners still remained in the pack, although by this point Hendrick Ramaala appears visibly tired and seems barely able to hold on.
About 1:10 into the race, relative newcomer Mutai puts in a surge and all move with him except Limo who struggles to keep up and falls back off the main pack. At 25K Hall moves to the front, but gets absorbed back in pack. Shortly thereafter, Ramaala falls off the back of the pack.
At mile 16, Disi - the last remaining pacemaker - drops off and the runners are left to themselves. By 30K in 1:28:29, Lel leads the pack. Wanjiru, Mutai, Merga and Goumri still look strong. Ryan Hall who was having trouble staying with the group has fallen behind and is seven seconds behind the others. Yonas Kifle has also dropped back and is just behind Hall. At the same time - the skies open up with rain....
Records enroute to the Finish...
30K, 1:28:29.... How fast is that? We get word that time is a new African record for the 30K mark, meaning it is certainly ahead of any previous marathon pace and ahead of any standalone 30K race... We don't yet have the statistics, but we imagine that Hall's time (1:28:38) must be a USA 30K record as well.
With the wind and rain picking up, the pace slackens a little bit and Hall gains a second wind and - incredibly - rejoins the lead pack by 35K.
At 35K (1:43:54) the lead pack still consists of six runners: Sammy Wanjiru leads at this point with Deriba Merga (who was second to Wanjiru at Fukuoka in Dec. 2007) just behind and Lel, Merga, Hall, Goumri and Mutai still there. Lel looks the strongest.... The pace now is slipping off of world record pace, but remains on course record pace.
The End of the Race
Over the final 7K, the sun comes back and out as the marathon becomes a race between three men: Martin Lel - the two-time champion and veteran marathoner; Sammy Wanjiru - the Half-Marathon world champion, but a man who had even lost in the Half-Marathon (Great North Run) to Martin Lel; and Abderrahim Goumri - a man who had lost twice in two marathons to Lel. Given the histories, we know that all were looking at Lel as the man to be feared. Wanjiru - especially - could be seen taking a strategic position, running just a step behind and to the side of Lel: watching and ready to respond to a move by Lel and/or ready to make the first move to sprint to the finish. Lel and Goumri are turning around occasionally to watch for Wanjiru - and while this is a course record run, it has also turned into a strategic race.
The finish strikes us as strange... Lel and Wanjiru move away from Goumri in the final 500 yards. Lel picks up and has the edge on Wanjiru - but then, to our viewing, Wanjiru just seems to give up. We watch Wanjiru repeatedly looking at his watch - more concerned with his time than with trying to keep up with Lel...
Martin Lel wins his third London Marathon in course record time of 2:05:15. Sammy Wanjiru is second in 2:05:24 and Abderrahim Goumri is third in 2:05:30. That is three men ahead of the previous course record. Emmanuel Mutai finishes fourth in 2:06:15, Ryan Hall finishes fifth in 2:06:17 and Deriba Merga is sixth in 2:06:38. For the first time in the history of marathoning, six runners finish the same race in under 2:07.
Post-Race Runner Comments
Following the race, the runners would tell us that they thought that the rain may have held them back from a world record, but the fact that many came relatively close gave them all the belief that a new world record is very possible. Lel also told us that he was impressed by Hall who spoke to Lel during the race to say that the pace was too slow and that they should push it...
The Top 10:
1 Martin Lel (KEN) - 2:05:15
2 Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) - 2:05:24
3 Abderrahim Goumri (MAR) - 2:05:30
4 Emmanuel Mutai (KEN) - 2:06:15
5 Ryan Hall (USA) - 2:06:17
6 Deriba Merga (ETH) - 2:06:38
7 Yonas Kifle (ERI) - 2:08:51
8 Felix Limo (KEN) - 2:10:35
9 Aleksey Sokolov (RUS) - 2:11:41
10 Hendrick Ramaal (RSA) - 2:11:44