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2009 London Marathon Men's Race Contenders
by Sharon Ekstrom
Once again, the London Marathon has put together a field so deep with talent for the 2009 men's race, it could be called the Olympic Marathon or 2008 London Marathon redux, with top athletes returning to rematch from both events. They will be met with other top talent, who were unable to challenge them in 2008 yet approach race day in peak condition. Each of these athletes could be listed as favorites, so we have decided to showcase these talents on a country-by-country basis.
The Kenyans: Martin Lel | Samuel Wanjiru | Luke Kibet
The Moroccans: Jaouad Gharib | Abderrahim Goumri
The Americans: Khalid Khannouchi | Meb Keflezighi | Dathan Ritzenhein
The Eritreans: Yonas Kifle | Zersenay Tadese
The Ethiopians: Tsegaye Kebede
Kenya is known for turning out the greatest distance runners of all time and it's no surprise that three modern day champions grace the starting list for the 2009 London Marathon. Each runner has different training regimens, but all spend time in altitude in the same region of Kenya. It will come down to race day itself to test the measure of their talents.
Defending champion Martin Lel is no stranger to winning races. This three-time London Marathon victor from 2005, 2007 and 2008 has the course record with a personal best finish of 2:05:15 from the last edition of this race. From a boy who trained on tea plantations in Kenya to keep from trouble, he stands to be the first man to win four London Marathons and the second man to win three consecutive races (Dionicio Ceron of Mexico had three straight victories between 1994 and 1996).
And despite the fifth place finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics Marathon - the first time he did not finish a marathon in the top three - Lel's career is still at its peak. Bumped to seventh-fastest marathon finish in the world from fourth place following the remarkable performances at the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon, his talents will continue to emerge in these more aggressive, faster fields. In February 2009 at the Lisbon Half Marathon, he bested a competitive line-up, which included Jaouad Gharib, Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, Emmanuel Mutai and Half Marathon World Record Holder Sammy Wanjiru, to win in 59:56. If Lel did not leave the best of his training on the roads of Lisbon, the half is definitely an indicator of his fitness going into to the 2009 London race.
Samuel "Sammy" Wanjiru is one of the top marathoners in the world at only 22 years of age. This Japanese-coached Kenyan made the third_fastest debut marathon of all time at the 2007 Fukuoka Marathon, winning in a time of 2:06:39. With only three career marathons to his resume, this Half Marathon World Record Holder has run all three marathons in sub-2:07, winning two and placing second in the other.
Wanjiru sets his mind to a task and keeps promises. At his debut in the distance, he knew he was capable of a 2:06. At the 2008 London Marathon, he knew he would be right with the leaders and he kept with Martin Lel until the last few hundred yards of the race. He may have lost to Lel at the 2008 London Marathon, but he took home the first gold medal for Kenya at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon which has been a source of national pride for the country known for top distance running talent.
Wanjiru is focused on a good performance at the 2009 London Marathon, but next on his agenda will be his attempt at a new world record at the 2009 Berlin Marathon. Wanjiru plans to sit out of the 2009 World Championships scheduled in Berlin for August, one month before his "date" with Haile Gebrselassie and/or Gebrselassie's standing marathon world record of 2:03:59.
Luke Kibet may not be the fastest runner in the field, but he won gold at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka marking the first time a Kenyan had won the World Championship marathon in ten years. He was also the third member of a strong Kenyan Olympic Marathon team at the 2008 Beijing Games. Kibet closed out 2008 with a win of the Singapore Marathon in 2:13:01 and began 2009 with a win of the Glo-Lagos Half in 67:49. Although he lacks the speed and consistency other top performers have in this 2009 London Marathon field, Kibet has been able to perform well in tough conditions. And at 26 years of age, he still has time to grow into the distance.
Morocco has a history running of legends, none more famous than Hicham el Guerrouj and Abdelkader El Mouaziz; but look for top runners Jaouad Gharib and Abderrahim Goumri to be in the lead pack in London.
Silver medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Marathon and two-time World Champion gold medal winner in 2003 and 2005 are only a few accolades on Jaouad Gharib's resume. The Moroccan talent has run five career marathons under 2:08, not bad for an athlete who started his running career at 22 inspired by the Marrakesh Marathon on television. Gharib's personal best of 2:07:02 at the 2004 London Marathon tends to be slow in comparison to other top elites, but a number of top-four finishes at the race and his aggressive racing tactics give him veteran status in the field.
Although his strategies have backfired in the past, Gharib is inching closer to a victory. With three second-place finishes from the oppressively hot 2007 Chicago Marathon, the 2008 Beijing Games, and the 2009 Lisbon Half-Marathon, Gharib has what it takes to be a formidable challenger in an already deep field of fast runners. The race will come down to great strategy and the all-important finishing kick which has eluded both himself and fellow countryman Abderrahim Goumri.
Abderrahim Goumri had been a MarathonGuide.com dark horse favorite for two years, but his succession of strong marathon performances makes him a front-runner. This inveterate challenger went head-to-head against Martin Lel within the last mile of both the 2007 London Marathon and the 2007 New York City Marathon, but was outkicked each time - losing by three seconds in London with a 2:07:44 debut finish and twelve seconds in New York with a 2:09:16. At the 2008 London Marathon, Lel and Goumri were at it again, along with Sammy Wanjiru in the mix. Lel and Wanjiru outsprinted the Moroccan in the last 500 meters, yet all three smashed the London course record set by former Moroccan national, Khalid Khannouchi, in 2002. Goumri's London finish of 2.05:30 earned him a national record and places him on the list of top ten fastest marathoners of all-time.
Goumri, like fellow Moroccan Jaouad Gharib, has placed in the top three of the London Marathon several times, yet remains a stone's throw from a victory. At the 2008 New York City Marathon, he was once again runner-up, this time to Marilson dos Santos (MEX). If Goumri can tap into the speed he had as a track star just prior to 2007, he will have the final kick to run to victory.
The American presence in London is without Ryan Hall who burst into the top levels of international marathoning with a debut in London 2007 and returned the following year in a fifth place finish of 2:06:17. For 2009, Hall finished third at the Boston Marathon but this does not leave London without top American performers. Three top American marathoners will be represented: Khalid Khannouchi, Meb Keflezighi, and Dathan Ritzenhein.
NOTE: Khannouchi WILL NOT START the 2009 London Marathon. He notified race organizers that he must withdraw from the 2009 field. We leave this bio here because Khannouchi WAS an important part of the original field and is an important part of the London Marathon.
Khalid Khannouchi is no stranger to the top levels of distance running. This Moroccan-born athlete went from Brooklyn dishwasher to fastest in the world. With a name once synonymous with world records, course records, and American records, Khannouchi has a resume filled with many race victories; among them, three wins of the Chicago Marathon in 1997, 1999 and 2000.
He won the 2002 London Marathon, setting a course record of 2:05:38 and achieving one of the five world records set on the course, which still remains the fastest finish by an American. Following 2002, Khannouchi struggled with injuries, never fully achieving top performances as his fellow competitors moved ahead.
Yet Khannouchi impressed America with a comeback at the 2007 U.S. Olympic Men's Marathon Trials in New York City. The 35-year-old New Yorker took to the hilly criterium course and placed fourth, an alternate on the U.S. Olympic Team bound for Beijing, behind a new generation of runners almost a decade younger than him. Khannouchi returns to London for the first time since 2006 where he placed fourth in a 2:07:04.
2008 rewrote history for Khannouchi, with three men breaking his London course record all in the same race. With a new generation of men claiming faster times, one can speculate his motivation to return to London. Khannouchi once had three of the top fastest times in the world, tied with Haile Gebrselassie, and was the fourth-fastest man with the fourth-fastest time. But the times, they are changing - now, this former world record holder barely makes the top ten all-time best marathoner list and his times are no longer in the top ten fastest marathons. Khannouchi has laid low in 2008, so there is no way of determining his level of fitness going into London; but the comeback kid could surprise the field on race day.
Two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein at age 26, has quite a running career,despite only three marathons and three half-marathons on his resume. This cross-country star went to the 2004 Athens Olympic Games in the 10000m but a stress fracture to the third metatarsal in his left foot forced him to drop out during the event. A constant recurrence of the injury hampered training in years to follow; but Ritzenhein's talent on the roads continued to blossom.
In 2006, at his half-marathon debut at the Great North Run, Ritzenhein placed third with a 61:25 beating out veteran runners, Jauoad Gharib, Stefano Baldini and Rodgers Rop. In his marathon debut at the 2006 New York City Marathon, he finished eleventh in a 2:14:01; not bad, considering he lost to the likes of Paul Tergat, Rodgers Rop, Stefano Baldini, and Hendrick Ramaala. His second career marathon was the 2008 U.S. Men's Olympic Trials in New York City where he ran a 2:11:07 on a tough criterium course earning him second place and a spot on the 2008 U.S. Beijing Olympic Marathon team. His third career marathon was the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he placed ninth beating out fellow teammate Ryan Hall. Although Ritzenhein's fastest marathon remains the 2:11:07 from the Olympic Trials; if he goes into the 2009 London Marathon without injury or illness, his talents will continue to shine.
Meb Keflezighi became this generation's best-known American running icon after achieving the Olympic Silver Medal in the 2004 Olympics Marathon - joining the pantheon of running legends that include Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers. From high school standout to NCAA 5000m, 10000m, and cross-country champion to the American Record at the 10000m (27:13.98), Keflezighi became the golden child of the sport. As with many distance runners inclined toward the marathon distance at some point in their careers, he debuted at the 2002 New York City Marathon with a ninth-place, 2:12:35 finish. Gaining momentum in both distances, he competed in both the 10,000 meter and the marathon at the 2004 Olympic Trials, finishing first at the Olympic Trials 10,000m (27:36.49) and runner-up at the Marathon Olympic Trials (2:11:47), thus qualifying for the US Olympic team at both events.
Keflezighi chose to focus on the marathon event for the 2004 Athens Olympics and his strength and strategy paid off, earning him a silver medal in 2:11:29 (the first American Marathon medal since 1976). He returned to the US as a hero and a role model. And in the following months, he achieved a second place finish at the 2004 New York City Marathon in a personal best of 2:09:53 and two third-place spots at both the 2005 New York City Marathon and 2006 Boston Marathon in nearly identical times of 2:09:56.
Keflezighi experienced some setbacks toward the end of 2006, including stomach problems at the New York City Marathon as well as injuries leading to a DNF at the 2007 London Marathon and going into the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The unlucky streak continued, as he failed to qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team in the marathon and on the track, as qualifications were based on one-time "make or break" trials events. But for 2009, Keflezighi is back and he is strong. Following a three-peat victory at the USA Cross Country Championships 12K, his first time at the race since 2003; he won the 2009 USA Half-Marathon Championships in Houston in a personal best finish of 61:25. These indicators are strong predictors that Keflezighi is back and ready to take on this field.
Eritrea which became independent from Ethiopia in 1993 may be best known to those in the running community as the birthplace of American distance runner and Athens silver medalist Meb Keflezighi. It is also where two of the world's top runners, Zersenay Tadese and Yonas Kifle, hail from.
A track and cross country specialist, Yonas Kifle, holds the Eritrean National Record with his fifth place finish of 2:07:34 from his marathon debut at the 2007 Amsterdam Marathon. In his second career marathon, he came in seventh at the 2008 London Marathon, finishing in 2:08:51. Kifle ran an unremarkable race at the 2008 Beijing Games; but as his third career marathon, he could be fine-tuning his strategy for future races being one of the novices in this veteran field. Kifle returns to the London Marathon with fellow countryman Zersenay Tadese who is making his marathon debut.
Zersenay Tadese, best known as a specialist on the track, is also a well-known figure in the international cross-country circuit. He exploded onto the scene about five years ago, collecting accolades that include a bronze in the 10000m at the 2004 Athens Games, gold medals from several World Championship races from the 20K to the half-marathon (2006-2008) and several top finishes at world championship cross-country races.
In 2005, Tadese set a world record in the half-marathon with a time of 59:05 at the Great North Run; then followed with a series of victories, remaining undefeated in the distance since. He is the fourth-fastest half-marathoner in the world, slightly behind Haile Gebrselassie, Patrick Makau, and Sammy Wanjiru. As the 2009 London Marathon draws near, anticipation remains high for his first foray into the marathon distance. As the world's best half-marathoners have been known to transition easily into the world's best marathoners, expect Tadese to be an additional challenger to an already deep men's field.
Known as long time rivals of the Kenyan long distance runners, many currently associate the Ethiopian marathoner with World Record Holder Haile Gebrselassie. But a number of Ethiopians have dominated the distance for some time. Names such as Fatuma Roba who won gold at the 1996 Olympic Women's Marathon (while rising athlete and future marathoner Gete Wami won bronze in the 10000 meter), Gezahegn Abera, who won gold in the marathon at the 2000 Sydney Games (while Gete Wami snatched silver and bronze medals in 10,000 and 5000 meters) have made headlines. Berhane Adere won the women's race of the 2006 Chicago Marathon with a 2:20:42 and Gete Wami began collecting top finishes at the Amsterdam, Berlin, London and New York City Marathons. Away from the world championship races, Gebrselassie, considered one of the best distance runners of all time, first broke Paul Tergat's world record at the 2007 Berlin Marathon with a time of 2:04:26. In 2008, the Ethiopians stepped up their performances as 22-year-old Dire Tune won the 2008 Boston Marathon, Tsegaye Kebede and Deribe Merga finished third and fourth respectively at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and Gebrselassie broke his standing world record with a time of 2:03:59 at the 2008 Berlin Marathon. One Ethiopian is a standout on the 2009 London Marathon roster: Tsegaye Tebede.
At 22-years-old, Tsegaye Kebede will be running his fifth career marathon. His debut at the 2007 Amsterdam Marathon was an eighth-place finish in a time of 2:08:16, but his improvements continue to impress. 2008 proved to be a great year as Kebede placed second at the 2008 Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon losing to Patrick Makau (KEN) by just tenths of a second in a finish of 59:35 before winning the 2008 Paris Marathon in 2:06:40. He also stole bronze from fellow countryman Deribe Merga at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, passing a fatigued Merga on the track in the last hundred meters. Kebede rounded out 2008 with a personal best win of the Fukuoka Marathon in a 2:06:10. Seeing that he can take on a high-caliber Olympic field with little experience, Kebede will have no problem competing against the 2009 line-up providing some of that age-old rivalry between Ethiopia and Kenya.