The Setup and Withdrawals
In the weeks leading up to the World Championships Women's marathon, we expected a race that would shape up to be a contest between a group of runners who run in the series of races in Europe and North America billed as the World Marathon Majors and a group of runners from China and Japan who seldom race outside of their own countries. Some of the best announced runners ended as late withdrawals, including three who had personal bests below the mystical 2:20 barrier: Irina Mikitenko was taking time off after the death of her father, Paula Radcliffe decided in the week before the race that she was not sufficiently healed from foot surgery, and Yoko Shibui decided two days before the race that a leg injury would prevent her from starting. Two other holders of the sub-2:20 personal best had not been entered into the race: Deena Kastor was preparing for the Chicago Marathon, too soon after the World Championships; and apparently the two-time world champion and defending title-holder Catherine Ndereba was not selected by her federation to represent Kenya.
The favorites entering the race were those well known to the press: Dire Tune - 2008 Boston Marathon winner, 2009 Boston Marathon runner-up, and 2009 RAK Half Marathon winner; Chunxiu Zhou - the sole remaining sub-2:20 personal best holder in the field 2008 Olympics Bronze Medalist and 2008 London Marathon champion; Kara Goucher - the American track star whose debut and followup marathons resulted in third place finishes at the New York City and Boston Marathons and proved that she had the potential to develop into one of the best marathoners of all time. There were a few others in the field that held some promise, but as far as the press had determined, these would make up the majority of the top five spots. Of course in these instances the press is often wrong.
Recent women's marathons - most notably the 2008 Olympics Marathon and 2009 Boston Marathon - had featured very slow marathon starts that were nothing but leadups to the final 10K or less of the race. Some of the competitors in the championships had been burned by that strategy and so the expectation was that the race would take on a different character. However, the heat of the day, sunny skies and relatively sparse cover suggested the need for some caution.
71 women started the marathon and at the 5K mark in 17:42, 45 women were in the lead group. That pace was relatively slow and all of the known runners were in the lead group, plus a few who did not deserve to be there, but were running the championships for the experience. One of those latter runners - Epiphanie Nyirabarame - led for much of the first half of the race, despite the fact that her personal best of 2:41:30 showed that she could not really compete in this field.
The second and third 5K segments of the race were increasingly faster and a few surges were put in to try to break up the group. By 10K in 35:03 (17:21 for the 5K), the pack was down to 31 runners; and by 15K in 52:10 (17:07 for the 5K) the group was down to 25 runners including all who might be expected to medal.
The next two 5K segments were slower as the runners settled into the pack that had formed and prepared for the second half of the race. 20K was reached in 1:09:47 (17:30 for the 5K); the Half Marathon mark was reached in 1:13:39; and the 25K mark was reached in 1:27:31 (17:44 for the 5K) and at this point the first known runner, Nuta Olaru fell back. As an American website, we will comment at this point on the performance of two of the Americans through 25K. Kara Goucher, expected to be a contender for a medal was always part of the pack, but never took the lead and never quite looked comfortable. Meanwhile, Desiree Davila opted to run her own race and was running each mile at her own perfect rhthym always advancing through the runners who had overextended themselves in the lead pack. Davila was running in 32nd place - 22 seconds behind the lead pack - by 10K; through the following miles, Davila's placing continually improved even as her time behind the leaders waxed and waned. By 25K, Davila - always running alone - was in 24th place but once again just 20 seconds behind the leaders.
30K - the Pack Falls Apart
Just before 30K, reached in 1:44:33 (17:02 for the 5K) the race began in earnest as the lead pack began to string out . Goucher was first to fall off the pace, followed by Svetlana Zakharova, Helena Kirop, Lyubov Morgunova and others - and the lead group was down to 13 runners. With the increased pace, by 33K, the pack was down to just four: Nailiya Yulamanova (RUS), Xue Bai (CHN), Yoshimi Ozaki (JPN) and Aselefech Mergia (ETH) - it was clear that the winner would come from one of these four runners.
Yoshimi Ozaki began pushing the pace and Yulamanova could not hold onto the group; while it appeared that Mergia was just holding on. Xue Bai looked strong and comfortable and in the last kilometer overtook Ozaki to gain the victory in 2:25:15, while Ozaki took second in 2:25:32. Mergia finished third in 2:25:32, while a resurgent and hard charging Zhou took fourth in 2:25:39.
At the end, the World Championships proved to be a fast and deep race. Four women completed the race in under 2:26, three additional runners finished in under 2:27 and four additional runners finished in under 2:28. Those times and that depth of talent is almost never seen, except at the London Marathon (which especially strives for those sort of results). The marathon also highlighted the strength of the Asian runners as four of the top five and five of the top seven finishers were Chinese or Japanese - even without Yoko Shibui in the field. Many of the top women were not well known to the press or those outside their own countries and that remained an additional lesson - there are many great marathoners out there and it is our continual job to try to find and present these runners to a larger public.
To catch up on the other players in our story: Nailiya Yulamanova, after leading for much of the race dropped to eighth place with a finishing time of 2:27:08. Kara Goucher, faded slightly further to end 10th in 2:27:48. Desiree Davila of the Hansons Project continued on her set pace to run a huge PR and finish 11th in 2:27:53. Epiphanie Nyirabarame continued strongly to finish 26th in a huge personal best time of 2:33:59 and set a Rwandan national record....
1. Xue Bai (CHN) 2:25:15
2. Yoshimi Ozaki (JPN) 2:25:25
3. Aselefech Mergia (ETH) 2:25:32
4. Chunxiu Zhou (CHN) 2:25:39
5. Xiaolin Zhu (CHN) 2:26:08
6. Marisa Barros (POR) 2:26:50
7. Yuri Kano (JPN) 2:26:57
8. Nailiya Yulamanova (RUS) 2:27:08
9. Alevtina Biktimirova (RUS) 2:27:39
10. Kara Goucher (USA) 2:27:48
11. Desiree Davila (USA) 2:27:53
28. Tera Moody (USA) 2:36:39
30. Paige Higgins (USA) 2:37:11
51. Zoila Gomez (USA) 2:42:49