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. In fact, it was a mile earlier than in 2010. A 4:40 17th mile established the tenor of the next nine to follow as Kebede turned the screw tighter and tighter with each passing mile, dispatching one challenger after another from the once 12-man-deep pack. A punishing 14:18 split from 30 – 35Km dropped all but countrymen Lilesa and the two dangerous debs, Tilahun Regassa, also of Ethiopia, and another half-marathoner trying to complete his first marathon, Kenyan Sammy Kitwara.
A determined front-runner, the tiny Kebede rarely seeded the lead. Only Regassa, a 59:19 half-marathoner with an impatient streak, attempted to wrest control. At 22 miles as the course paralleled I-94 along a desolate stretch where no spectators lined the course, he downshifted and laid his cards out, his mouth an anguished gash torn across his face. On his right shoulder Kitwara, the elegant Kenyan who attempted his original marathon debut in Rotterdam this spring, answered with the placid look of man who had taken botox injections before the race. Kebede and Lilesa both pushed in enough chips to call the bet, as well.
Kitwara had dropped out in Rotterdam at 27Km in April after a 61:38 first half because he’d worn racing shoes designed for the 10K. In other words, they were too light for the pounding of the marathon. That led to a pulled calf muscle at 25K. So he adjusted to more cushioned shoes for Chicago.
As they turned north again for the final stretch back to Grant Park, a headwind added to the effort as three Ethiopians measured themselves against a lone Kenyan, but not one the likes of Sammy Wanjiru. I’m not saying that Sammy would have been able to withstand the power and persistence of this year’s Tsegay Kebede. The splits from 2010 on a substantially warmer day were nowhere near as fast as yesterday’s. The final 2010 time, 2:06:25, was almost a full two minutes slower than Kebede’s newly minted 2012’s course record 2:04:38. But there was something about Sammy that neither time, weather, or an opponent’s desire could quell.
Yesterday, Regassa and Kitwara were dropped in the 23rd mile, a 4:34. But it took Kebede till the final mile to break free of a determined Lilesa. At 39K, Kebede motioned for his 22 year-old countryman to share the lead into the headwind or suffer the consequences. Stop dogging my heels!
There are champions and then there are Champions. Tsegay Kebede now holds marathon titles from London, Paris, Fukuoka, Japan and Chicago, as well as an Olympic bronze medal. He is a champion for sure. But even he looks back with relish at the wars he fought with Sammy Wanjiru in London, Beijing, and Chicago. They each won and lost going up against each other, one champion to the next.
But as we saw two weeks ago in Berlin where blistering fast times were compromised by the lack of late racing competition – as one training partner ceded victory to the other – the sport is lessened by the absence of competition, and made ever more cognizant of the importance of rivalries.
Congratulations, Tsegay Kebede, for another championship effort. I’m sure Sammy was wishing you well, too, even as we all were wishing he were still here to try to wrest the title from you.