In the end it was the day of Ghirmay Ghebreslassie. The teenager won Eritrea’s first World Championships gold medal, taking the men’s marathon title on a day when more favoured runners wilted in the sun.
Ghebreslassie is just 19 years old, turning 20 in November later in the year. His country is scarcely any older, having gained independence only in 1993. To date its most famous runner has been Zersenay Tadese, silver medallist behind Kenenisa Bekele in the 10,000m at the 2009 World Championships.
In two hours 12 minutes and 27 seconds on the streets of Beijing on the opening morning of these championships, Ghebreslassie surpassed Tadese in terms of World Championships medals. He still has a way to go to match his countryman in career achievements, but as he is just setting off on his journey, he well may sometime in the future.
In any case, no one can take away Ghebreslassie’s singular achievement of becoming Eritrea’s first World Championships gold medallist, and the youngest winner of any road event in the history of the championships.
It would not be stretching a point to describe the men’s World Championships marathon as the race of the unknown marathon runner. Certainly it was the race of the unheralded marathon runner. Silver medallist Yemane Tsegay of Ethiopia came in with a lifetime best of 2:04:48, but that was in Rotterdam in 2012 and he has not been as fast since.
Bronze medallist Solomon Mutai of Uganda came into the race with a personal best of 2:10:42 and a close fourth-place finish at last year’s Commonwealth Games – solid, but not spectacular, credentials.
Instead, it was to be the race of Dennis Kimetto. Or Wilson Kipsang. Or Lelisa Desisa. Or, if none of these, defending world and reigning Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich.
World record-holder Kimetto was never a factor, anonymous in the large pack until just past half-way, out of contention soon after that. Kipsang, his predecessor as world record-holder, stayed relaxed in the pack through 30km, but was likewise gone once the final racing started.
Kiprotich finished sixth, one place ahead of Desisa, the two retaining the same order as in Moscow two years ago, but five places back on their one-two finish then.
Caution was the order as the race started on a clear and sunny morning at Yongdingmen Gate. In fact, the race was led for the first five kilometres by a man in the yellow kit of the mass fun run which started simultaneously. Competitor no.3762 took the pack almost through to 5km, which was reached in a desultory 16:06.
From then on, the race was led by a succession of athletes who, whatever their credentials, you could not quite see winning. Ser-Od Bat-Ochir, running his sixth World Championships marathon for Mongolia, showed the way at one point, then Italy’s 41-year-old Ruggero Pertile built the first substantial lead at about 20km.
Half-way went by in 1:06:55.
Even when the racing started, there was a surreal quality about it. Lesotho’s Tsepo Mathibelle (whose surname recently changed from Ramonene) appeared to have dashed away when he took the lead at 30km, but in reality he was a 2:16 marathon runner running at about that pace as the others continued to dawdle.
Mutai also made a move at this point, but was quickly closed down by Ghebreslassie and Tsegay. Even at this point it was clear the favourites were struggling to respond.
Just past 35km, Ghebreslassie overtook Ramonene and went into the lead. Tsegay caught him at 38km, but was glancing behind even as he did so.
Not even a kilometre later Ghebreslassie re-took the lead and – a little confusion over directions inside the Bird’s nest complex aside – it was clear he was heading for a historic win both for himself and country.
Seventh in the junior race at the 2013 World Cross Country Championships, seventh at the World Half Marathon Championships last year and second at the Hamburg Marathon earlier this year in his personal best of 2:07:47, Ghebreslassie clearly can run.
And he could not have picked a better day to show it.
Len Johnson for the IAAF