VIRGIN LONDON MARATHON 2013

Prince Harry and Richard Branson with London Champs Priscah Jeptoo & Tsegay Kebede

Prince Harry and Richard Branson with London Champs Priscah Jeptoo & Tsegay Kebede

London, England — On a glorious spring morning for racing Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede and Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo took home the glory at today’s 33rd Virgin London Marathon. In winning their respective races in 2:06:04 and 2:20:15 against fields of staggering depth and quality, the two athletes from neighboring East African nations returned the focus of the sport to international goodwill and competition rather than the infamy and horror visited on the Boston Marathon this past Monday. But though the two pro fields were as good as they come, the two races could not have been much different.


With a men’s field billed as ‘the greatest in history’ and comprised of five World Marathon Majors course record holders, the Olympic gold and silver medalist from London 2012, and six of the ten fastest men in history, the men had “world record” aspirations throughout the build-up to London 2013.  At the starter’s command they blew out of Blackheath behind their designated pacers like air from a punctured balloon; 4:38 for the first mile, 28:56 for 10K, 61:34 at half-way. Crazy speed, but was the world record under attack or was it luring these men into its briar patch of pain?

The women’s field was loaded as well, but with Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 course and world record of 2:15:25 so far out of range, talk about a record performance never took hold. Accordingly, the women went out conservatively, 34:11 at 10K, 1:11:49 at the half, allowing the distance to dissipate before the fireworks were released.

MO FARAH Test Run for 2014

MO FARAH Test Run for 2014

On a perfect day to race — temperatures in the 40sF, humidity low and winds non-existent — the men quickly congealed into a ten-man pack. Tucked into the fold was England’s own double Olympic track champion Mo Farah who was signed to run only the first half this year before taking on the full distance in 2014.  In contrast, the reigning world record holder, Patrick Makau of Kenya, never entered the mix, even as his 2:03:38 from Berlin 2011 was the bulls-eye the men were targeting.

EAST AFRICAN SHAKE DOWN

Notwithstanding Makau’s absence, the pack broke down along the traditional Kenyan-Ethiopian divide with Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda and Yared Asmerom of Eritrea thrown into the East African mix. Defending champion Wilson Kipsang of Kenya was joined by countrymen Stanley Biwott the Paris course record holder (2:05:12), Emmanuel Mutai, the 2011 London champ and course record holder (2:04:40), and Geoffrey Mutai, the 2011 Boston (2:03:02) and New York City course record holder (2:05:06). The Ethiopians were led by Tsegaye Kebede, the 2010 London winner and Chicago 2012 course record setter (2:04:38), Feyisa Lilesa, 2nd in Chicago behind Kebede, and 2012 Dubai Marathon champion Ayele Abshero (2:04:23).

The women also took on the East African theme with four Kenyans going up against three Ethiopians. Most aggressive was 2011 World Champion Edna Kiplagat who was ill at last year’s Olympics and seemed intent on making up for that poor performance today. She was joined by namesake (but not relation) Florence Kiplagat, the 2011 Berlin Marathon winner (2:19:44), Olympic silver medalist and London 2012 third-placer Priscah Jeptoo and debutant track star Joyce Chepkirui. The Ethiopians countered with Olympic champ Tiki Gelana, reigning Chicago champion Atsede Baysa, and 2012 Frankfurt champion Meselech Melkamu, making her second marathon start. Edna Kiplagat, Priscah Jeptoo and Tiki Gelana were the most obvious aggressors behind their pacers. But the pace always hovered around the 2:20 mark.

INTO THE DARKNESS

Murderer's Row

Murderer’s Row

The men sallied out at 2:01 pace, expending precious fuel that they would dearly miss in the later stages.  Though running his first World Marathon Major, Stanley Biwott was not intimidated by the better known names, maintaining a presence near the front. Course record holder Emmanuel Mutai, 2011 champ, was rarely spoken of as a race favorite, but there he was ready for the chase. The two fastest men of all time, Makau and Geoffrey Mutai were oddly quiet, Makau not even joining the pack and Geoffrey never making an appearance in the front ranks.

Afterwards Geoffrey mentioned a small groin problem while Patrick’s manager, Zane Branson, said Makau simply felt sluggish from the get-go. When they hit the Tower Bridge at 13 miles just before the half, Mo Farah pulled away on schedule, but was amped up to return in 2014.

