Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Re-pounding the Past: Flashback to great road races – Part Three (written for UK Athletics 05/08).

Each month, Run Britain will delve into either the domestic or international road running archives and review a classic road race. This month, NICOLA BAMFORD winds back the clock only a tad to April 13th, 2008...

The 100th anniversary of the marathon was marked in the most fitting way on a mild, rainy morning in the capital, when Martin Lel won his third Flora London Marathon title and led three men under 2:06 to forge the greatest in-depth men’s marathon in history.

In the city where the marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards was first established at the 1908 Olympics, Lel joined Mexico’s Dionicio Ceron and Antonio Pinto of Portugal as a triple London winner; retaining his crown and breaking the six-year-old course record in 2:05:15.

In the closing stages of one of the quickest races in history; run at world record pace for 20 miles, Lel still had the energy for a flying sprint at the finish. He needed it too, for his young compatriot, Sammy Wanjiru and Abderrahim Goumri; the Moroccan who’d finished second last year, stuck with him through the last few wet and gruelling miles.

But the Kenyan proved yet again that he has the strongest finish in marathon racing, as he pulled away over the last quarter of a mile to break his personal best by almost a minute and a half. In only his second full marathon, Wanjiru finished second in 2:05:24, clipping 75 seconds from his best, with Goumri third in 2:05:30, a massive 2 minutes 14 seconds inside his PB.

With another Kenyan, Emmanuel Mutai, clocking 2:06:15 in fourth, USA’s Ryan Hall fifth in 2:06:17, and the Ethiopian Deriba Merga sixth in 2:06:38, this was also the first time that six men have run under 2:07. All six set new personal bests.

“To win this race you have to work extra hard,” said the delighted Lel afterwards. “There were lots of runners in the field who could come first. So the chance of winning two in a row is very long.

“This is one of the best races I have done. Now I want to come back next year and make it three in a row.”

For Goumri, second last year and again in New York in November 2007, there was ample compensation in knowing he had broken Khalid Khannouchi’s Moroccan record.

While the women had started cautiously, the men set off enthusiastically, in near perfect conditions – 11°C and sunny. The pacemakers led through mile one in 4:44 and had been asked to run at 2:05 pace (62:30 at half way), and they already seemed intent on living up to that promise.

The only leading name not in touch early on was Stefano Baldini, but the Olympic champion – usually a master tactician – had asked for 2:08 pacing and opted to run alone in the early stages.
It was a wise decision, for the leaders sped through miles two and three in 4:39 and 4:27. Lel must have wondered what was happening as they passed 5km in 14:21, already inside world record pace. By now Luke Kibet, the World Champion, was already five seconds down on the leading group, while Baldini was 40s adrift, content to run his own race.

Up ahead, nine of the world’s best, plus the two pacers, continued to steam along through the sunny streets of south east London. Wanjiru was prominent alongside Lel, with Hall, Merga, Goumri, Mutai, Felix Limo of Kenya, Yonas Kifle of Eritrea and Hendrick Ramaala, the South African struggling slightly at the rear.

They clipped through 10km in 29:10 and at eight miles were still on course for something incredible time of around 2:03. No one had gone this quick before.

Hall sensibly stalked the Africans as they passed 15km in 44:00 and 10 miles in 47:12. Despite the blistering speed, however, Lel never looked troubled; indeed, he even appeared to be holding himself back.

They passed half way in a spectacular 62:14; well inside world record pace, and one of the quickest first halves ever seen. But then the numbers began to dwindle as first Ramaala then Limo struggled to hold on.

The pacemakers slipped away at 30km (1:28:29) and Hall soon began to wilt. Wanjiru took up the front-running duties, reducing the leading group to five, with Lel, Mutai, Kifle and Goumri on the young Kenyan’s heels. At 18 miles they were still seven seconds inside Gebrselassie’s record pace, with 4:45 miles needed during the run-in to beat his mark.

But the long run for home from the Docklands to Westminster would be into a headwind, and oncoming cold rain. The weather clearly had an effect; for the 21st mile was the first to slip outside five minutes (5:05), allowing Hall to rejoin the leaders. With the rain in their faces, the pace slowed through the 5km to 35km (1:43:54) as the pace fell outside world record schedule for the first time.

Hall’s efforts were to no avail, as he and Mutai lost touch while Goumri, Lel, Merga and Wanjiru powered on along the rain-sodden Highway towards the Tower and down onto the Embankment.

The two Kenyans ran stride for stride, with Goumri and Merga tucked in behind. Merga was the first to crack as they rain eased, while Lel, his hat long-since discarded, looked around him, checking his opponents.

He must have been licking his lips. He had defeated Goumri in a sprint finish twice last year, and he outsprinted Wanjiru to win the Great North Run last autumn. After such a quick race, remarkably, the champion still looked like a Sunday morning jogger, dodging the puddles.

He made his first move in Birdcage Walk, and Goumri lost two metres as the Kenyans geared up for the sprint. Lel led round the corner past Buckingham Palace and struck for home. Wanjiru was finished, as Lel blasted for the line like a fast-finishing miler to break Khannouchi’s course record.

Lel’s last 385 yards was timed at 57 seconds as the first three set the fifth, sixth and seventh quickest times ever. Lel, already well-known as a champion racer, thus established himself one of the world’s quickest; sitting fourth behind Gebreselassie, Paul Tergat and Sammy Korir on the world all-time list.

Further back, world champion Kibet finished 11th in 2:12:13, and Baldini out-battled Britain’s Dan Robinson to finish 12th in 2:13:06, a bad day for the Italian.

Robinson, 13th in 2:13:10, set a new personal best by 43 seconds and clinched his spot in Britain’s Olympic Games team.

“As the champion I was under pressure to do something today,” said Lel later. “They asked for something and I gave something. We had a chance to break the world record.”

“The guy is just faster than me,” said the beaten Goumri. “But it was a great race.” Indeed, it was.

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