It promised to be one of the most exciting races ever. The London Marathon was to bear witness to the double Olympic Champion – Mo Farah – making his debut over the 26.2 mile distance. Ever since Mo turned up on the start line of the London Marathon in 2013 to “practice” going off with the leaders, before dropping out at the half way point, we have waited with eager anticipation to see what could happen in the second half.
After a year-long wait, here was the nations sporting hero and Olympic Champion “stepping up to the road”, carrying the hope of a winning debut on the Mall to add to his Olympic glory. For once, the Marathon made headline news.
It ended in disappointment, not just for Mo but for the rest of us – the media, the commentators and anyone who thought that Mo may be able to shake off the dominance of the Kenyan’s and Ethiopians. 2.08.21 was the finish time for Mo, 8th place and 4 minutes behind the winner, Wilson Kipsang. Mo may just have settled for a new British record if not an outright win, but he even missed that by almost a minute.
So what happened?
The stakes were set high. There were some formidable names on the start line – Kipsang (the current World Record Holder), Mutai, Kebede and Olympic champion Kiprotich. All eclipsed however by the legendary Gabreselassie who was here to run as a pacemaker. That’s right, the former world record holder was here to pace the leaders beyond the half way point with the aim of setting a new world record.
It seemed a risky strategy to assume that anyone making their debut over the distance would not only be able to win but also walk away with a new world record. So, Farah and his coach, Alberto Salazar made the decision for Mo to run in a group, a few seconds back from the leaders. Mo was to hold back, 30 seconds off the pace with a half-way target time of 62.15. Presumably the rest of the plan – which was not discussed – was that Mo would catch the leaders in the second half and pick up the pace to run a blisteringly fast last 10K. That was the plan.
It was much debated and the media couldn’t understand why Mo – a runner who runs every race with the self-belief to win it – was not in the mix from the beginning with the leaders. But any experienced coach and marathon runner knows that a few seconds too fast in the first half can cost dearly in the remaining miles.
The early miles
It was a day that runners refer to as “ideal marathon running conditions” – clear blue skies, a chill in the air and a temperature on the start line of 9 degrees. As the gun fired at 10am, the first group went off with the pacemakers and Mo followed just a few steps behind. So far, so good, but by the 5K mark the gap had opened up and Mo was already 27 seconds behind the leaders. Beyond the 10K mark it was starting to look like Mo was working a little harder than perhaps he should have been – still off the pace and more importantly off the plan. Realising this he picked up the pace for the next 5K and ran a faster 5K split at this stage than the lead group. In his efforts to make up ground and catch the lead pack, this burst of speed so early in the race could have been his downfall. The pacemakers for the second group had a plan to stick to and that was to go through half way at 62.15. As they kept to the pace, Mo had fallen further back from the pacemakers and was working hard to try to bring them back. At the half-way point with a time of 63.08, it was clear that his race was not going to plan.
By mile 17 it was even more evident that Mo was starting to tire and his pace slowed. He was starting to look less like a marathon runner as he didn’t quite have the ease in his stride that the leaders had. His dream of a home win was now – like the lead group – surely out of sight.
Meanwhile, at the front of the race, a pack of eight runners entirely dominated by Kenyans and Ethiopians had opened up a significant gap. The pace was quick – too quick maybe – for Gabreselassie who had been scheduled to pace until the 16 mile mark, but had dropped out just after half way.
Just after the 30K mark, Kipsang who was looking comfortable and almost as if he was biding his time, suddenly surged away from the pack. Only Stanley Biwott responded and went with him. The two then ran together along the Embankment until with just over 2km to go, Kipsang surged again and never looked back. He opened up a gap of 26 seconds in the last 2km, sprinting down the Mall to set a new course record of 2.04.29 – 11 seconds faster than Emmanuel Mutai’s record set in 2011. It was Mo Farah the crowds had hoped to see but next came Biwott in 2.04.55 to make it a double Kenyan victory with Kebede the Ethiopian finishing third in 2.06.30.
The British men didn’t make much of an impact on the Kenyans and Ethiopians, with Mo in 8th place and Chris Thompson not too far behind in 11th place at 2.11.19. It was also another disappointing race for Scott Overall who having gone out at 2.10 pace and passed the half way mark in 1.05.05 finished in a disappointing 2.19.55.
Enthralling women’s race
It’s fair to say that the women’s race was overshadowed by the excitement of the men’s but in a separate story, the plot line here was remarkably similar. Tirunesh Dibaba – double Olympic champion in the 5K and 10K was also making her debut over the marathon distance. The race, however, for Dibaba was more closely fought than for Farah. The Kenyan’s, Florence and Edna Kiplagat (not related) lead the race with Dibaba in the group going through half way in 1.09.17. All three looked in contention until the 18 mile point when a debacle at the drinks station left Dibaba behind. Dibaba reached for her bottle, dropping it and then stopping to pick it up. The Kiplagat’s had seen the mistake and with a quick glance and exchange to each other they took advantage to surge ahead opening up a gap of 5 seconds. This seems to be where Dibaba lost her chance of a debut win. From there she couldn’t close the gap. It was Edna and Florence that were still leading side by side with 800m to go. As they turned into the Mall, it was Edna that had the final kick. Having twice finished second in London perhaps she was more determined as she sprinted to the finish line in a time of 2.20.11 leaving Florence 3 seconds behind in 2.20.14. Another double win for the Kenyan’s. The gap for Dibaba had now opened up to 11 seconds as she finished 3rd in 2.20.35.
Of the two track-stars, it is Dibaba that showed the most promise, keeping the leaders in her sights and securing a podium finish. A runner who is used to coming from behind and with a big kick in the closing stages of a race, who knows how the story could have unfolded for Dibaba had she not dropped her bottle. We’re sure she’ll be back.
In the elite race, the lead British woman was Amy Whitehead in a time of 2.34.20 with the 44 year old Emma Stepto a couple of minutes behind in 2.36.04.
A little further back from the lead men was Simon Freeman. He breezed along looking a little too comfortable and with a smile and a wave he cruised to the finish line to break the 3 hour mark in style with a 2.58.55. He said “I was running comfortably and within myself and the difference in terms of pain and suffering is incredible. It was an amazing experience.” You can read about his race here.
The marathon distance can never be underestimated. “I know what the marathon is about now and hopefully I will come back stronger” Mo added with the greatest respect for the greatest race.