“The crowd was absolutely awesome,” he enthused. “They just make you go – push on, push on. I really got excited in the middle of the race. The biggest challenge was picking up drinks. I stopped one time and had to go back. It’s really hard, and I made a mess of it. I need to do more training, but I really appreciate the opportunity the Virgin London Marathon gave me, and I’m looking forward to the full marathon next year.”

 

DOWN GOES GELANA!

Wheelers roll up on lead women

Wheelers roll up on lead women

As the women lead pack approached an aid station at 15K in the Rotherhithe neighborhood, the lead pack of wheelchair men came roaring up behind the lead women’s pack at sub-3:30 per mile speed.  Oddly, the lead women began 20 minutes before the wheelchair competition and one hour before the men’s elite footrace.  The aid table on Quebec Way was along a narrow twisting road ill-suited for a traffic jam.  So, as Olympic marathon champion Tiki Gelana cut in to grab her bottle, 2012 Boston Marathon wheelchair champion and world record holder Josh Cassidy of Canada smashed into her as tried to get by on the inside. The women’s pack scattered like frightened pigeons shocked by the intrusion of fast-moving vehicles.

Though Gelana regained her footing and quickly rejoined the pack, not 10k later she was gapped and out of contention, all but walking home at the finish. For his part, Josh Cassidy was left with damaged wheels, and he, too, fell out of contention in the wheelchair competition. Why they begin the wheelers AFTER the women foot racers who are traveling at nearly a 2:00 per mile slower pace is something which needs serious reconsideration.

Japan’s Yukiko Akaba made a bit of a charge at 20K as she was looking for a sub-2:24 automatic qualifier for the World Championships in Moscow in August.  But that attack soon dissipated. After a half split of 1:11:49, three Kenyans and a single Ethiopian struck out and Akaba soon fell away.

A 16:02 split from 25-30K did major damage as Edna Kiplagat and Priscah Jeptoo put 10-seconds on Florence Kiplagat and another 21 seconds on Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia. These were two heavyweights going after it. At 20 miles, 1;47:25, Edna tried to break away. Priscah answered. The blows were powerful, you could feel the thunder. Then Jeptoo countered. Good patch, bad patch, surge and respond! Racing at its most intense.

 

END GAMES

There was little racing amongst the men as they were already near the end of their tether as they maintained world record pace.  Carnage lie ahead, this much we knew. It might even be a race someone could win from behind as wheels would certainly come off at some point.

Into mile 18 four men remained knotted together. The 17th fell at 1:19:51, 4:48 for that split. Course record holder Emmanuel Mutai had fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott with him, while 2012 Dubai champion Ayele Abshero, and fellow Ethiopian Feyisa Lelisa tucked in right behind on 2:03:20 pace, still under world record schedule.

Priscah Jeptoo in 2:20:15

Priscah Jeptoo in 2:20:15

Finally, at 21 miles Priscah Jeptoo’s pressure became too much, and Edna Kiplagat faltered. Priscah was third here last year then returned to take silver in the Olympic Games. Her training mate and namesake (but not relative) Rita Jeptoo won in Boston last week. This seems to be a training schedule that works.

Priscah looked back only once that I saw, but she was free and clear. She had 58 seconds on Edna at 40k, and her 2:20:15 winning time along the Mall missed her PR by a single second from her third place in 2012. Edna came home in 2:21:32 and Yukiko Akaba of Japan dug deep to finish third in 2:24:43.  Jeptoo fashioned half-way splits of 71:49 & 68:26.

For perspective, U.S. star Shalane Flanagan ran her half-marathon PR this February in New Orleans in 68:32.

So it was left to the men to finish the day. 1:345:27 at 20 miles, a 4:56 split, but they were slowing, the last 5K the slowest of race at 14:50. Like a warning signal in his yellow vest Emmanuel Mutai pushed to the front taking Ayele Abshero the 2012 Dubai champ who DNF’d at London Olympic Marathon, and Stanley Biwott, the Paris Course record holder along with him.  Behind, Feyisa Lelisa had given up the ghost, and the world record time looked to be toast as well as last two miles had taken 4:51 & 4:56 respectively.

Stanley Biwott then injected pace, pulling away in Mile 22. 1:39:11 at 21, a 4:44 split. But Stanley has not been a proven closer. He lost the RAK Half Marathon in the United Arab Emirates in January by two seconds. He lost the 2012 Shanghai Marathon by 4-seconds. He was going early trying to end it. And today is his BIRTHDAY! Blow out those candles, kid.

But though he fell six seconds back of Biwott, Emmanuel Mutai hung tough, then regained contact and next thing you knew, he went back in front! The early world record pace was causing severe late race damage; nobody felt chipper. Biwott was losing form rather than Mutai upping the pace. This would be survival for all.

FINAL STRETCH

2:04:27 pace at 23 miles, but the last mile bled out in 5:07. This was getting ugly after the early elegance. Mutai was still leading, Biwott in second, Abshero and Lelisa in third and fourth.

1:54:11 at 24 for Mutai, a 5:02 split, and his own course record now looked safe. Biwott began fading badly as Abshero moved into second, Lelisa into third with another contender moving up, 2010 London winner Tsegaye Kebede, the tiny terror was coming.

These east African gazelles may not have fear of the marathon anymore, but when they attack as hard as they did today, the carnage can still be the marathon’s last defense. We saw it in 2009 when the late, great Sammy Wanjiru bested Tsegaye Kebede by 10 seconds in 2:05:10. But that day they went through 10K in 28:36 and halfway in 61:35. No one has gone sub-1:02 for the first half of a marathon and returned with a similar second half except for Patrick Makau in his 2011 Berlin world record. Yet still they try.

THE CHAMPION IS CROWNED

Huge crowds thronged along the Thames River roaring their support.  Mutai was still striding, but the ground was now coming up to meet him as little Tsegay Kebede began showing late race power once again. We’ve seen this little man fight like a champion for years. His epic battle with Sammy Wanjiru in Chicago 2010 remains the defining race of both their careers. And here he was again, arms in tight, the body of boxer, throwing ripping strides late, just 28-seconds back with just over a mile to go. The 2010 London champ was hunting the 2011 winner.

Kebede was coming like a freight train, or was Mutai simply sputtering, running on stumps and fumes? He mentioned trouble with his hamstring in the final mile, but as the clock turned 2:03:02, Kebede went by and the gap was made!  One of the few times we’ve seen a come from behind win in a major. Mutai dug deep, tried to hold, but Kebede simply had too much, had judged his pace, and when it counted most, had it locked.

Kebede, 2nd London Win

Kebede, 2nd London Win

2:06:04 for Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia to take his second London title. Emmanuel Mutai in second in 2:06:34, Ayele Abshero, Ethiopia, in third in 2:06:57. Ethiopia goes 1 – 3.

In Amharic Kebede means ‘heavyweight’. His parents must have known something. He’s won in Fukuoka 2009, Chicago 2012 and London in 2010 and 2013.  And he’s earned Olympic bronze in Beijing in 2008, too.  In this day and age of revolving door champions, Kebede’s is a record of sustained excellence of a singular kind. The man is #1 after this. This was the field to determine the King. Long live King Kebede for he wears the crown.

But in the end the marathon distance itself came out the real winner. Under attack by the flyers out of east Africa for the last two decades, the ancient test of endurance fought back today, laying waste to a men’s field who challenged the strict firewall of endurance through an intemperate first half. Even under ideal conditions, the champion’s second half took an agonizing 64:30.  Brutal!

What was once a test of ultimate endurance has been turned to a challenge of speed over distance. But there remains a fine line that the marathon still holds as its own private domain. Test that line at your own peril, boys.  That is the lesson of London 2013.  In all, 35,000 joined in the celebration of marathoning in London, and race organizers will now contribute £2 for every finisher to the One Fund Boston, a fitting reminder of what this sport truly represents.

END

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4 comments on “VIRGIN LONDON MARATHON 2013

  1. Brian Baker says:

    Excellent report, Toni – Thanks!

  2. wildflowerquest says:

    Hey Weez,

    Today’s race

    OXO

  3. Great great recap Tony! :-)

  4. Iyob Tesema says:

    Thrilling Narrative, Toni! Needless to say, my wish came true, and the most deserving of my heroes, “Tsegaye Kebede” was handsomely paid his long overdue reward – way to go for Mr. Consistency since 2008…

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