It took Vivian Cheruiyot three attempts at the distance to get it absolutely right but it wouldn’t be fair to say her win at this year’s London Marathon was simply a case of third-time lucky.
The outcome was the result of a more rounded and robust preparation. The Kenyan covered more miles in training in the build-up and combined it with a game-plan which was mindful of Cheruiyot’s condition, the experience of her debut last year when she faded to fourth, and the fact the race was billed as a world record attempt.
Mary Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba both started aggressively in pursuit of Paula Radcliffe’s mark in conditions which Keitany later reflected were not conducive for such exploits but Cheruiyot – unlike last year when she described herself as “totally kaput in the last half” – still had plenty in reserve at the corresponding checkpoint in 1:08:56, one minute slower than in her debut last year.
But not only was Cheruiyot on course to run a big lifetime best, she was still within striking distance if either of the leaders faltered. They both did. She caught Dibaba in the 19th mile before reeling in Keitany four miles later.
This performance was Cheruiyot’s arrival into the big-time at the distance, moving to fourth on the world all-time list with 2:18:31. It was a masterclass in strategy and pace judgement (there was only a 13-second discrepancy in her four 10km segments: 32:53, 32:39, 32:51, 32:49) and a performance which was respectful of both the conditions and the distance.
“Based on her training, I had a good idea what she was capable of running,” said her coach and manager Ricky Simms. “I have coached Vivian for 14 years and we have a very good understanding.
“I didn’t know what the other girls could run but I knew that going out in 1:07:30 was too fast for her. We studied previous performances in the London Marathon over the past 15 years and, more often than not, even splits – or even negative splits – produced more success than a large differential.
“Last year Vivian went off very fast and paid the price in the final stages,” he added. “She did not want to repeat that again this year.”
Getting to grips with the distance
Last year’s debut was a tough baptism for Cheruiyot, although a fourth-place finish in 2:23:50 was by no means a poor showing for a newcomer to the distance.
She won her second attempt at the distance at the Frankfurt Marathon in October with a near identical time of 2:23:35 in cold and windy conditions which Cheruiyot expresses a distaste for. But as solid as her first two marathons were, they were not quite on a level with her fantastic times and performances over 5000m and 10,000m.
“Vivian was one of the best track runners in the history of the sport but it took her some time to change her mentality from track training to marathon training,” said Simms. “She learned a lot in her first two marathons and this helped her to be successful in London.
“As someone who was at the top of the world on the track, it was hard for her to not be immediately successful in marathon. We expected her to run about 2:20 on her debut but her first half last year ruined her chances of doing so. She was running most of the race in Frankfurt at 2:19-2:20 pace but a strong wind blew away a fast time and she slowed a lot in the final 10 to 15 kilometres.
“Our aim for London this year was to be strong in the latter part of the race, unlike her two previous races,” he said.
Cheruiyot extolled the virtues of being patient and “running comfortably” at the winners’ press conference. While reluctant to discuss the prospect of challenging the world record any time soon, the consensus in the Cheruiyot camp is there is still room for improvement. Cheruiyot said she is “learning about the event” and while her preparations were better than they were for her two marathons in 2017, it was “still not close to perfect”, according to Simms.
Cheruiyot missed one week of training in early March due to a bout of flu and she was forced to miss another week after the New York Half Marathon on 18 March. She was taken to hospital after extreme breathing problems caused by the cold temperatures forced her to drop out. “This is not in the ‘how to prepare for a marathon’ textbook,” said Simms.
Cheruiyot increased her weekly mileage to an average of 100-110 miles at her base in Kaptagat where she is aided by a group of male pacemakers with her husband Moses overseeing her programme. Looking ahead, there is scope to further increase the volume as Cheruiyot gets stronger and more used to the rigours of marathon training.
“We had to very gradually increase her mileage to ensure her body could handle it,” said Simms. “Looking ahead, she can definitely add more volume – in line with what other top marathon runners are doing – but also run high mileage for a longer period. She may not be an athlete that needs to run very high mileage compared to some others.”
Keeping the winning habit on the road to Tokyo
Having won two world titles at 5000m, two at 10,000m and the 2016 Olympic title at 5000m, Cheruiyot’s esteemed career on the track was defined by her excellent championship record. This is the approach they will assume over the marathon distance with race victories – not fast times – being the foremost goal.
“Vivian definitely has the potential to run faster but with the marathon you never know what you are going to do on the day and you don't get that many attempts when you are fully healthy on a fast course with good weather,” says Simme. “For Vivian it will be about trying to win races and hopefully she will be able to improve her time if she gets to run on one of the fast courses.”
Cheruiyot confirmed at the press conference she has fully retired from the track but that is not to say she is altogether done with championship racing. There aren’t any races on the immediate itinerary but the Tokyo Olympics – which would be her fifth Games – very much feature in the long-term plans.
“I think we will take it step by step,” said Simms. “It is important for her to be consistent at the level she is at now, stay healthy and try to move forward. It would be great if she could have the option to run at the 2019 World Championships and 2020 Olympic Games but unfortunately the Kenyan selection system does not allow us to plan in this way.
“She has one gold, two silvers and one bronze from previous Olympic Games,” adds Simms. “I know she would like to add another gold in Tokyo.”
Steven Mills for the IAAF