For the fifth time in 22 editons of the event, Lawrence Cherono and Lucy Karimi made it a double for Kenya at the Volkswagen Prague Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday morning (8).
Cherono made a powerful late-race surge to win the men’s race in 2:07:24, taking more than two minutes off his previous best, while compatriot Lucy Karimi did likewise to take the women’s title in 2:24:46.
With the sun rising high in the sky by the time the event got under way – and temperatures steadily climbing to 19C throughout the morning – the pace was kept to a steady tempo over the opening half of both races.
In the men's race, a group of 11 passed 10km in 30:00, only marginally picking up the pace thereafter, and the lead pack was still nine-strong by the time they reached 20km in 59:49.
At halfway, passed in 1:03:06, Ethiopia’s Seboka Dibaba was the only non-Kenyan among the leading pack, which was reduced to eight by the time the leaders reached 30km in 1:30:18.
At that point, it was clear the course record of 2:05:39, set by Eliud Kiptanui in 2010, was out of reach; nonetheless, the leaders began to slowly crank down through the gears.
The athlete most keen to push things along was Kenya’s Felix Kandie, who whittled the leading pack down to three as he passed 35km in 1:45:28. Running alongside him were compatriots Lawrence Cherono and Solomon Yego, with Yego in particular doing more than his fair share of pacing duties at the front.
However, just past the 37km mark, Yego found the pace too hot to handle and lost contact with the leading duo. At that point, Kandie continued to apply pressure up front, but Cherono seemed comfortable on his shoulder.
Shortly after the 38km mark, Cherono surged to the front and created an advantage, one which he would extend all the way to the finish.
Cherono raised his arms aloft as he crossed the line in the Old Town Square in 2:07:24, more than two minutes faster than his previous best of 2:09:39, which he ran to win the Zurich Marathon last year.
“I felt very tired at the end because the course was tough, not very flat, so it tired me out," said Cherono. "I was having a little panic because sometimes you can go alone until the last minute and someone could come and pass you. I had to worry. I'm very happy because I am the champion."
Kandie faded badly over the closing kilometres but still managed to come home second in 2:08:14, well clear of fellow Kenyan Solomon Yego, who ran 2:08:31 to finish third.
Daniel Wanjiru was fourth in 2:09:25, the last man to dip under 2:10:00. In total, seven men broke 2:15:00, an indication of how much the conditions took their toll.
For the second time since 2014, Petr Pechek won the Czech national marathon crown. He finished 14th overall in 2:22:14.
Karimi shows her class with late surge
In the women’s race, Lucy Karimi upset the odds and showed her rivals a clean pair of heels in the closing kilometre to take victory in 2:24:46, carving more than two minutes off her previous best of 2:27:08, set in Dubai last year.
With organisers employing male pacemakers for the women’s race, the pace was decent through the opening 10km without being overly strenuous. A leading group of seven women passed 10km in 34:21, a pace which was maintained until 20km, reached in 1:08:48.
Ethiopia’s Marta Lema led a group of five women through the halfway point in 1:12:33, with countrywoman and pre-race favourite Biruktayit Eshetu and Kenyan trio Purity Rionoripo, Lucy Karimi and Rael Nguriatukei all maintaining close contact as the lead pack traversed the city's cobbled streets and ornate bridges.
Karimi soon began to force things at the front, and she passed 30km in 1:42:49 with just Lema and Rionoripo for company. The Kenyan duo covered the next five kilometres in 17:13, a pace that soon had Lema in trouble.
Rionoripo began to press ahead with five kilometres to run, and although her surge put paid to Lema’s chances, she was still unable to drop Karimi.
With less than one kilometre to run, Karimi unleashed a vicious turn of pace and moved clear of Rionoripo, and she was all alone when she crossed the finish line in 2:24:46, 14 seconds clear of Rionoripo, who vomited repeatedly in the closing kilometres.
"That athlete was so strong," said the quiet Karimi, speaking with compassion for her competitor. "At 40 kilometres she took water and then started vomiting, and so I started to kick and then I saw the finish. I didn't know that I could win today."
Karimi admitted afterwards that conditions had prevented a fast time on the day.
“The course was too tough, and the weather was too hot,” said Karimi. “I went with one kilometre to go, and my body felt very good from there. The girls were so strong. I didn't know I could be a winner, and I wanted to push through the last kilometres."
Kenya’s Risper Chebet overtook Lema in the closing kilometres to take third in 2:27:23, with the Ethiopian having to settle for fourth in 2:28:02.
Czech Republic's Eva Vrabcova Nyvltova stole the hearts of the home crowd with her breakthrough performance. In what was her marathon debut, the three-time Winter Olympian in cross-country skiing finished sixth in 2:30:10, all but ensuring her participation at the Rio Olympics later this year. Vrabcova Nyvltova ran a savvy race, sticking with a group of men through halfway in 1:14:17 before picking athletes off one by one.
"It was an absolutely amazing experience, especially because the visitors were supporting me and the crowds were helping me throughout the finish line," she said through a translator. "This was a very strong experience and I believe that I will never forget it 'til the end of my days."
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF