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London Marathon - The Men's Race
by Sharon Ekstrom
A Race Against Time
The London Marathon wanted to reclaim the World Record from Berlin - that was a known fact. And race director David Bedford had put together the field that could do it. Unlike strategic marathons like Boston and New York - where the main prize is the win, the London Marathon is set to be a race against time - and the men's race would be paced by three pacemakers in striped singlets aiming to bring the lead pack through the 20 mile mark on world record pace (2:03:59). Some suggested that Sammy Wanjiru (KEN) was burnt out following his Olympic gold medal victory - and indeed, his 2009 Lisbon Half-Marathon was less than stellar - but Wanjiru still remained a top favorite going into the 2009 London Marathon. The other favorite for the race was Martin Lel - the two-time winner of the London Marathon, winner of the New York City Marathon and a consistent performer. However, days before the race, Lel was complaining of hip issues and went for an MRI. Despite the MRI showing nothing serious and Lel indicating he would run, when race day arrived Lel did not start. Zersenay Tadese was the other interesting competitor - one of only five men to have run sub 59:00 in the half- marathon and, therefore, possible of setting a world record marthon in his debut.
photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images Sport
A Blistering Pace
From the start, Wanjiru, Jaouad Gharib (MAR) and Tsegaye Kebede (ETH) were at the front of the lead pace group. The leaders, following the pacers run through the first three miles in 4:35, 4:36 and 4:25 - that was faster than they should have been and in hindsight a major error. The runners were playing into our anticipation of a new world record; but the impossibility of continuing the race at such high speeds was evident. At that pace, the lead pack was inside a 2:00 marathon finish - that would be a four minute world record, obviously not possible...
In the lead pack, running out of their minds were eight men - all greats: Sammy Wanjiru (KEN), Jaouad Gharid (MAR) Tsegay Kebede (ETH), Hendrick Ramaala (RSA), Zerenay Tadese (ERI), Emmanuel Mutai (KEN), Abderrahim Goumri (MAR), Ridouane Harroufi (MAR)
The men at the 5 mile mark clocked 22:47, almost five minutes below world record pace. We were surprised to see Ramaala at this pace, since we learned beforehand that the race organizers expected him to run with the 2:07:30 pace group. The Americans Dathan Ritzenhein and Meb Keflezighi were in the second pack around 1:04 back - hoping to both set a personal best, but not expecting to be in contention for a podium position. With 28:30 at the 10K mark, the group slowed a bit; yet were still under world record pace. The London Marathon is known for being a flat, fast course on which records have been set in the past; but the idea of approaching the 2:00:00 mark is not possible, but the slowing pace suggested the pack understood what was happening and were slowing to world record pace (not to beat the record by four minutes).
The Elusive World Record
The lead pack remained under World Record pace as they hit the 15K mark in a 43:11. Gebrselassie's 15k split from his 2009 world record in Berlin was 44:03 - this is MUCH faster. Yet, the question on everyone's mind was "Will these men crash and burn?"
The men continued to slow in the miles leading up to the half-marathon mark, yet hit the halfway point at 61:35 - the fastest half-marathon split ever run in a marathon. With Wanjiru, the half-marathon World Record holder and fourth fastest half-marathoner of all-time, Tadese, in the mix, this might be a comfortable pace. The same eight men still remained in the lead pack.
The pace had been slowing, and by 25K the men were off World Record pace - but it did not appear that they had noticed and they were still following the pacemakers. Wanjiru later commented: "After 25k the pacemakers were screwy. I told them to go faster and they told me they were tired." Harroufi dropped off the pack.
Just after 17 miles, Ramaala woke up to realize that the pace was too slow - the pack would not be on target for a good race - what a waste after starting at such a fast pace. We give Ramaala incredible credit for running ahead of the pacers, and gesturing to the rest of the pack to follow. Ramaala is the man! Ramaala told us: "In these races forget strategy - people run all out.... At the 28K, the pacemakers fell apart.... they knew it was coming. The same thing happened in 2006 at 30k. We paid the price." Much to our disappointment, Zersenay Tadese fell back. Abderrahim Goumri - so close in so many past races - dropped back next. Ramaala broke apart the pack and jumpstarted the race.
The Real Race Begins...
After 18 miles, Wanjiru surged putting distance between him and the others. Kebede followed while Gharib and Ramaala held on to a potential third place. Ramaala fell off the pace, most likely a result of taking on the role of pacemaker, and Gharib stayed strong and steady, a strategy he has employed in years past while quietly picking off those in the final miles.
Kebede pulled up alongside Wanjiru with Gharib steps behind. This was the Beijing Olympics redux - the Gold, Silver and Bronze medalists would take the top three spots in London - but in what order? Wanjiru set a series of surges and Kebede worked to stay with him. As we've seen in so many contests, it was once again Kenya versus Ethiopia
The Final Stretch
At the 20 mile mark Wanjiru surged again, this time gaining a remarkable distance and Kebede stayed close just a few seconds back - not appearing to lose distance, but failing to gain on Wanjiru. At this point, Wanjiru was again in a race against time - with the world record no longer in danger, Wanjiru was chasing other times: 2:05:00 (a major time bonus number), the 2:05:15 course record and his own 2:05:24 personal best set at the 2008 London Marathon. Meanwhile, Gharib was charging, in an attempt to close the gap. Kebede hung on just a few seconds back - even at mile 24 the gap seemed to be less than two seconds.
Kebede began to look weary; Wanjiru looked back and pushed forward. Kebede followed as they ran through the 40k mark in 1:58:32. Gharib fell behind by 11 seconds.
Wanjiru put on the pressure and kicked hard heading toward the finish line. Kebede trails 30m behind, never to regain momentum. Kebede told us later that a stomach stitch in the final kilometer that kept him from gaining further: "If this was not the case I would have run faster."
Wanjiru won his third marathon (of four races), adding a significant prize and worthy followup to his Olympic Marathon victory. His time of 2:05:10 is both a new course record, a personal best and makes him the seventth fastest marathoner of all-time. After a solid effort Kebede is second in 2:05:20 (a followup to his Bronze Medal at the Olympics) and is followed by Gharib in 2:05:27 (who was ahead of Kebede for Silver at the Olympics).
Afterwards, Kebede and Gharib would tell us that they thought the pace worked well, regardless of the outcome. Perhaps, risk is the sacrifice one takes when attempting the World Record.
Bittersweet Personal Bests for the Americans
Meb Keflezighi and Dathan Ritzenhein came to London to set personal bests - and they did. But with an emphasis on the "minute" of a personal best, the personal bests were bittersweet. Keflezighi, with a PR of 2:09:53 (in New York, a slower course) had hoped for a PR under 2:09 or even under 2:08. But his time of 2:09:21 took more than 30 seconds off his best but did not qualify him as a "2:08" marathoner. Ritzenhein's previous best was 2:11:07, so his 2:10:00 was a major improvement, but again, one more second and he would be a "2:09" marathoner instead of a "2:10" marathoner...
Some Final Thoughts from the Athletes
Wanjiru in the last part of the race:
"In the last mile I was tired from pushing and pushing...in the last km I knew from the clock at 40k that I could not set the world record and it became just a race to the finish."
1. Sammy Wanjiru - 2:05:10 ($155,000) - 9th fastest of all time, making him 7th fastest in the world
2. Tsegaye Kebede - 2:05:20 ($105,000)
3. Jaouad Gharib - 2:05:27 ($97,500)
4. Emmanuel Mutai - 2:06:53 ($65,000)
5. Hendrick Ramaala - 2:07:45 ($35,000)
6. Abderrahim Goumri - 2:08:24 ($22,500)
7. Yonas Kifle - 2:08:28 ($20,000)
8. Atsushi Sato - 2:09:16 ($9,000)
9. Meb Keflezighi - 2:09:21 ($8,000)
10. Felix Limo - 2:09:46 ($5,000) winner in 2006
11. Dathan Ritzenhein - 2:10:00 ($2,500)