London, UKZhou Chunxiu, of China, and Kenya’s Martin Lel both sped past Buckingham Palace this morning as it shimmered in an unseasonable heat haze to claim outstanding victories in the Flora London Marathon.
The two races were of entirely different character: setting off 45 minutes ahead of the men, the elite women were effectively down to just six contestants after barely 5km; the men’s event, meanwhile, looked more like a middle distance track race, as a clutch of six of the top marathoners in history entered the final mile together.
Zhou, 28, came to London with a reputation as a strong and consistent performer, having run sub-2:30 four times in a calendar year. Yet the Asian Games gold medallist was also something of an unknown quantity, having never before run in one of the big city marathons in the west.
After this performance, and ahead of this year’s IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Osaka, Japan and next year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, the rest of world marathon running will now know Zhou as the one to beat.
She demolished her world-class rivals with a withering turn of pace in the latter stages of an already fast race, covering the 24th mile in just 5min 9sec to break clear of the early leader, Holland’s Lornah Kiplagat, the 2006 World Road Running champion.
By the time she reached The Mall and the finish, there was no one else in sight. Zhou crossed the finishing line in 2:20:38, the fastest time in the world so far this year. Ethiopian Gete Wami, who had been at Zhou’s shoulder throughout the race until that late burst, finished more than a minute adrift in 2:21:45, with Romania’s Constantina Tomescu-Dita running a patient race to come through for third in 2:23:55.
Kiplagat, who was the winner of the 2007 World Cross Country title less than month ago in Mombasa, this time was broken by the heat and distance, and she ‘jogged’ home the final three miles, finishing fifth in 2:24:46.
There was no such thing as the loneliness of the long distance runner for Lel, however. The men approached their race much more cautiously, so that as they turned right into Parliament Square at Westminster, with less than a mile of the race to run, there were six still in contention, including the World record holder, Paul Tergat (KEN), the double World champion, Jaouad Gharib (MAR), and Felix Limo (KEN), the 2006 London winner.
Though Gharib was clearing chomping at his bit, eager to kick for home, no one else wanted to commit too soon. “I had to be careful to preserve myself,” Lel said, perhaps remembering 12 months ago, when in attempting to defend the London title he had won in 2005, he ended up finishing second by 2 seconds.
So it was that only after the final, right-angle turn into The Mall did the 28-year-old from the Rift Valley put in his sprint, outrunning Gharib’s training partner, Abderrahim Goumri, who clocked 2:07:44 on his marathon debut, just three seconds behind Lel.
Limo this time had to be satisfied with third place in 2:07:47 in what Lel described as “one of the greatest races ever”, and which was also notable for another debut marathon runner, Ryan Hall of the United States, who placed seventh - just behind the great Tergat - in 2:08:24.
The conditions on the day were undoubtedly a factor in the tactics and outcome of both races. When the elite women started at Blackheath at 9am local time, the temperature was still a comfortable 16 degrees. By noon, just after the men were finishing their 26-mile 385-yard torment, the mercury had risen by 10 degrees and the humidity was soaring, making it tough indeed for the 35,000-or-so bobbing heads in the mass race.
The race organisers had taken special precautions, laying on 100,000 drinks bottles around the route to avoid the necessity of abandoning the mass race as had been necessary in Rotterdam a week earlier. “People have got more chance of drowning than of dehydrating,” said race director Dave Bedford, apparently trying to reassure people.
WOMEN’s race details
In the relative cool early in the piece, a handful of the women were confident to assault the 2:20 barrier with some attacking pace-making. The six leaders, preceded by their two Kenyan pacemakers, rolled down the hill towards Woolwich in just 5:04 for the third mile, clocking 16:24 for 5km, or 2hr 18min pace.
Along the flat road beside the Thames to Greenwich, Kiplagat, Zhou, Wami, Berhane Adere, last year’s Chicago winner, Tomescu-Dita and Benita Johnson continued to click through the miles to reach 10km in 32:55.
The long, straight roads through the old south London docks seemed to extenuate the gaps. Back in seventh at this point was Salina Kosgei, cautiously but shrewdly 17sec adrift, with Britain's Mara Yamauchi next, a further 30sec behind.
Zhou, a white baseball cap pulled down over her eyes, dogged Kiplagat’s every step as the Dutchwoman tucked in behind the pacemakers.
Johnson, bidding to become the first Australian to win this race, was soon noticeable as she buzzed about the back of the group, looking anxious to get her drinks. It was an early distress signal, and the 2004 World Cross Country champion was soon off the back of the group as it passed 15km in 49:34.
Towards Tower Bridge, miles 10, 11 and 12 were run in metronomic fashion, 5:21, 5:21 and 5:20, and as the women crossed the River Thames, Johnson had already conceded 30sec to the front five, as 20km was reached by Zhou and Kiplagat’s group in 66:18, halfway in 69:58.
The Romanian was the next to drop back, Constantina-Dita’s shoulders rocking and rolling as the women entered the second hour of the race maintaining their sub-2:20 pace.
If anything, goaded by Kiplagat, the women were speeding up. The 14th mile was covered in just 5:18, the Ethiopian duo hanging in with Zhou. Now the race was really on.
Adere was the next to crack and, like Johnson, she lost ground quickly, her stride deteriorating to little better than a shuffle as the runners weaved their way below the tower blocks of Canary Wharf. It left Wami tucked in alongside Zhou and in the shadow of the taller, leggier Kiplagat as 25km was reached by the trio in 1:22:50.
But perhaps in those mid-race mile splits were the signs that Kiplagat, such an elegant runner when in full flow, was no longer feeling at ease with herself. With her eyes masked by trademark sunglasses, there were no obvious signs of tiredness in her face, but the stopwatch told the tale: from running sub-5:20 per mile, with Kiplagat in the lead, Zhou and Wami in line astern, the 16th mile took 5:24, the 17th 5:26, the 19th 5:30, the 21st 5:37.
Now Zhou struck and she and Wami left the Dutchwoman as if she was standing still. Alongside the old Royal Mint, daylight opened between the Chinese and her Ethiopian rival. The new, downhill stretch of the course, as it bypasses the Tower of London and whisks the runners down to river level as they head westwards, was where Zhou picked up the speed decisively.
Wami glanced over her shoulder in the knowledge that second was the best she would manage today, and she was left to watch Zhou disappear into the distance as they went along the Embankment on the run for home.
Behind her, Kiplagat was wound in, first by Tomescu-Dita, then, on Birdcage Walk, by Kosgei, as she and Britain’s Yamauchi, sixth in 2:25:41, ran the best paced races of all.
“I knew I was in with the chance of winning because my training has gone so well this year,” said Zhou. “The weather and heat has not affected me as this the type of heat I train in. It was a wonderful race to win as there was such good people to beat. I’m very happy to win in London.”
MEN’s race details
Dave Bedford is a bit of an old romantic, having more than once professed his dream that one of his two favourites, Paul Tergat and Haile Gebrselassie, should one day win the London Marathon.
But the lesson of today’s 27th running of the event is surely that, with both African distance greats now in their mid- to late 30s, the London race director may never see his dream realised.
Tergat, at least, had the consolation of landing a rare win over his greatest rival - the head-to-head score is now 22-4 in the Ethiopian’s favour, after Gebrselassie stepped off the road shortly after the 30km mark, complaining of a stitch. It is just the latest reversal of fortune for Gebrselassie, who after such a promising marathon debut here in 2002, saw him struggle to place ninth last year.
Although clearly not in any great distress afterwards, apart from suffering from hurt pride, “I had a stitch here,” Gebrselassie explained, pointing to his side. “I could not continue. I don't know why. I'm not injured. I could not breathe. I didn't know what was going wrong. It's not the heat.”
Even Tergat, though he finished the race, was looking his age today. When the younger generation of marathon runners - Lel and Limo, Goumri and Gharib, plus 24-year-old American Ryan Hall, his sodden vest flapping in what little breeze there was - began to jostle for position along the Embankment in the final miles, Tergat, 38 later this year, was at full stretch just to hang on to the back of the group.
Unlike the women’s race, the men were very much more conservative in the early stages through south London, seeing a large number of men all within reach of the leader, though split into two different pace groups. The Americans Hall and Meb Keflezighi, along with Stefano Baldini, Italy’s Olympic and European champion, settled themselves in the second pack, which left a 10-metre gap to the dozen men in the front group.
Steady miles in the 4:50s saw them reach 20km in 60:22, with just 10sec covering the top 18 runners, although Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medallist, was already feeling the heat and detached.
By halfway (63:39), with the surfeit of pacemakers peeling away, discernable lead pack of nine had formed, with Goumri - a 7min 30sec 3000m track runner who is coached by past London winner Abdelkader El Mouaziz - displaying a bit of inexperience by making himself prominent.
Goumri’s fellow debutant, Hall, worked hard over the next couple of miles to cross the gap to the lead group, as Baldini’s challenge evaporated and Khalid Khannouchi - who set a World best when beating Tergat and Gebrselassie to win the 2002 London - also weakening as the leaders passed 30km in 1:30:40, with ninth placed Benson Cherono some 53sec back, as they steadily clicked off the miles in just inside 5min per mile pace.
Through 20 miles, and well into uncharted racing territory for the young Californian, Hall started to take the race on. But there was no significant increase in the pace. This was an old fashioned foot race, the attrition of the distance seeing men reluctantly concede their chances of winning, as the runners in the lead pack weaved backwards and forwards, like road cyclists before the final sprint of a stage race.
Gharib tried to push things along on the stiff climb from the Blackfriars underpass with two miles to run, but failed to open a significant gap on his rivals, as Hall now began to struggle to hold things together.
Even into the last 600 metres of the red-coloured road that surrounds the Royal Parks and leads to Buckingham Palace, there remained four men with real chances of victory in what might have been a Kenya v Morocco match event - training partners Gharib and Goumri, and Lel and Limo, the distant cousins from the Rift Valley.
It is 99 years since a race in London gave the world those often agonising added 385 yards at the end of he marathon, and today Lel used them to his advantage as he rounded St James’s Park into The Mall and launched his finishing kick to break away from Goumri and Limo.
“This was one of the greatest races ever,” the 28-year-old said, his $80,000 winner’s and time bonus cheque safely pocketed in his tracksuit. “There were Olympic champions, Olympic medallists, all kinds of medallists out there.”
“This means more to me than when I won two years ago. I am very proud of it.”
Steven Downes for the IAAF
Flora London Marathon RESULTS
1 LEL, MARTIN (KEN) 2:07:41
2 GOUMRI, ABDERRAHIM (MAR) 2:07:44
3 LIMO, FELIX (KEN) 2:07:47
4 GHARIB, JAOUAD (MAR) 2:07:54
5 RAMAALA, HENDRICK (RSA) 2:07:56
6 TERGAT, PAUL (KEN) 2:08:06
7 HALL, RYAN (USA) 2:08:24
8 GOMES, MARILSON (BRA) 2:08:37
1 ZHOU, CHUNXIU (CHN) 2:20:38
2 WAMI, GETE (ETH) 2:21:45
3 TOMESCU-DITA, CONSTANTINA (ROM) 2:23:55
4 KOSGEI, SALINA (KEN) 2:24:13
5 KIPLAGAT, LORNAH (NED) 2:24:46
6 YAMAUCHI, MARA (GBR) 2:25:41
7 JOHNSON, BENITA (AUS) 2:29:47
8 YELLING, LIZ (GBR) 2:30:44
2006-2007 World Marathon Majors leaderboard
1. Robert Cheruiyot (KEN), 75 pts.
2. Martin Lel (KEN), 40 pts.
3. Felix Limo (KEN), 35 pts.
1. Jelena Prokopcuka (LAT), 55 pts.
2. Gete Wami (ETH), 40 pts.
3. Rita Jeptoo (KEN), 35 pts.