If you want to understand the inner workings of an elite women’s marathon, it helps to have a report from an elite female marathoner. I am extremely lucky and very grateful that Catherine Wilding, who has toed the start line of a number of elite women’s races, was at the women’s Olympic marathon last weekend and took the time to give her insiders insight into what turned out to be a fascinating contest.
Words: Catherine Wilding. Photos: Simon Freeman
After a historic haul of medals for Team GB in the Olympic Stadium on Saturday 4th August 2012, and with the Men’s 100m final on the horizon the Women’s Olympic Marathon became a bit of an “also ran” in the schedule of events on Sunday 5th August.
However, a new Olympic Record of 2.23.07 was set on the Mall by the Ethopian Tiki Gelana. The race was always going to be dominated by the East African’s but the favourite – Mary Keitany of Kenya faded in the last few kilometres and her team mate Rita Jeptoo was left playing catch up with 800m to go. As the race came down to a sprint leading into the Mall, it was Gelana – a relative outsider – who triumphed.
Some of the world’s best distance runners lined up on The Mall with five sub 2.19 runners making the start. The Olympic Marathon route was going to take in some of the most famous London landmarks, showing the city in all its glory.
The inclement British summer weather didn’t disappoint us and as the skies over Central London turned black, just half an hour before the start there was a clap of thunder the heavens opened. As the race got underway at 11.00am, the global audience was treated to an iconic view of London – the rain poured as the runners headed out eastwards through Admiralty Arch and down Whitehall towards The Houses of Parliament. A specially designed 3 lap course ensured that spectators would see the runners pass several times and the streets were lined with thousands of spectators – several deep – braving the elements with their Union Jack umbrellas.
We had to concede, however, that Team GB were not in contention for a medal. A week prior to the start, came the news that the World Record holder and our greatest ever female distance runner – Paula Radcliffe –would not make the start line. Our best hope was Mara Yamauchi but just before the 10K mark Mara pulled up at a drinks station – clearly in distress she was forced to drop out with a bruised heel – an injury she thought she could overcome but realised within the first mile that she was going to struggle. She added wistfully “this is not the way I wanted my Olympic journey to end.”
That left two sub-2.30marathoner’s in the pack running for Team GB– Claire Hallisey and Freya Murray both of whom qualified in the London Marathon in April. Murray having been called up just one week before as a reserve was running only her second marathon. Both were here for the experience of a lifetime amongst the flag-waving patriotic crowds.
The lead pack had set off at a relatively conservative pace with no clear leaders emerging for the best part of 20miles. As they set off down the Embankment they stretched out 10 wide across the road and had to negotiate their first obstacle – a blocked drain had flooded the road and as the rain came down heavily the runners waded through a pool of water. The drinks stations also proved to be an obstacle as the Kenyan’s charged for their drinks leaving ensuing chaos in their wake.
All the serious contenders made up the larger than usual lead pack. Team USA were in full force with Shalane Flanaghan and Kara Goucher – both coached by the legendary Alberto Salazar – looking confident and comfortable. It was only in the final miles of the race that Flanaghan was dropped and started to fade. A gutsy runner, she put on a great display as she fought hard to hang on finishing in 10th place in 2.25.51 with her training partner Goucher just seconds behind her in 2.26.07.
Despite the African’s dominance in distance running, this was not a predictable race and there were some surprises in store. A favourite for the race – the Russian Shobukhova – also dropped out pulling up on the first lap with what looked to be a hamstring injury. It was then down to her team-mate and lesser-known Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova to pick up the mantle which she did with aplomb. In a rare display of outstanding text-book style marathon running, Arkhipova, having clearly paced herself well, found another gear. With 10K to go she came from behind and caught the lead pack of five – by this stage entirely dominated by the Africans. To everyone’s surprise, she stayed with them watching the Kenyan Edna Kiplagat fade and then the London Marathon champion – Keitany struggle on Birdcage walk. She got herself into Bronze position, having for the last 30 minutes of the race posed a serious threat, looking like a possible winner.
Another surprise came from a virtually unknown Ukrainian runner Tetyana Gamera-Shmykro, who in the final kilometres of the race was running a faster pace than the leaders and closing on them in a convincing way.
Having run the race of her life, Freya Murray crossed the line in a very respectable 2.32.14 in 44th place and Claire Hallisey in 2.35.39 finishing 57th out of a field of 118.
The same course awaits the Men on Sunday 12th August.