It was a race that had been billed as the ultimate clash between three marathon greats, but only one of them made it to the finish line at the BMW Berlin Marathon on Sunday (24) as Eliud Kipchoge won the IAAF Gold Label road race in a world-leading 2:03:32.
Of the other pre-race favourites, defending champion Kenenisa Bekele had drifted off the pace shortly after the half-way mark before dropping out some 10 kilometres later, while former world record-holder Wilson Kipsang stopped suddenly at 30 kilometres.
Instead, marathon debutant Guye Adola somewhat surprisingly was Kipchoge’s only company for the final 12 kilometres of the race and they were locked in an intriguing duel right through to the closing stages. Kipchoge eventually won the battle of wills, but Adola was rewarded with the fastest marathon debut in history, finishing second in 2:03:46.
Meanwhile, Kipchoge's compatriot and fellow 2015 Berlin Marathon winner Gladys Cherono also regained her title. The 34-year-old returned from an injury-blighted past 12 months to win the women's race in 2:20:23.
Led by a quartet of pacemakers, the three headline acts were joined by Adola and Kenya’s 2011 world silver medallist Vincent Kipruto for much of the first half of the men's race, passing five kilometres in 14:28 and 10 kilometres in 29:04.
A spell of heavy rain at about eight kilometres didn’t completely ruin the chances of a world record, but it certainly made their task more difficult. The rain soon abated, but the conditions remained damp and drizzly for much of the race.
Half way was reached in 1:01:29, exactly on schedule to break Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57. Two pacemakers remained at the front of the pack with Kipchoge tucked close behind them in the middle of the pack. Bekele, however, was unable to stick with the pace for much longer and started to drift off the lead pack after 22 kilometres, losing about 10 seconds on the leaders in the space of one kilometre.
By 25 kilometres, reached in 1:12:50, Bekele was 21 seconds off the back of the lead pack. Kipruto was the next to struggle and fell behind as the leaders approached 30 kilometres.
But the biggest turning point came at 30 kilometres as Kipsang, and the final pacemaker, dropped out. The lead pack of four had suddenly been halved with Kipchoge and Adola the only two contenders left in the race.
From that point onwards, the pace gradually slipped further and further off the required schedule for a world record, but that soon became irrelevant. Suddenly, Kipchoge’s main aim was to simply defend his honour of being the world’s best marathon runner and ensuring he won the race. Adola, meanwhile, seemed intent on causing an upset.
The 26-year-old Ethiopian was running shoulder to shoulder – quite literally – with Kipchoge. At times, their close proximity clearly annoyed Kipchoge and on more than one occasion he had words with his opponent.
Adola, however, was working to his own race plan and went on to open up a gap of a few metres on Kipchoge at about the 37-kilometre point. His lead never extended beyond two or three seconds, though, and Kipchoge was able to reel him in as they approached 40 kilometres.
With the clock reading 1:57:08 at 40 kilometres, it was clear that today wouldn’t be a day for world records. Kipchoge, now back at the front, started to make his final move while Adola was showing his first real signs of fatigue.
Kipchoge passed through the Brandenburg Gate and crossed the finish line in 2:03:32, his eighth victory from the nine marathons he has contested to date (not including his unratifiable run at the experimental event in Monza). It was also his second victory in Berlin, following his win in 2015, and the second-fastest time of his career after his 2:03:05 clocking in London last year.
“This was hard,” Kipchoge said after the race. “I had trained hard, but the conditions were difficult and the ground was very slippery.
“He (Adola) was a big surprise,” he added. “When just the two of us were left, I had to concentrate fully on finishing. I was happy to win in these conditions.”
Adola followed just 14 seconds later, clocking 2:03:46 to move straight to seventh on the world all-time list. Adola took the bronze medal at the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships and went on to win in New Delhi later that year in 59:06. Earlier this year he won the Rome-Ostia Half Marathon in 59:18.
"I enjoyed it," said Adola. "I enjoyed all of it, including the second half of the race – apart, that is, from the last two kilometres.”
Ethiopia’s Mosinet Geremew, competing in just his second marathon, finished strongly to take third in 2:06:09 with Felix Kandie fourth in 2:06:13 and Kipruto holding on for fifth in 2:06:14, his fastest time for six years. Just one week after setting a Japanese half marathon record of 1:00:17 in Usti nad Labem, Yuta Shitara clocked a marathon PB of 2:09:03 in sixth place.
Cherono regains title
The women’s race may not have attracted as much of the pre-race attention, but it ended up being more of a three-way contest than the men’s race.
Gladys Cherono, the 2015 Berlin winner, was back in the German capital having battled with injury for much of the past 12 months but the Kenyan was up against some notable rising road-running stars.
A group of six women – comprising Cherono, fellow Kenyan Valary Aiyabei and Ethiopian quartet Amane Beriso, Ruti Aga, Gulume Tollesa and Helen Tola – passed through five kilometres together in 16:40. Tola was the first of those to fall behind as the pack reached 10 kilometres in 33:12, then Tollesa started to drift back and was 15 seconds off the pace as the leaders passed 15 kilometres in 49:33.
For the next 15 kilometres, Cherono, Aiyabei, Aga and Beriso continued to run together as a pack of four. Having reached half way in 1:09:40, the pace continued to creep up and at one point they were on schedule for a 2:19:05 finish, which would have been inside the course record.
Beriso was unable to sustain that pace, though, and at 30 kilometres, reached in 1:38:58, just three women were left at the front: Cherono, Aiyabei and Aga.
With little more than seven kilometres left, Cherono started to tentatively forge ahead of her two remaining rivals. By 40 kilometres, Cherono had a comfortable lead on Aga and Aiyabei but the chasers hadn’t completely given up and were in their own battle for the runner-up spot.
Cherono went on to cross the finish line first in 2:20:23, just 58 seconds shy of the mark she set when winning in the Germany capital two years ago in far kinder conditions. Aga came through to take second place in a big PB of 2:20:41 with Aiyabei finishing third in 2:20:53, also a lifetime best.
“That was tough,” said Cherono, the 2014 world half-marathon champion. “I went with the pace maker until 30 kilometres. When they dropped out, I tried to push the pace along.
“I was out of competition for a long time, but I’m happy to be back again,” added the 2013 world 10,000m silver medallist. “Had it not been for these conditions, I could have broken my PB but I’m happy with what I did today.”
Ethiopia’s Helen Tola finished fourth in a PB of 2:22:51, while Germany’s Anna Hahner was fifth in 2:28:32. Close behind in sixth, Italy’s Catherine Bertone set a world age-45 best of 2:28:34.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF
1 Eliud Kipchoge (KEN) 2:03:32
2 Guye Adola (ETH) 2:03:46
3 Mosinet Geremew (ETH) 2:06:09
4 Felix Kandie (KEN) 2:06:13
5 Vincent Kipruto (KEN) 2:06:14
6 Yuta Shitara (JPN) 2:09:03
7 Hiroaki Sano (JPN) 2:11:24
8 Ryan Vail (USA) 2:12:40
9 Liam Adams (AUS) 2:12:52
10 Jonny Mellor (GBR) 2:12:57
1 Gladys Cherono (KEN) 2:20:23
2 Ruti Aga (ETH) 2:20:41
3 Valary Aiyabei (KEN) 2:20:53
4 Helen Tola (ETH) 2:22:51
5 Anna Hahner (GER) 2:28:32
6 Catherine Bertone (ITA) 2:28:34
7 Sonia Samuels (GBR) 2:29:34
8 Azucena Diaz (ESP) 2:30:31
9 Catarina Ribeiro (POR) 2:33:13
10 Kim Dillen (NED) 2:33:24