The talk has been of records and reputations this week in the build-up to the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, where a flurry of superlatives are being scattered around to describe the event’s traditional stellar fields for the races on Sunday (26).
The race celebrates its 35th edition this year with two of the greatest elite line-ups ever seen – a phrase that’s worn thin with repeated use over recent years, though it’s no less accurate for that – and a fitting tribute to one of its finest competitors, Paula Radcliffe, who makes her final appearance on the course where she pushed the bounds of female marathon running so spectacularly 12 years ago.
Back then, Radcliffe left the world’s best trailing in her head-bobbing wake, but she will start behind the elite runners this time and instead will hear the gun among the club athletes and British championship competitors.
She aims to run hard and enjoy the atmosphere one last time before receiving a lifetime achievement award at the finish to mark her three London Marathon victories between 2002 and 2005, the year when she set the ‘women-only’ world record to go alongside her ‘mixed race’ mark from two years earlier.
It’s likely Radcliffe won’t be the first world record holder across the line, however, for Dennis Kimetto is set to star in a men’s race styled as a ‘clash of the champions’ between himself and Wilson Kipsang, the former world record holder who broke the London course record last year when he won in 2:04:29.
Kimetto, who broke the 2:03 barrier in September’s Berlin Marathon, will make his London Marathon debut, while Kipsang runs here for the fourth time after winning in 2012 and 2014.
The two are training partners in Iten but have never faced each other over the marathon distance.
The softly-spoken Kimetto is hardly one for bold predictions, though he claims to have prepared as well for this as he did for his record-breaking run in Berlin, while his smiling and eloquent stablemate is exuding an air of confidence ahead of his title defence.
Kipsang hat-trick hopes
Kipsang is aiming to become only the fourth man to take a hat-trick of London titles, and few would bet against him.
The 33-year-old has won eight marathons in his career, including his last three races; he broke the world record in Berlin in 2013 with 2:03:23; and was crowned 2013/14 World Marathon Majors champion after winning the New York Marathon last November.
“I’m expecting a big challenge from Dennis,” said Kipsang on Thursday. “I broke the world record in Berlin in 2013, then he broke the record last year.
“My main aim here is not the record, though, but to retain the title and run a good time. With this kind of field, it will still be a fast race, but more tactical.”
The principal pair may dominate all the promotional material here but they are merely the two biggest names in a loaded field that includes, not just the four quickest marathon runners of all time and five of the world’s all-time top 10, but eight men in total who have run sub-2:05.
Kipsang and Kimetto are joined by five other strong Kenyans, including 2011 London champion Emmanuel Mutai, who ran the second fastest time ever when finishing runner-up to Kimetto in Berlin last year; Eliud Kipchoge, the former world 5000m champion who won the 2014 Rotterdam and Chicago Marathons; and Geoffrey Mutai, the former Boston, New York and Berlin Marathon champion, who won the World Marathon Majors series in 2012.
There’s also Sammy Kitwara, who was second in Chicago and third in Tokyo last year, and 2014 runner-up Stanley Biwott, another sub-2:05 man, who returns to the London Marathon seeking to go one better in 2015.
Mekonnen flying the Ethiopian flag
Kenenisa Bekele and Ayele Abshero have both withdrawn with injuries, meaning the Ethiopian challenge rests with the 19-year-old 2014 Dubai champion, Tsegaye Mekonnen, who was fifth last year and boasts the fastest marathon time by a junior.
The women’s race, meanwhile, features a quartet of Kenyans – billed as the ‘fantastic four’ – at the top of a line-up that contains nine runners who have completed the classic distance in under 2:22.
Last year, it was two-times world champion Edna Kiplagat who sprinted to victory on The Mall, beating her Kenyan compatriot and half marathon world record holder Florence Kiplagat by just three seconds in the closest women’s race for 17 years.
The two are back this year to face the 2013 champion, Priscah Jeptoo, who dropped out with a calf problem 12 months ago, and Mary Keitany, who topped the London Marathon podium in 2011 and 2012, running sub-2:20 both times.
Like Kipsang, the reigning women’s champion is in confident mood ahead of her title defence, despite such formidable opposition. Indeed, the 35-year-old claims to have prepared “far better” than she did last year, and on Wednesday even dared to suggest that Radcliffe’s 2:17:42 “solo” record could be within reach.
The anticipated Sunday rain may put a damper on that ambition, although when these four last raced here three years ago they filled the top four spots on the results sheet, and Kiplagat’s close friend Keitany came away with an African record of 2:18:37, a time only Radcliffe has ever beaten on the London course.
This year, Keitany is aiming to become the fourth woman to win the London Marathon three times.
She is the quickest in this year’s line-up by more than a minute and marked her return to marathon running last November with an impressive win at the New York Marathon which she followed up this spring with a third win at the RAK Half Marathon.
The Kenyans won’t have the roads all to themselves, however, for Aselefech Mergia is in form. The Ethiopian won the Dubai Marathon for a third time this January, running just half-a -minute outside her best.
The former national record holder is the eighth quickest of all-time and has done well on the London course in the past. She crossed the line third on her London debut in 2010.
The Kenyan contingent is further strengthened by New York Marathon runner-up Jemima Sumgong, while Mergia will have strong compatriots alongside her in the shape of Tirfi Tsegaye, last year’s Tokyo and Berlin Marathon champion, and Tigist Tufa, who won marathons in Ottawa and Shanghai in 2014.
The 2015 race will have a strong European flavour too, thanks to two women who have gone under 2:25: Ukrainian record holder and the three-time Osaka champion Tetyana Gamera, and Russia’s London 2012 Olympic Games bronze medallist, Tatyana Arkhipova.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF