"Defending is hard... If you're running for the first time, no one knows who you are but going to defend, everybody is going to look at you."
So said Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat before arriving in Moscow and in the early stages of the women’s Marathon, the first gold medal event of the IAAF World Championships, that was certainly the case as everyone was looking for the defending champion.
Trailing the early leaders by almost half a minute through the first 10km, many were questioning whether a title defence was possible, although she had finished as the runner-up in April for the second successive year in the top-quality London Marathon race and there were no physical questions that needed answering.
Explaining the slow beginning, Kiplagat said she was deliberately trying to stay out of early trouble, one senses to avoid a repeat of her fate in Daegu where she fell over late in the race. Perhaps more of a concern was the lethargy in her body that didn’t react well to the unusual early afternoon start time.
“I tried to change the time in which I was training in Kenya so I can test and prepare for today’s weather,” explained Kiplagat.
“My body was tired from the start. When we started the race it did not react immediately so I had to start slowly so it could pick up but it was hard for me. I wanted my body to relax a little bit, and prepare my mind, so my body could pick up gradually.”
Pick up it did, as if a button was suddenly switched on just after 10 kilometres, she charged through the next five kilometres a good 20 seconds faster than any other in the race, propelling her back into the lead group.
From there the 33-year-old always looked on course to create World Championships history by becoming the first woman to successfully defend a Marathon title, even if it did take until the final few kilometres to shake off the tenacious Italian Valeria Straneo who won a surprise silver medal.
In doing so Kiplagat surpassed her hero, the Kenyan women’s marathon trailblazer Catherine Ndereba, who won two World Championship gold medals in 2003 and 2007 but which were separated by a second place to Paula Radcliffe in Helsinki 2005.
Now she joins Ndereba with two World titles to her name, but with back-to-back victories Kiplagat achieved something that even evaded the grasp of the marathon runner widely nicknamed ‘Catherine the Great’.
Into the bargain, her gold medal also definitively exorcised the painful memory of her meltdown at the London 2012 Olympic Games last summer when she started as one of the favourites only to finish a disappointing 20th.
To describe Edna Kiplagat as a wonder woman would be an understatement, taking into account her domestic circumstances.
She's a mother of two young children, Carlos (9) and Wendy (5), with husband and coach Gilbert Koech, but the duo also have responsibility for two older children, Mercy (17) and Collins (11), who were adopted from sister Alice who died of breast cancer in 2003.
The family split their time between the Rift Valley in Kenya and Boulder, Colorado, in the USA. The line between athlete and coach, mother and father is a juggling act that requires a total family commitment.
“My husband is very much supporting me,” commented Kiplagat, who also tasted success on the global stage as a junior with medals over 3000m at the IAAF World Junior Championships in 1996 and 1998 before becoming a journeywoman professional for almost a decade, in between having her two children and dealing with the aftermath of her sister's death.
“During the time of training we take ourselves as athlete and coach, so we take our programme seriously. But when we go home, we stay as mother and father and we are helping to take care of our children.
“Our children also know that when we go home from training they give us enough time and they understand what it means when we are working as a family for their success. They are now big enough to understand our responsibilities as professionals in sport.”
After her victory in Moscow, running the fastest ever women’s time on Russian roads, it’s now time to be a family, with Kiplagat set to return home to Kenya to enjoy the victory with no immediate plans for her next Marathon.
David Culbert for the IAAF