LEADING FROM BEHIND – THE 2019 LOS ANGELES MARATHON MEN’S RACE

As the 2020 City of Los Angeles Marathon looms this weekend celebrating its 35th anniversary, I thought I’d set the stage with a look back at the stirring final miles of the 2019 men’s race where a very particular marathon strategy played out.

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During his two terms in office, President Barack Obama was vilified for “leading from behind” in Libya.  Whether such a strategy is viable in the world of geopolitics is open to argument, but can leading from behind be a strategy in running?

We don’t see much of it on the track or in cross country racing where contact is everything. But the marathon is another matter, because you can let someone go early then reel him/her back in later. Just ask Jake Riley who used a come-from-behind strategy to notch a second-place finish at last week’s Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta. But it’s more than that.

At the Chicago Marathon 2010, tiny terrors Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia and the late Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya battled one another in an epic duel. Throughout the final 12 kilometers, after the final pacesetter had dropped off, it was the Ethiopian Kebede who had the lead and dictated the pace. By the final 5K when the course turned back north toward the finish in Grant Park, the race had been reduced to just those two, Kebede and Wanjiru.

Wanjiru (in red) vs. Kebede, Chicago 2010

Over the length of that final segment, Kebede attacked at least three times, stretching Wanjiru to the breaking point. But Sammy never fully broke, always snapping back onto the backside of Kebede and even getting a step in front once.

But each time Sammy came back, the small Ethiopian would spurt ahead again.  And looking back, it seemed like maybe that was Wanjiru’s game, not just to not get broken, but to actually spur Kebede from behind so that the Ethiopian would use up his fuel and whatever kick he had before the turn onto Roosevelt where the course crossed over railroad tracks and headed to the finish. Talk about playing the edge!

And indeed, that bridge over the rail yard was where Sammy struck for the win with less than 600 meters remaining. It was a brilliant cat and mouse game with Wanjiru as the cat and Kebede the mouse. To this day, it remains the most exciting marathon I have ever called (though Meb’s victory in Boston 2014 was the most emotional).

Well, in LA 2019, it seemed like Kenya’s Elisha Barno played a similar cat-and-mouse game with countryman John Kipkosgei Korir, though he played it even closer to the edge than Wanjiru.

Barno had the experience on LA’s iconic Stadium-to-Sea course, having won LA 2017 and taken third a year later. In fact, Elijah Barno took several runs to the front during the 34th LA Marathon, once rushing from 30 meters off the back to five meters in front, rolling right by the pack in a bold rush.

That spurt at the 19th mile seemed to ignite the 22-year-old John Korir who was making his first run in LA and only his third career start at the marathon distance.  When Barno blew by, Korir jumped from a 5:03 18th mile to a 4:38 19th. And away he went like a bottle rocket.

I’m not sure Barno planned it exactly that way, but the next seven miles all fell sub-4:50 (3:00/Km). Korir looked great, riding high in the saddle, elegant in form, galloping to victory, or so it seemed.

The younger brother of 2009 & 2010 LA champion (and 2012 Boston winner) Wesley Korir, John had done something similar in Ottawa, Canada the previous spring in his marathon debut when his mid-race breakaway got gobbled up in the final 2k, though he finished well for second in 2:09:14.

And again in Los Angeles 2019, Korir set off on a series of sub-4:50 miles from 19 all the way to 26, running down tree-lined San Vincente Blvd. in Brentwood like a star in the making. Then his well of energy left him like water swirling from the tub. WHOOSH!

Caught in a vortex of fatigue, Korir slowed like a record on a turntable that had its plug pulled. Almost gone himself, Elijah Barno stumbled as he came up alongside Korir on Ocean Avenue with 150 meters to go in Santa Monica. But Barno still had the course dialed in to the last millimeter because after breaking the tape, he sank to the ground and sat there on the roadway not quite believing it had worked out in his favor.

Elisha Barno of Kenya (L) and John Korir of Kenya celebrate after finishing first and second, respectively, in the 2019 Skechers Performance Los Angeles Marathon on March 24, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

Who says a 2:11 marathon can’t be exciting?

In any case, Elijah Barno leads the men’s field again in LA 2020 this Sunday morning. John Korir isn’t back, but 2016 & 2018 champ Weldon Kirui (fifth in 2019) is returning along with New Zealand’s marathon national record holder Zane Robertson. I will take a deeper dive after I get to LA and conduct some interviews.

We can look for new and bigger things coming out of LA in the next several years. With the 2028 Olympic Games returning to the City of Angels for the third time (1932, 1984), the LA Marathon will link back to its founding Olympic impulse as the area ramps up for the big world gathering.  I guess they will be leading from the front this time.

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