Surviving a hard fall at a water stop at 37k, where she tangled legs with her final challenger, countrywoman Sharon Cherop, Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat recovered quickly, then sped free to win the women’s World Championship Marathon yesterday in steamy Daegu, South Korea. Kiplagat’s gold was teamed with Cherop’s silver, while yet another Kenyan, Priscah Jeptoo, held off a fast closing Buzenesh Bekele of Ethiopia to complete an unprecedented sweep of the medal stand for the proud East African nation.
It was a true test of patience, strength, and performance as by the 9 a.m. race start the temperature had already climbed to 77F, and the humidity clung like a rubber suit at 84%. The 55 entrants from 23 nations ran accordingly, recording the slowest splits up to 30k in championship history. Over the flat, three lap course touring downtown Daegu they hit half-way in 1:16:43, eight-seconds slower than during the oppressive 2007 World Champs in Osaka, Japan won by another Kenyan star Catherine Ndereba.
A large pack joined forces early on, but kept loosely congealed in the stultfying air. The first leader of note was Japan’s Azusa Nojiri, a 2:25:29 12th placer from April’s London Marathon. Portugal’s Marisa Barros, sixth in Berlin’s World Champs 2009 hung nearby, while the favored Kenyans, Chinese, Japanese, and Ethiopians maintained close positioning spread along the wide Daegu boulevards. American Tera Moody of Colorado Springs was the lone Yank in the lead contingent. She placed 28th at the Berlin World Champs in 2009, and posted a PR 2:30:53 in Chicago last fall.
With conditions so brutal it was no surprise that no surges emerged over the first two 15k loops. This would turn into what former men’s marathon world record holder, Khalid Khannouchi called “a long run followed by a short race.” Daegu’s would be a slow dance, not a cha-cha.
“Unless it’s unbearably humid, does she have it in her to close the last 5k like she did in L.A. and NYC?” asked Edna Kiplagat’s manager, Brendan Reilly, to his client’s husband/coach Gilbert Koech just before the start. Gilbert’s answer was an unequivocal “Yes”.
“Her last long run three weeks ago went extremely well,” Brendan wrote me in an e-mail yesterday. “She appears to have the
combination of strength and speed needed to medal or even win.”
In Los Angeles last march in what amounted to her first real shot at the marathon, Kiplagat unloaded her last three miles into Santa Monica in 5:10. 5:09, 5:10. So, too, in New York City last November, she waited until the hills of Central Park to dust off the last of her rivals, Shalane Flanagan of the U.S. and Mary Keitany of Kenya. This spring she finished third in London in a new PR 2:20:46, making her the fastest of the 55-woman field in Daegu as Kenya’s Mary Keitany (2:19:19) and Liliya Shobokhova (2:20:15) opted not to compete. Now with her win in Daegu she pegs herself as a medal favorite for London 2012.
As the course completed the second 15k loop and presented the final 12.195 meters (7 ½ miles), the 19-strong pack hit 30k in 1:48:35, 2:33 marathon pace, their last 5k in 17:59. Now the real racing would begin. As if on cue the three Kenyans turned up the heat, and immediately the pack melted away. Only Ethiopia’s Aberu Kebede, 9th at London in 2:24:34 and winner of Rotterdam and Berlin in 2010, could hang.
Surprisingly, the always well prepared Japanese and Chinese teams failed to respond. In the accompanying World Cup team competition where the aggregate times of the top three runners from each nation are tabulated, China had captured the last two titles in Osaka and Berlin, while Japan had won four of the previous five. But not this time.
30k to 35k dropped in 16:44, and now Kiplagat had strung out her opponents. Only the diminutive Sharon Cherop, third at Boston this April and winner in Toronto 2010, still battled for the gold.
“We couldn’t make adaptation to humid conditions,” wrote Cherop’s coach Renato Canova in an e-mail, “because in Iten (Kenya) it was cold and rainy. But her training has gone well. You won’t do any mistake if you put Sharon in the list for a medal.”
And then came the moment that will forever define this contest. Approaching an aid station at 37k Cherop had the inside position, but Kiplagat was leading by a step on the outside. Each of the aid stations were lined up on the right side of the road. So as
Kiplagat edged over, pointing down with her finger in international runner language for “I’m coming”, Cherop chopped her stride just a bit as she reached for her bottle. Then as Kiplagat grabbed her own bottle – for whatever reason, their bottles were held in close position on the same table – their legs tangled and DOWN! went Kiplagat, landing hard on both hands and knees, water splashing up into her shocked face!
Cherop instantly stopped to assist her teammate, a gracious moment of true sportsmanship. But seemingly unfazed by the fall, Kiplagat righted herself quickly, and proceeded to blitz the final five kilometers in 16:10 to open a :17 winning margin on Cherop, and :31 on fellow Kenyan Priscah Jeptoo.
The Ethiopian, Aberu Kebede, paid the price for her bold attempt to match the Kenyans, sliding all the way back to 12th position. Her colleague Buzenesh Bekele came roaring into medal contention late, but Cherop held off her to complete the Kenyan sweep. Japan’s Yukiko Akaba was fifth, China’s Xiaolin Zhu sixth, and Sweden’s Kenyan-born Isabellah Andersson seventh. Jiali Wang of China, Portugal’s Marisa Barros, and Japan’s Remi Nakazato completed the top ten. Tera Moody led the American finishers in 17th place in 2:32:04, a long way from the 2:50 marathoner she began as back in Chicago 2005.
China took the silver medal in the World Cup team competition with Ethiopia sneaking in ahead of Japan for third by 38 seconds. It was the first time Japan failed to make the World Cup podium since the team element had been introduced in Athens 1997, and you can be certain there will be some soul-searching back home.
There are some who believe the World Championship Marathon should be a stand-alone affair run in the either the spring or fall seasons, perhaps in conjunction with one of the World Marathon Majors. The money at the Worl Championships doesn’t compare to the World Majors, and the conditions in places like Osaka and Daegu are simply too aberrant to judge true marathon excellence. But in both cases, Osaka `07 and now in Daegu, the best runner won the gold, and it’s hard to argue with results like that.