The global standard of marathon running has rapidly progressed since Abel Kirui won his two world titles, but the 34-year-old Kenyan showed with his victory at the recent Bank of America Chicago Marathon that he is still a force.
Having battled injuries over the past few years, Kirui hadn’t won a marathon since taking victory at the 2011 IAAF World Championships in Daegu. Five years on, when Kirui lined up for last weekend’s Chicago Marathon, many believed that he was past his peak.
Kirui didn’t, though.
In a race with no pacemakers – an ideal scenario for a man who excels at championships – Kirui timed his race to perfection and pulled away from defending champion Dickson Chumba over the final 500 metres to win in 2:11:23.
“I have done well to show that I still have the energy and the tactics to win big city marathons,” Kirui told Xinhua earlier this week after landing the first big city marathon victory of his career.
From fast times to master tactician
Less than three years after making his marathon debut, Kirui was one of the fastest marathon runners of all time.
His first big breakthrough came when he finished second to Haile Gebrselassie at the 2007 Berlin Marathon in 2:06:51, taking almost four minutes off his PB. Seven months later, Kirui smashed the course record when winning the Vienna Marathon in 2:07:38.
His landmark season, though, came in 2009. During spring of that year, he set a lifetime best of 2:05:04 when finishing third in Rotterdam. He then went on to win the world title in Berlin, setting a championship record of 2:06:54.
But Kirui, once one of the six fastest men in history, has learnt that fast times do not count for much in a championship setting.
When Kirui ran his PB, he was sixth on the world all-time list. By the time he won his second world title in 2011, he had slipped to 10th. Five years on from that, with the depth of marathon running having gone from strength to strength, Kirui is now 33rd on the world all-time list.
Kirui, however, is still a contender.
As defending champion, Kirui had a wildcard for the 2013 World Championships in Moscow, but he was unable to use it as he was injured at the time.
In a bid to represent Kenya in the marathon – arguably one of the toughest teams to make – at subsequent major championships, the 2012 Olympic silver medallist was also overlooked for the 2015 World Championships and Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
There are still 10 months to go until the IAAF World Championships London 2017, but Kirui’s Chicago victory over a world-class field gave a clear indication that he’s capable of challenging the world’s best.
Of the 17 marathons he has finished to date, Kirui has made it on to the podium in more than half of them. And of his four marathon victories, two of them were at the World Championships.
Just four other athletes – Abel Anton, Jaouad Gharib, Catherine Ndereba and Edna Kiplagat – have won two world titles in the marathon. Kirui now hopes to become the first person in history to win three world marathon titles.
“What remains is to prove in another event that the win in Chicago was no fluke,” he said. “I have trained hard and deserve the credit and will continue to prove to my critics that I was in the best of my shape.”
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF