Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru broke Martin Lel’s one-year-old course record to win the 2009 Flora London Marathon in a personal best of 2:05:10 after a gripping battle with Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede, while Irina Mikitenko became the first woman since Paula Radcliffe in 2003 to retain her London title as she held off a spirited challenge from Britain’s Mara Yamauchi.
The Flora London Marathon is an IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
After Lel was forced to pull out with a hip injury last night, it was the three Olympic medallists who took all three podium places in the men’s race as Kebede, the Beijing bronze medallist, second in 2:05:20, was followed home by Jaouad Gharib who smashed his PB by more than a minute and a half in 2:05:27.
“A course record is very good but in the end it was better to win the race because of all the good runners around me,” said Wanjiru who moves into seventh place on all-time list ahead of Lel.
Mikitenko produced a commading performance as she broke away from the women’s field after 20 miles and led them home in 2:22:11, improving on her 2008 time by more than two minutes.
“I was always confident that I had it in my legs and after 20 miles I saw no reason why I couldn’t win,” said the German record holder. “I felt once I pushed the pace a little the others wouldn’t follow.”
Yamauchi gave the record home crowds much to cheer as she surprised even herself by finishing second in 2:23:12, taking nearly two minutes from her best, while the European 5000m record holder Liliya Shobukhova of Russia produced a debut run to remember, finishing third in 2:24:24.
When three men broke 2:06 for the first time in history last year the 2008 London Marathon was described as the greatest in history. The first three home were even quicker this year but, remarkably, there was an air of disappointment at the end of the men’s race.
Wanjiru had predicted he would break Haile Gebrselassie’s World record of 2:03:59 and when he woke to see perfect conditions across the British capital he must have believed today was be the day – light winds, hardly a cloud in the sky, and temperatures expected to rise no higher than 15 degrees. What could be better?
But crazy early speed put paid to Wanjiru’s hopes as the leaders sped through 10km in 28:30 and half way in 61:35 after setting off inside two hour pace. They’d been asked to take the leaders to 20 miles, but could never maintain such a high tempo.
For the Eritrean debutant Zersenay Tadese it was a baptism of fire. The three-times world half marathon champion found the going too tough at the full distance and, after staying with the leaders through the first 25km, he dropped out at 35km. World champion Luke Kibet was also forced to withdraw; the Kenyan gave up the ghost at 25km.
There were big name casualties in the women’s race too, notably the Olympic champion Constantina Dita who had a day to forget. Running her eighth London Marathon, she struggled to make an impact and dropped out at half way with a pain in her liver and breathing problems.
Beijing silver medallist and two-times World champion Catherine Ndereba again let the leaders get too far ahead and finished seventh in 2:26:22. China’s Zhou Chunxiu, third in Beijing and London champion in 2006, struggled badly in the closing stages and ended 12th in 2:29:02 after running with the leaders for the first 17 miles.
The men set off from Greenwich in perfect conditions as the three Kenyan pacemakers, Elijah Keitany Kiplagat, Samuel Kosgei and John Kales, led them away at a pelt, clocking 4:35 for the first mile. By the time they went through the 5km point, in 14:06, they were already inside two hour pace. The pacemakers took a leading group of eight through the second 5km almost as quickly (14:24) and, incredibly, they passed 10km in a punishing 28:30, 40s quicker than Gebrselassie during his World record in Berlin last September.
Surely it couldn’t last – at this speed they would pass half way in one hour exactly. They slowed slightly but at 15km were still up on Gebrselassie’s schedule at 43:12 – 2:01-2:02 pace – and passed half way in 61:35, one of the fastest half way splits in marathon history.
But the blistering early pace began to take its toll and the pacemakers were soon slowing dramatically. In the 18th mile Ramaala decided he’d had enough and pushed on, taking Wanjiru, Gharib and Kebede clear with a 4:37 surge for the 19th mile that left Tadese adrift. As they headed towards Canary Wharf, Wanjiru decided enough was enough and made a burst immediately followed by Kebede and Gharib.
The two 22-year-olds looked as fresh as Sunday morning joggers, while the 36-year-old Gharib, with a best of 2:07:02, couldn’t match their youthful zeal.
Shortly after mile 20, Wanjiru made his bid for glory and opened a lead on Kebede. Just as he had in Beijing last summer, the young Kenyan defied the swift early pace and kicked ahead, running 4:40 and 4:46 for the 20th and 21st miles.
Kebede had come to London hoping to bring Ethiopia its second major marathon victory in a week, but now he had to watch as the Kenyan gradually turned the screw. He glanced back to see Gharib still in touch behind him and desperately trying to close the gap as they strode along the Embankment.
With less than two miles to go, the race was definitely still on. Yet each time Kebede closed Wanjiru appeared to sense the threat and kicked again. He turned the corner at the Houses of Parliament and put in another burst up Birdcage Walk.
Lel may not have been able to defend his title but the great Kenyan would have been delighted to see his friend following in his footsteps. Wanjiru strode down The Mall to take his teammate’s course record in 2:05:10.
“It was a tough race today,” he said. “All the good runners around make you run well. It wasn’t until the last 200 metres or so that I had the feeling that I was going to win.”
Kebede had given it everything, and was rewarded for his efforts with a personal best by 50 seconds and a place the world all-time top 10. “At around 42km I felt I had to keep running as hard and as fast as I could because I wanted to win,” he said. “There were some very good runners here and to beat most of them is a good feeling. As for winning, maybe next year.”
“It was a really tough race,” said Gharib. “It was difficult to hold on and I think we went too fast in the first half. Every time I got close to the leader he was a little faster. At the end I gave it all I could and I could not hold on.”
Always present at the front of the field, Mikitenko made the most of perfect conditions as she followed the pacemaker, Aniko Kalovics, from the start. The Hungarian had been asked to run 71 minutes for the first half and she stuck to her task pretty well, going through the early miles in 5:27 and 5:22.
Yamauchi, Mikitenko and Zhou were already showing on the pacemaker’s shoulder while Ndereba, true to habit, spent the early miles towards the back.
Dita’s troubles started early. She showed at the front in the first miles, but by the end of the largely downhill third mile (run in a swift 5:07) she was already 30m behind the leaders. For a habitual front runner, it was an ominous sign and by 10km it was game over.
“I thought I could finish but the pain just got too bad,” she said, suggesting the toll of travel and publicity that comes with being an Olympic champion had had been too much.
After five miles (26:39) the leading pack was already down to four – Yamauchi, Mikitenko, Yamauchi, Zhou and the Japanese runner, Mika Okunaga. Mikitenko, wearing long white socks, made a break shortly before 20km (67:09) – leaving Kalovics behind, her day’s work done. The champion crossed Tower Bridge followed by Zhou, in her trademark white cap, and Yamauchi.
At half way the leaders were bang on pace at 1:10:53 while the second group, now led by Ndereba, was a minute down. But with a lot of talented runners in the pack it seemed far from over. Zhou lost touch as the leading trio passed 17 miles, leaving Yamauchi to shadow Mikitenko as they wound through the Isle of Dogs and under the giant Canary Wharf tower.
At 30km (1:41:14) Mikitenko made her first push for victory but Yamauchi clung to her like an owner to an untamed dog. Each time the German appeared to be opening a small gap, the Briton dragged her back until, with her husband Alexander urging her on at the roadside, Mikitenko kicked in a 20th mile of 5:24.
That effort opened three or four metres which slowly grew to 10m, then 15m. After a 21st mile of 5:25 the champion and favourite was away and gone. A year ago she’d saved her effort until mile 24, but Mikitenko passed the Tower of London, shortly after 22 miles, getting stronger and stronger, while Yamauchi, 13 seconds back, was being cheered home by some of the biggest crowds ever seen at the London Marathon.
Behind the leaders, Berhan Adere led the chasers with Shobukhova and fellow Russian Svetlana Zakharova beside her.
Mikitenko powered down the Embankment towards Westminster, with a 40s gap on her chaser. For the second year in a row she strode alone through Parliament Square, up Birdcage Walk and into The Mall to become the first woman to retain the London title for six years.
She crossed the line in 2:22:11 followed by Yamauchi. She’d said she wanted to knock chunks off her PB and had done just that.
“I finally got under 2:25,” said the Briton. “I knew I had made a big improvement in my training in the last year and the field today was as good as any championships field. Second is fantastic.”
Shobukhova followed Yamauchi home, a superb debut from her, with Zakharova 42 seconds behind. Adere was fifth and Ndereba sixth – once again having let the leaders get too far ahead.
“I was surprised the others fell back so quickly,” said Mikitenko “I was stronger today but in the last 3km I really had to fight as I was leading the race and the wind was a little hard.
“But the race was awesome. Of course, I was under pressure as the title defender but I trained really well and now I can’t believe I have won for the second time in a row at the London Marathon. I am so happy.”
Wanjiru felt much the same. Asked whether he felt the world record had slipped form his grasp, he said: “I am happy because at the end my condition was bad and I just wanted to win. It is all good experience and maybe next time we can break the record.”
Matthew Brown for the IAAF
1 WANJIRU, SAMUEL (KEN) 2:05:10
2 KEBEDE, TSEGAY (ETH) 2:05:20
3 GHARIB, JAOUAD (MAR) 2:05:27
4 MUTAI, EMMANUEL (KEN) 2:06:53
5 RAMAALA, HENDRICK (RSA) 2:07:44
6 GOUMRI, ABDERRAHIM (MAR) 2:08:25
7 KIFLE, YONAS (ERI) 2:08:28
8 SATO, ATSUSHI (JPN) 2:09:16
1 MIKITENKO, IRINA (GER) 2:22:11
2 YAMAUCHI, MARA (GBR) 2:23:12
3 SHOBUKOVA, LILIYA (RUS) 2:24:24
4 ZAKHAROVA, SVETLANA (RUS) 2:25:06
5 ADERE, BERHANE (ETH) 2:25:30
6 ABITOVA, INGA (RUS) 2:25:55
7 NDEREBA, CATHERINE (KEN) 2:26:22
8 MORIMOTO, TOMO (JPN) 2:26:29
9 WAMI, GETE (ETH) 2:26:54
10 PETROVA, LYUDMILA (RUS) 2:27:42