The Alpha Bank Athens Classic Marathon is one of the toughest courses in the world, but Paul Lekuraa, a Kenyan from the Masai Mara shrugged of fatigue, a splitting headache, a late arrival prior to the race, and the close attentions of colleague Julius Kiprotich, to break the race record by nearly two minutes this morning (9).
Mai Tagami of Japan won the women’s race.
MEN - I will struggle like a man, I will fight like a man
In an enthralling finish in the Panathenaiko, the marble stadium built for the 1896 Olympics, Lekuraa, a 35-year-old in only his second marathon, out-sprinted his rival, to win in 2:12:42, with Kiprotich given the same time. They beat last year’s race record time, by another Kenyan Kiprotich, Benjamin, by one minute, 58sec. Paul Kogo, another compatriot entered the stadium at the climax of their mano a mano, and finished third in 2:12:49.
“I only arrived yesterday (Saturday 8),” said Lekuraa, “because of a mix-up with my visa date, and I wasn’t feeling well, I had a bad headache most of the race. I thought of dropping out at one point, but I just waited ‘til I felt comfortable. In the end, I felt relaxed, and thought I could win with a sprint.”
His discomfort wasn’t evident during the early stages of the race, which includes the toughest mid-race climb – it’s uphill from 10k to past 31k - in any major marathon. But given the history of the race, from Marathon to Athens, ie the original marathon course, and the provenance of the race’s name, the runners just have to get on with it.
And Lekuraa did just that, loping easily along in the lee of the pacemaker, Megidio Bourifa, and Kiprotich who took over when the Italian, who is planning a marathon of his own in three weeks’ time, dropped out at 24k. There were still a half dozen men in the lead group at that stage, but that whittled down to the eventual three top finishers by 35k.
Lekuraa owes his participation in Athens, if not a large part of his victory to former World record holder, Paul Tergat. Lekuraa moved to the Ngong Hills, near Nairobi, just four months ago to join Tergat’s training group. At that stage, Lekuraa hadn’t raced abroad for two years, since his debut, a 2:11:00 marathon in Venice.
Tergat called agent, Zane Branson in Europe two weeks ago, and asked for his help. Branson got Lekuraa into the race ten days ago, but the Greek consulate in Nairobi only dated the visa from Saturday. But it was worth the trouble, said Lekuraa, with the gap-toothed smile characteristic of the Masai. Now he is looking to greater things.
“I want to congratulate my ‘brother’ Tergat,” said Lekuraa, “he trained me well. Now, I want to find a race where I can improve my time. And if I can get an Olympic chance, I will struggle like a man, I will fight like a man”. And nobody who saw the finish could argue with that.
WOMEN – Tagami triumphs
The women’s race was won by favourite, Mai Tagami, whose parents travelled from Japan just the day before, to watch her victory in her 20th marathon. Tagami, 28, ran with Russian Elena Tikhonova until halfway in just over 79 minutes, but like Lekuraa, she ran the second half faster, to win in 2:36:58. She is now targeting the Osaka Marathon in mid-January, one of the Japanese selection races for the World Championships in Berlin next summer.
“The pace was slow on the hills,” said Tagami, “so I felt comfortable. But it got harder when I was by myself. But I’m happy to have won a race like this. Now I’d like to beat my personal best (2:29:43) in Osaka”.
The Greek titles were won by Georgios Karavidas, in 2:22:18, and again by Georgia Ampatzidou, who finished third overall, in 2.40.53.
Pat Butcher for the IAAF
1 Paul Lekuraa KEN 2:12:42
2 Julius Kiprotich KEN 2:12:42
3 Paul Kogo KEN 2:12:49
4 Samwel Kalya KEN 2:16:10
5 Gemechu Lemma ETH 2:16.38
6 Michael Chemchir KEN 2:16:47
7 Yoshiyuki Suetsugu JPN 2:17:10
8 Elias KIPKOSGEI KEN 2:19:40
1 Mai Tagami JPN 2:36:58
2 Elena Tokhonova RUS 2:40:45
3 Georgia Ampatzidou GRE 2:40:53
4 Magdalini Gazea GRE 2:41:05
5 Valentyna Poltavska UKR 2:41:07