With a leap across the finishing line and a huge smile on her face; Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe completed a hat trick of victories in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships and a feat unprecedented in long distance running here today.
Tapping remarkable powers of endurance; the elf like Loroupe achieved her victory just a week after setting a new world best for the marathon in Berlin against opponents who were rested and fresh for this race:
After what by their high standards was a disappointing World Championships in Seville, where they picked up only one gold medal, the Kenyan juggernaut really began to pick up full speed again as Paul Tergat won an exciting men’s race.
The 26 year old Loroupe ignored her coach’s tactical orders to win in 68min 48sec: Volker Wagner; Loroupe’s German trainer, had wanted her to leave it as late as possible before making her move but she broke away with three miles of the 13.1 mile race remaining.
Wagner sat in the press tribune shaking his head but, perhaps invigorated by the powerful smell of the Mediterranean Sea alongside the finish on the harbour of Sicily’s famous old capital, Loroupe piled on the pressure in the closing stages as the temperatures climbed towards the high 20s.
"Having run the marathon last week my quads were hurting so I didn’t want to have to push downhill which is why I went earlier than I was supposed to," said Loroupe. "But I felt so good I think I could have run 66 minutes today."
She finished 24 seconds ahead of the runner up, Japan’s Mizuki Noguchi, a 21 year old making her big breakthrough to world class, to add Palermo to her roll of honour in this event which already included triumphs in Kosice in 1997 and Zurich 1998.
Among those left trailing by Loroupe were her team mates Catherine Ndereba, winner of her last nine consecutive road races, and Joyce Chepchumba, the London Marathon winner, South Africa’s 1994 World Half Marathon champion Elana Meyer, Russia’s 1992 Olympic marathon winner Valentina Yegorova and Ethiopia’s Barcelona 10,000 metres gold medallist Derartu Tulu.
Loroupe was so far ahead as she entered the homestraight that she was able to wave to the cheering crowd and then performed a celebration across the line.
It was well deserved after an incredible year of trailblazing success which, apart from her world best of 2 hours 20 minutes 43 seconds, has also seen her win the Rotterdam marathon in April and a bronze medal in the 10,000 metres at the World Championships in Seville in August.
Loroupe’s brilliant performance inspired her team mates to retain their team title ahead of Japan with Ndereba claiming the individual bronze and Chepchumba finishing fith.
Romania continued their remarkable record in this event as, led by the fourth placed Florina Pana, they took the bronze medals.
Already winner of a record five consecutive World Cross County titles and a former world record holder for the 10,000 metres, the Italian based Tergat further displayed his versatility with this triumphant performance on the road.
But it was close after Tergat narrowly avoided disaster in the final 100 metres when an official accidentally blocked his path as he sprinted clear of South Africa’s Hendrick Ramaala and Ethiopia’s Tesfaye Jifar.
Doing well to stay on his feet, it was remarkable that Tergat managed to regain his momentum so quickly to win by a stride in 61:50.
"Normally when you sprint all you are concentrating on is the finishing line," said Tergat. "I would have been very angry if I had lost because of the official. I was lucky I didn’t fall over and was still able to fight to win."
Defeat was tough on Ramaala, the silver medallist in Zurich 12 months ago, who at one stage looked to be struggling to maintain contact with the large leading group before suddenly sprinting to the front with two and a half miles remaining.
But he admitted he wouldn’t have liked to have claimed the first prize of $40,000 in such controversial circumstances. "I would have felt guilty if I had won because I don’t believe it would have been fair," said Ramaala, who was given the same time as Tergat and one second ahead of the bronze medallist Jifar.
Consolation for Ramaala came in the form of South Africa retaining their team title thanks to the sixth placed Abner Chipu and the tenth placed Mluleki Nobanda. The combined time of 3 hours 6 minutes 1 second left them only two seconds ahead of Ethiopia and Kenya.
Tergat’s time was well outside the world best of 59:17 he set in Milan last year but, nevertheless, hinted that the Kenyan Air Force corporal is on schedule for a successful marathon debut.
He is seriously considering abandoning the track to run 26.2 miles next spring with an eye on challenging for the Olympic gold medal. If he does decide that the road to glory stretches out before him, then Kenya could again be celebrating double success in Sydney.
Duncan Mackay for the IAAF