Ethiopia’s Helen Bekele provided the highlight of the Zurich Marató de Barcelona on Sunday (12) as she broke the event record with a 2:25:04 clocking at the IAAF Bronze Label Road Race.
The 23-year-old took more than four minutes off her previous PB and 22 seconds off the race record set last year.
Kenya’s Jonah Kipkemoi Chesum was a surprise winner of the men’s race as he was one of the designated pacemakers but all the favourites failed to follow in his footsteps and he eventually took the victory in his first ever effort over the classic distance, winning in 2:08:56.
Even after the last-minute withdrawal of pre-race favourite Georgina Rono, the women’s race kicked off at a fast pace with the first 10km covered in 34:10. The lead group at that stage comprised the Ethiopian quartet of Bekele, Meselech Tsegaye Beyene, Alemu Meseret Abebayehu and Robi Aberash Fayesa plus the Kenyan tandem of Emily Chemutai Ngetich and Recho Kosgei.
They reached 15km in 51:22 and arrived at the half-way mark in 1:12:21, well inside the schedule to break the course record of 2:25:26. By then Ngetich had dropped from the heading pack but there were still five women with winning chances.
But the relentless 3:25-per-kilometre pace took its toll in the second half as Abebayehu and then Kosgei gradually lost ground, leaving the Ethiopian trio of Bekele, Beyene and Fayesa head and shoulders clear of the rest of the field.
Paced perfectly throughout, Bekele and Beyene clocked 1:25:56 at 25 kilometres. Bekele was alone at the front by 30km, and her 35km split of 1:59:50 suggested the diminutive Ethiopian would break the course record.
Having covered the second half in 1:12:43, Bekele eventually crossed the finish line in 2:25:04, a massive improvement on her previous best of 2:29:21, set when winning last year’s Annecy Marathon. Beyene and Fayesa completed an Ethiopian sweep of the podium with respective times of 2:26:44 and 2:27:04.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect to win as the line-up was classy but I felt strong today and the pacesetters did a great job,” said Bekele, who is no relation to the legendary Kenenisa. “The atmosphere was fantastic. I now hope the organisers invite me to come back to Barcelona next year.”
Pacers take the spoils
The men’s lead group went through the opening five kilometres in a brisk 14:44 and the rhythm kept on at a steady 2:57-per-kilometre pace for a 29:33 10km split. The pace set by the three Kenyan pacemakers Jonah Kipkemoi Chesum, Reuben Limaa, and Jacob Chesari Kirui whittled down the leading group to just two other men, Ethiopia’s Sisay Jisa Mekonnen and Kenya’s Justus Kiprotich.
Another five-kilometre section of 14:44 proved to be too tough for Kiprotich as the leading pack comprising the three pacemakers and Jisa Mekonnen reached halfway in 1:02:48.
The big surprise came shortly after the 30km point (1:30:20) when the Ethiopian faltered dramatically and could not follow the pacesetter’s rhythm. Chesum broke away from Kirui some 34km into the race but, hampered by his effort as a pacemaker over the first half, his speed gradually decreased and with four kilometres to go it became clear the course record of 2:07:30 was already out of reach for him.
The large crowd assembled over the Barcelona streets seemed to be amazed as they could read ‘pacer’ on the leading athlete’s bib barely three kilometres to the finish.
At the tape, an exhausted Chesum recorded 2:08:56 to take the victory while the runner-up spot also went to a pacemaker, Kirui in 2:09:24 while a distant Kiprotich completed a 1-2-3 for Kenya in 2:11:38. Jisa Mekonnen could not finish the race due to a hamstring injury.
“My task was to lead the favourites until the 32km point but when I realised nobody could live with my pace, I decided to finish the race,” said Chesum, who represented Kenya in the T46 1500m at the 2012 Paralympic Games, having suffered a hand injury as a child. “The last part of the event has been really hard for me but I finally managed reached the tape, so I’m more than happy.”
Germany’s 1992 Olympic bronze medallist Stephan Freigang managed to finish the event in 3:02.
Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF
1 Jonah Kipkemoi Chesum (KEN) 2:08:56
2 Jacob Cheshari Kirui (KEN) 2:09:24
3 Justus Kiprotich (KEN) 2:11:38
4 Kiplagat Peter Kiptoo (KEN) 2:12:10
5 Mathew Kemboi (KEN) 2:14:24
1 Helen Bekele (ETH) 2:25:04
2 Melesech Tsegaye Beyene (ETH) 2:26:44
3 Robi Aberash Fayesa (ETH) 2:27:04
4 Alemu Meseret Abebayehu (ETH) 2:29:14
5 Recho Kosgei (KEN) 2:30:09