Sammy Wanjiru defends his Chicago Marathon title (Getty Images) © Copyright
General News Chicago, USA

Wanjiru and Shobukhova defend titles in Chicago - UPDATED

Though the marathon is portrayed as a great physical challenge, Sunday's (10) Bank of America Chicago Marathon winners triumphed by using their minds.

The defending champions of this IAAF Gold Label Road Race, Sammy Wanjiru and Lilya Shobukova, took drastically different paths to their victories.  Kenya's Wanjiru battled Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede nearly until the race's final 400 metre straightaway before claiming victory by 19 seconds in 2:06:24.  Shobukova passed early leader and race runner-up Astede Baysa near the 21 mile mark and won by over three minutes in a new Russian national record of 2:20:25.

The win should sew up the World Marathon Majors (WMM) titles for both Wanjiru and Shobukova, which are worth $500,000 each.  In addition Wanjiru and Shobukova won $115,000 in prize and time bonus money. The only way Wanjiru could not claim the WMM men's prize is if Kebede runs and wins the ING New York City Marathon on 7 November, an unlikely scenario, but Kebede didn't rule it out, saying at the post race press conference that he would return home, recover, and then decide if he will attempt the double. 

One of the most consistent top performers on the marathon circuit, Kebede appeared a bit shell shocked afterwards, having surged away from Wanjiru several times during the closing stages of the race, only to have Wanjiru come back and pass him within 600 metres of the finish on the course's only hill, the railway overpass on Roosevelt Road.

Wanjiru - In a marathon, 'You go to war'

"You have to think," said Wanjiru.  "You go to war, you are fighting."  For Wanjiru the battle was as much with himself as Kebede. 

Struggling all through 2010 with injuries to his back and right knee, followed by a stomach virus that set him back three weeks prior to the Chicago race, Wanjiru almost didn't make it to the starting line.  His manager, Federico Rosa, said that the virus caused Wanjiru to miss three days of training and his last long run before the event.  Both knew that Wanjiru wasn't in peak form, but decided to come anyway with less ambitious goals.

"Going in we thought second or third would be a success," said Rosa, and when Kebede repeatedly dropped Wanjiru with surges, it appeared that he'd have to settle for one of those spots.

"I was losing hope," said Wanjiru, of failing to be able to stay with Kebede's surges.  But he never lost his fighting spirit or his guile. 

As Kebede got a gap on him, Wanjiru moved toward the curb on one side of the road while Kebede stayed in the middle.  The tactic served two purposes for Wanjiru who knew the course from last year's win, but also he was able to "hide" from his opponent, giving him, perhaps, a false sense of security or a belief that he had broken Wanjiru and the race was won.  When Sammy covered Tsegaye's last surge and the pair was together nearing the Roosevelt rise, Rosa couldn't believe his eyes.  "I've never seen anything like it," Rosa said of Wanjiru's repeated comeback when he knew his runner was not physically at his best. "It was the greatest surprise I have ever seen in my life."

"I was not really in the best shape," said Wanjiru.  "I pushed the body." 

Kebede pushed his body to the max as well, but both he and Rosa knew that Wanjiru was the faster finisher and when Sammy was still with him at the end, he found he could not respond to the jet like surge Wanjiru threw on the hill and closing downhill straightaway.  The rising heat - the temperature climbed into the 70s by the time they reached the finish line - was given as the reason the pace slowed from the 1:02:37 pace the leaders went through at halfway, but it encouraged Wanjiru.  From the time he spent in Japan, where he was recruited to run at age 16, Wanjiru had become used to running in both high heat and humidity, so he took an "ownership" of sorts with the climate, believing that it played to his advantage. 

"I try," said Kebede. "I am happy.  This is not the end. I will run again.  It is a chance, you know, sometime up... The tactic was to start slow, but the pace was very slow.  I was feeling good, that's why I was running up next to the pacemakers.  I try to push three times. I did not (wonder what) Sammy was doing (when he was "hiding"). I was running to win."

Shobukhova - tactical and fast

Shobukhova had a similarly singular race plan and she executed it with precision.  Clicking off 5:20 miles, she passed halfway in 1:10:00, and only slowed 25 seconds in the second half.  Baysa could not match that as she followed the pacemaker through the half in 1:09:45 and stretched her lead over Shobukhova to 28 seconds by 30K. But the heat took it's toll, Baysa said, as instead of 5:20 miles, she slipped to 5:40s and soon saw Shobukhova motor past. 

"My shape was perfect," Baysa said.  "Because of that I tried to push from the beginning.  I thought if I push from the beginning, I have a chance to win the race. It was difficult for me to push the pace after the pacemaker was out.  The problem was the weather, the heat."

Behind the leaders the weather also took it's toll on 1984 Olympic Marathon champion, Joan Samuelson, who followed a pattern similar to Baysa, running the first half in 1:21:50 and finishing in 2:47:50.  "I always run the way I feel,"  said Samuelson.  "I felt good early in the race, but when I passed 10 miles in a little over 60 minutes I knew I was in trouble.  At 20 miles I saw a time and temperature clock and it read 80 degrees. I didn't think I was going to break three hours at that point, but I pulled it together.  In the middle of the race a lot of people were passing me.  Towards the end I was passing people and at 22 miles I could see that sub 2:50 was possible."

It was a younger American, Desiree Davila who led three women finishing in the top ten to highlight the continued resurgence of US distance runners.  Despite the conditions, she managed a personal best of 2:26:20 in fourth place. 

"Not putting limits on things has allowed me to surprise myself," she said. 

The top American man also ran a personal best.  Jason Hartmann was one of two US men in the top ten with his 2:11:06, but he recognizes he does have limits.  "I had every excuse to do bad," he said.  "But I chose to run smart.  I just kept focusing on what was ahead of me.  I tried to let the race unfold and run within myself. The last four miles is hot and gritty, but when I got to 40K, I thought, only two K to go, six to six thirty of running left. I have no illusions of running 2:06, but I think I have a shot at running 2:09.  In two years time (at the Trials for the 2012 Olympics) I'll let the chips fall where they may."

A record number of runners - 38,132 - started the race.  Race director Carey Pinkowski said that the number of finishers was also "trending" toward a record number as well by seven hours into the event.

Jim Ferstle for the IAAF