Geoffrey Mutai’s one-second win at Sunday’s BMW Berlin Marathon all but sewed up the 2011-2012 World Marathon Majors series title for the 31 year-old Kenyan star, and the $500,000 bonus that attends it. With wins in Boston and New York City in 2011, Mutai added 25 more points for his 2:04:15 win over fellow Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in Berlin, giving him 75 WMM points over the course of the two-year cycle. The WMM title and bonus are Mutai’s unless another Kenyan, 2011 Chicago runner-up and 2012 Boston Marathon champion Wesley Korir ( 40 points) can manage the unlikely double of winning this weekend’s BofA Chicago Marathon (25 pts), and then turn around and finish no worse than third in New York City November 4th (10 pts). That would tie Korir with Mutai at 75 points, but earn Korir the series title in a tie-breaker, as he bested Mutai head-to-head in the sweltering heat of Boston 2012 where Mutai dropped out.
Needless to say, that scenario is highly improbable.
But Mutai only won Berlin by a scant second over his training partner Dennis Kimetto. And this is where things get dicey. On paper a one-second margin would suggest a titanic final meters drama to decide the issue –
think Mo Farah’s double Olympic distance wins in London where the mask of anxiety and exhilaration warped his features as he held victory so close.
Instead, debuting marathoner Kimetto sat on Mutai’s left shoulder throughout the final two kilometers in Berlin acting more like a wing-man than a competitor. Mutai, we found out afterwards, was done in after 35 kilometers by a sour stomach leaving him unable to drive or push, and seemingly leaving him vulnerable to any sort of challenge. Yet none was forthcoming.
Immediately, one concluded that the apprentice, Kimetto, was not going to beat his mentor, Mutai, and thus deprive him of the $500k World Marathon Majors bonus. If Kimetto had won, it’s not like he would have earned the half-million dollar bonus. Rather, it would only have increased Wesley Korir’s chances, as a second place by Mutai in Berlin would have meant that Korir would only need a win in Chicago to supplant Mutai as the series winner. As my friend Ed Caesar - who is writing a book on the two-hour marathon while living in Iten, Kenya – said: “(If Kimetto had won) everyone in the small village where Mutai and Kimetto live (Kapn’gtuny) would have lost.”
This is the second time in the World Marathon Majors series history that a training partner has seemed to back off in the final stretch to allow his compatriot to win and collect the series bonus. In 2007, Robert Cheruiyot was on his way to his third of four Boston Marathon titles. But in the final two kilometers his training partner James Kwambai was still at his shoulder. As the two men headed into Kenmore Square with one mile to go, Kwambai peeled off to grab water while Cheruiyot didn’t. Then, in seemingly leisurely fashion, Kwambai stayed behind his mate all the way to the Boylston Street, finishing 20-seconds back. No attempt was made to close the gap even though Kwambai seemed unfazed by effort or pain.
Now we’ve seen a similar circumstance in Berlin. Kimetto’s consolation was a world marathon debut record 2:04:16, seven-seconds faster than Ayele Abshero ran to win the Dubai Marathon this January.
This isn’t just a World Major Marathons issue. Before the series ever began in 2006, we witnessed another such training partner run-in over the final meters in Berlin. In 2003 Paul Tergat was on his way to his marathon world record 2:04:55 while his friend and pacer, Sammy Korir stayed with him through the Brandenburg Gate, but just a few steps behind, never seeking to overtake Tergat for the win.
Only once in WMM history has the men’s title come down to a head-to-head showdown to decide the whole shootin’ match. That, of course, was the now famous 2010 final 5K battle between eventual champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya and Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede on the streets of Chicago.
But with finishing times and record performances having taken center stage in this sport for the last 20 years, this system of inviting training partners to major marathons to go for world records has produced protected wins that make a mockery of the essence of sport, competition. This cannot be the outcome the five World Marathon Majors had envisioned, can it?