Kenya’s Mary Keitany is all smiles at London Marathon 2017

This is a strange game, isn’t it?  Here we see the great Mary Keitany winning her third Virgin Money London Marathon in 2:17:01, and for the rest of the morning we try to figure out where her performance stands in the list of best-ever women’s marathons.

Now, forgetting all this mixed-gender, women’s-only, point-to-point, downhill  or loop course qualifiers, Mary’s 2:17:01 is the second fastest women’s finishing time ever posted behind Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15:25, London 2003.  But on the coverage shown in the USA by NBCSN her time was referred to as the fastest time ever in a women’s-only race, bettering Paula’s 2:17:42 from London 2005.  But even that 2005 London time ranks behind Paula’s 2:17:18 from Chicago 2002. Confused?

When reading through the chattering class on LetsRun.com, and referring to my own 2002 journal when I covered the women’s race for NBC5 in Chicago, we remember LetsRun co-founder Weldon Johnson served  as Paula’s “escort”, if not rabbit per se.  But when Paula smashed that Chicago mark in London the following spring with her magical 2:15:25, she was also “escorted” by two Kenyan guys the entire way.

Today, on the BBC coverage Paula was asked to differentiate between a “pacer” and an “escort”.  She referred to the two male Kenyans with her in London 2003 as ‘some men around me’ rather than as pacers. Today, Keitany had a single female pacer, Caroline Chepkoech, who dropped off just after halfway, which she crossed in 66:53 with Keitany just one second behind.

“It’s still 26.2 miles, but they’re using all kinds of things like spring-loaded shoes, multiple pace makers. It’s not really city marathon running as we know it.” – 2:23 marathoner Mara Yamauchi, speaking about SUB-2 marathon quests while commentating at London 2017 for international feed.

So what’s the difference between an Escort and a Pacer?  Both are being paid to assist, not compete. Pacers run specific times in front of athletes to aid a fast finishing time. An Escort merely keeps other runners away from the invited stars at whatever pace the athlete generates herself.  Weldon Johnson was indeed no more than an escort for Paula in Chicago `02.

Paula Radcliffe in Chicago Marathon 2002 with escort Weldon Johnson (yellow). I’m in the motorcycle sidecar in front.

But London 2003 was a slightly different matter. There the two Kenyan men were sometimes off to the side, other times running right in front of Paula, though they might not have not been running at a predetermined pace.

Paula Racliffe running fastest women’s marathon in history at London 2003 with Kenyan escorts, Samson Loywapet (r) and Christopher Kandie

Pacing is most helpful, obviously, but we also know how advantageous it is psychologically just to have someone else to run with.   Keitany did not have that advantage. Nor did Tirunesh Dibaba giving chase. As of January 1, 2012, the IAAF announced it would no longer recognize Paula’s 2:15 as the world record, because of the presence of the two Kenyan men.  Nor would the Chicago 2002 time be recognized, due to the mixed-gender format. Instead, it was the 2:17:42 Paula ran in London 2005 that Mary Keitany took down today as best ever in a women’s-only competition.


Not to be forgotten amidst the Keitany hosannas was London men’s champion Daniel Wanjiru.  Even in the early going Toya and I were commenting on the 24 year-old Kenyan’s clean form.  No wasted motion, his combination of slim build, erect posture, minimal torso rotation, contained stride, and a back kick that flicked lower than Feyisa Lelisa, Abel Kirui, Keninisa Bekele, and super debutant Bedan Karoki made for an ultra-efficient machine for the distance. He ran 2:05:21 in Amsterdam last year, but boy, did he ever run with an elegant simplicity today, just like you want to marathoner to look.


Impression:  Boston champions Geoffrey Kirui would’ve been fifth in London, and Edna Kiplagat likely third.


In the final stages of the London women’s race there seemed to be a potential for Mary Keitany to come undone as Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba began to close. An aggressive early pace had drawn Mary free by 5K.  Her 10K split of 31:17 figures to a 2:12:12 marathon, but as we all know, you don’t front load a marathon without allowing the potential for disaster.  But it was Tirunesh who broke down in the final stretch, stopping to throw up with a touchy stomach. Still, she got it back together to break 2:18, too, setting an Ethiopian national record while posting the third-fastest all-women’s competition time, 2:17:57.

As the coverage concentrated on the final kilometers of the women’s race, we pretty much missed the entire midsection of the men’s competition.  I know, who cares, really, but some of us do want to see how the thing plays out.

This relates to  my previous post ABBOTT WORLD MARATHON MAJORS: MAKING AN “IS” OUT OF AN “ARE” that suggests we need to have all the women in one race, and all the men in another so we can actually pay attention to the competition, not miss one because were watching the other. Or go double-box, because as it turned out the favorite at the start of the race – Keninisa – fell off, or looked like he was having trouble.  Then, when we returned to the men’s race Keninisa was rolling, in fourth and moving on the top three. What happened?

We never find these things out till afterwards.  Now we hear that as Mars Blackmon said long ago, “its gotta be the shoes!” Yep, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elites were new and causing blisters. You can see them next coming to a Breaking2 Project near you (hopefully broken in).

UPDATE: As reported Tuesday by Reuters, a Nike spokesman said that Bekele was wearing their Zoom Vaporfly 4% shoes, the same model he used to win the Berlin Marathon last fall in 2:03:03, and that the Vaporfly Elite were being used only by the three Breaking2 athletes.


Even major marathons aren’t covered like the Tour de France where they have a camera on all the top contenders. Instead marathons get one camera on a lead pack, and if you’re not in front we don’t see you.

WBZ Boston’s Spotters Network compiling data for broadcasters

That’s why the Spotters Network at WBZ Boston at least gives us commentators updates on what’s happening out of camera range so we can report on such stuff. Is this a sport or an event and happening? Yeah, I know, it’s both, just like Shimmer, a spoof ad on Saturday Night Live’s first season, “it’s a floor wax AND a dessert topping”.

We have so many stories being told, it is hard to zero in and really follow any one.  It is frustrating.


Of course, you could tell the men’s pace had been set for Keninisa as he was the one tucked right in behind early on.  And after dealing with his blister issues, he did regain  his stride, and was closing down on Daniel Wanjiru over the final stages.  At one point it looked like both the men’s and women’s races could see come-from-behind winners, which are quite rare these days.

Like a shark Bekele was cruising in, especially when he and Wanjiru were going under an overpass with just a few kilometers remaining.

Wanjiru tried to take a look over his left shoulder to see if anyone was close. But he couldn’t quite make the entire turn, meaning he was losing flexibility.   We couldn’t tell if Wanjiru knew that it was Bekele who had him lined up or somebody else. But Keninisa began having more foot troubles, himself, and at 1:56 along the Thames River the gap began to re-open.

Keninisa looked like he used a lot of his power just to close the gap, then when he got within striking distance he ran out of luck. A little bit like Wilson Chebet trying to run down Meb at Boston 2014. He closed within six seconds in Kenmore Square with a mile to go, but eventually Meb was able to stretch the winning margin to 11 seconds.

When Wanjiru turned around and realized he was under fire today, that seemed to goose him, too, and he was able to remain resolute, if not quick, to the line.


London 2017 was a lovely blend of the old and the new. Daniel Wanjiru announced himself as a major new champion, able to take on the best in the world.  Kenya’s Bedan Karoki debuted with a 2:07:41 podium position, and you could see that his form could use some cleaning up.

But the race of the day goes to Mary Keitany, who added a third London title to go with her three from New York City. Makes you scratch your head every time she performs when you realize the good gents on the Kenyan Olympic selection committee chose to leave her off the Rio team. Well, maybe it’s not so strange if you know how the game is played over there. One thing is certain, Mary is still fired up about it. Now if we can just figure out what the women’s world record really is.



  1. I agree that the TV coverage of the marathon can be frustrating. Here in the UK, the BBC’s coverage of London is aimed at the everyday viewer, who is not particularly concerned with pace, splits, or exactly how the race up front is developing. So, flitting back and forth between the two channels to try to catch the important details is quite an effort, and often unrewarding. By the way, the official world record for the women’s marathon is the 2:15:25 – listed as such in the IAAF WR Progression book (2015). Radcliffe herself persuaded them to keep it as such; hence the need for two classes of record, ‘aided’ and ‘non-aided’. Once that time is beaten in a women-only race, the need for two separate records will be obviated. Also, I need to point out that the quote from Yamauchi is taken out of context – she was referring to the Nike-sponsored attempt on the 2-hour ‘barrier’, not to London itself.

  2. Hi Tony,

    I totally agree about the confusion of the women’s world marathon record. I still feel it’s 2:15. But anyway.
    I loved your commentary as always on WBZ for Boston.
    What I like that WBZ does, besides the spotters network, is they will continue so show the race during commercial breaks.
    Also they use a lot of split screens which helps as well.
    I noticed NBCSN doesn’t do that. Perhaps they feel it would be too confusing. I don’t know what their thinking is. Is the NBCSN feed from the BBC or do they have their own camera people?
    I feel WBZ for a “local” station does a great job. They are very thorough covering ALL the races, wheelchair, men’s, Women’s etc.

    Keep up the good work! I love your reading your column & love hearing your insight.

    Vinnie Chiappetta
    Norwell, MA.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.