London,England – Of course, anything can happen, but on this final day before Sunday’s 33rd Virgin London Marathon the talk around the Tower Hotel hard along the rolling Thames River has turned to the what-ifs. What if the men go for the world record? Who will make the first break when the rabbits depart? What if Mo Farah, the double Olympic Brit track champ going along for the ride for the first half, does something beyond sit off the back and observe? What if the stacked field doesn’t go with the pacers and turns inward and tactical instead? Ah, racing, that most unpredictable of all dramas.
The 2013 London Marathon has been billed as a world record attempt, but with this many top dogs in the hunt, the win is one for the ages, regardless of the winning time. So for me, the men’s race comes down to motivation. With the credentials of this field — five World Marathon Majors course record holders, ten sub-2:06 men, including six of the fastest ten in history — every contender has known big success. But Uganda’s Stephen Kiprotich already has the prize everyone else wanted, the Olympic gold medal from 2012. Defending champion Wilson Kipsang holds the London title and the Olympic bronze, and is the second quickest marathon man in history off his 2:03:42 win in Frankfurt 2011, just four seconds shy of Patrick Makau’s world record (2:03:38) from Berlin 2011. Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede arrives as the 2012 Chicago course record holder and 2010 London champ. But it’s Makau and the world’s fastest marathoner, Geoffrey Mutai (2:03:02) from Boston 2011 who stand out as the two most invested in revenge, a powerful emotional tool.
Makua and Mutai were seeming locks to earn selection for the 2012 Kenyan Olympic team based on their superb record performances in Berlin (Makau), Boston and New York City (Mutai) year before last. But due to the politic permutations in the Kenya athletics federation, neither was taken to London to compete. This race will be their London Olympics.
It must be said, however, that given the talent base available in Kenya picking a competitive Olympic Marathon squad was a bit like choosing a competitive proselytizer at the annual Christian Coalition bbq and weenie roast. So while the Ugandan Kiprotich won Olympic gold, Kenyans Abel Kirui and Wilson Kipsang took home the lesser two medals. Kirui is the lone medallist not back in London, having had to withdraw with a stress fracture.The world of marathoning has changed significantly since Ibrahim Hussein won Kenya’s first major marathon in New York City 1987. Boston’s long-time athlete recruiter Patrick Lynch remembers Hussein coming up to him in Seoul at the Games of 1988, and saying, “You know, I met Douglas Wakiihuri (1987 World Champion), and he is not a bad man.”
The point being that back then the Kenyan athletes from different tribes didn’t really know each other the way they do now. Like baseball players of old who used to come into second base with their spikes high and intentions low, there seemed to be more on the line when the winning share in the World Series might represent nearly double a players’ annual salary. Today, baseball players stand around second base and discuss investment strategies and mutual promotional appearances.
So, too, do Kenyan runners of today tend to train and hang around a lot more with one another than in the previous generation did. Wilson Kipsang is in the same training camp as Geoffrey Mutai, for instance. But of all the Kenyans in this year’s London field, Patrick Makau is the loner. A Kamba tribesman, Makau trains with a small-group of handpicked mates in Ngong, outside Nairobi, some 300 kilometers away from the Central Highlands towns of Eldoret and Iten along the Great Rift Valley where the majority of Kenya’s top men train.
And word is that most of the athletes around Eldoret and nearby Iten had to contend with five weeks of heavy rains this spring season which forced them to reduce their training as the rains turned their ideal dirt training roads to impassable mud. Athletes who were building toward a peak had to back off for a critical stretch in their training. Will Makau, who didn’t have to break training down in the lower altitude, have an advantage?
“Feyisa Lelisa (2nd in Chicago 2012, 2:04:52) is only concerned about Geoffrey Mutai,” says his agent Hussein Makke, whose athlete Lelisa Desisa won the Boston Marathon last weekend.
Last year in London Feyisa Lelisa was the last man standing against eventual champion Wilson Kipsang at 38K, but he ended up crashing to 10th place in 2:08 at the finish.
“He did a 45K training run the week before when his coach was in Boston,” explained Hussein Makke. “And Abel Kirui all but walked the final kilometre, too. So if they run an honest pace, the smartest man will win. If they run stupid, the luckiest man will win.”
People are still talking world record, with an opening half at 61:45. That pace will take something out of everyone and put them out near the end of their tether. But at least they will all know where the other guys stand. If they don’t jump in with the pacers and the race turns tactical, then the tension will ramp up with every passing K as the waiting game plays out.
Remember this, except for Patrick Makau’s 2:03:38 world record in Berlin two years ago, no one who has gone sub-1:02 in the first half of a marathon has closed well in the second half. With a field this loaded , the odds are stacked heavily against a record. And with no Olympics or World Championships this year, this is the race to win, regardless the time.
“Some marathons you can predict,” concluded Makke. “But here I am confused, because the talent is so heavy. It’s insane, it’s scary. All I know is that the winner here will be king.”
Yes, king for at least a day.
Final weather prediction: 2°C at the start, 8°C at the finish. Sunny. 8kmh to 12kmh wind from Southern direction.