Rivals: Wanjiru & Kebede

Chicago, Illinois – As I commented on the final miles of the 2012 Bank of America Chicago Marathon from my vantage point aboard the lead NBC5  TV motorcycle, I was reminded again what the sport of distance running lost with the tragic passing of 2008 Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru in the spring of 2011.  Why?  Because yesterday’s 35th edition of Chicago eerily resembled the 33rd running when the final two miles turned into what many believe was the most compelling marathon duel in the sport’s modern history.

During that epic run I was again sitting just a meter or two away trying to put words to the numinous.  Like yesterday, Ethiopia’s Tsegay Kebede took control of the race after the final pacer bid adieu at 30K. Then, in those majestic final miles he did everything he could to break free from the indefatigable Kenyan Wanjiru.  On the back of at least three separate surges Kebede developed what seemed a winning margin, only to have Wanjiru resurrect like a bad relationship, before Sammy turned aggressor and buried Kebede for good in the final 600 meters.

Similar to Salazar and Beardsley in Boston 1982, and Khannouchi, Tergat and Gebrselassie in London 2002, the monumental drama had even veteran observers gnashing their teeth and punching nearby shoulders, so caught up were they in the unfolding spectacle between the two tiny east Africans.

Yesterday, Kebede was again starring in the role of late-race protagonist, along with the often forgotten third man in that 2010 war, countryman Feyisa Lelisa who had hung on till 24 miles two years ago as a 20 year-old.  Over the years Kebede and Lilesa have proven themselves as two of Ethiopia’s most stalwart marathon racers, both holding bronze medals, Kebede from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Lelisa from the 2011 Daegu World Championships. Despite those credentials, both were snubbed by the Ethiopian Federation for the London Olympic team.  Chicago would be their chance at redemption.

As in 2010, Kebede took control of the race the instant the final pacer, Shadrack Kosgei, exited the stage. Continue reading