2008 Olympic Men's Marathon Recap: Outrageous Pace Pays Off; Wanjiru Hammers to Kenya's First Marathon Gold
By: John Kellogg
August 24, 2008
With a starting temperature of 74 degrees in the shade and 84 degrees on the course, conditions were not as difficult as they could have been in Beijing, but the weather was typical for the Olympics - warm and muggy and liable to get warmer. Anyone who assumed the race would begin cautiously in the manner of a normal summer Olympic marathon, however, was about to be shocked.
From the first steps, Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya got in front and started rolling - really rolling - not unlike a man who merely wanted some face time on the television. Fans are aware of Wanjiru's credentials; the prodigy has the world junior record at 10,000 meters on the track, the world bests for 20k and half marathon on the road and a 2:05:24 marathon best. Yet when the first mile was reached in 4:41 with a pack of at least 20 of the best runners in the world tagging along, the consensus might have been that it was suicidal for anyone to take the pace out hard from the start in a warm-weather championship marathon.
After a couple of 4:56 miles, with Hendrick Ramaala (South Africa) taking the helm briefly, Wanjiru and fellow Kenyan Martin Lel cranked the tempo down to a punishing pace once again. Mile 4 was reached in 19:10, on pace for 2:05:38, and things would shortly get faster. The top Americans, Dathan Ritzenhein and Ryan Hall, had settled back to a more sane pace about 10-15 seconds back and were undoubtedly hoping the leaders would at some point begin to slow what surely seemed a ridiculous pace for a rabbitless race under far less than ideal conditions.
By 10k, it was clear the frontrunners intended to sort out the contenders ASAP. A split of 29:25 meant the lead group was on 2:04:08 pace, as if the race was a rabbitted affair in 45-degree weather. The previous two miles had been run in 9:14. This was serious. It was no quixotic attempt by a few upstarts, either; eight big-name marathoners were running as a unit and showed no intention of significantly easing off. The leaders were Wanjiru, Lel, 2007 World Champion Luke Kibet (the third Kenyan), Eritreans Yonas Kifle and Yared Asmerom, Spaniard José Manuel Martínez, Morocco's 2003 and 2005 World Champion Jaouad Gharib and Ethiopian Deriba Merga. Lurking just behind was another dangerous Moroccan, 2:05:30 runner Abderrahim Goumri.
The pace slowed enough between miles 7 and 9 that Goumri was able to pull up to the group, but just prior to the 10-mile point, Wanjiru would push it again with the fastest pace of the race, and Goumri's stint among the leaders would be short-lived. The 11th mile was covered in an astonishing 4:30, perhaps even a faster injection of tempo than would be seen in a world record attempt in perfect conditions. Kibet and Asmerom were showing signs of trouble and would soon drop away. The early pace and warm weather had taken its toll on a number of runners who had tried to stay close, including Ramaala, and a few athletes who were 30 to 90 seconds back were beginning to pick up a few of the pieces; among them were Ethiopian Tsegay Kebede, 2007 Worlds bronze medallist Viktor Röthlin, defending Olympic Champion Stefano Baldini, and Ritzenhein and Hall.
Halfway was reached in 1:02:37 and the lead group was down to five - Lel, Merga, Wanjiru, Kifle and Gharib - with the fading Asmerom latching on with the surging Kebede 32 seconds behind. Martínez and Goumri were falling hopelessly out of contention. Kibet was in bigger trouble and losing ground even farther back.
Over the next two miles, Gharib slipped back by a few seconds and re-caught the pack several times as Wanjiru and Merga, who both looked very strong, made minor surges and slowed back down. Miles 15 to 18 featured more surging from Merga and Wanjiru, which left Gharib yoyoing at the rear, but the average pace during those miles slowed to 5:02 per mile, which allowed the runners who had found a steady pace behind the leaders to avoid losing any ground.
World Champion Luke Kibet had fallen nearly two minutes off the lead and abandoned the race at 28k. Shortly after, Wanjiru made a real move to disintegrate the pack of five. Only Merga was able to respond and countersurged to illustrate his fitness. By 30k (1:29:14, still on pace for 2:05:32), Gharib finally seemed broken but was still only 3 seconds behind and Lel and Kifle had been dropped by an additional 30 and 50 meters and were battling but running out of hope for regaining contact.
The pace slowed briely, which allowed Gharib to work his way back yet again, but at 20 miles, Merga made a bid to break his two companions, which caused Gharib to fall back to that 3-second margin once more. Americans Ritzenhein and Hall were now in 10th and 11th place, but had little hope of medals barring disastrous blowups from the runners in front of them.
At 37k, with the average pace of the last few miles having slowed to over 5:00 per mile, Wanjiru made his winning bid. Merga had no response and was cracked. Gharib, who had remained about 4 seconds behind the lead duo for over a mile, sensed the move was Wanjiru's final push and tried to stay close, hoping the Kenyan would falter in front of him. But it was to be Wanjiru's day. The Moroccan never gave up, but slowly slipped farther back and Wanjiru had a comfortable lead as he entered the stadium, already smiling and waving to the camera crew in the tunnel. He would stop the clock at 2:06:32, earning Kenya's first Olympic gold in the marathon and breaking the Olympic record by two minutes and 49 seconds in a performance that prior to the start would have been thought impossible given the weather, the lack of pacesetters and the stakes. This was perhaps the greatest marathon ever run.
Gharib finished in 2:07:16, also blowing away the OR by 2:05, and seemed content with the silver medal. Merga, who had waged so determined a battle for gold, would find the bronze in jeopardy, as his countryman Kebede had sustained his own pace and was gaining rapidly. Only 7 seconds behind the staggering Merga in the tunnel, Kebede closed the distance with 200 meters remaining and blew by to secure the bronze in 2:10:00. The heartbroken Merga wobbled around the track and was nearly caught by Lel in the homestretch. Röthlin ran a smart race as he had done at Worlds, but (like most of the field) he could never have gone with nor even anticipated the awesome pace set by the leaders and he settled for 6th. Baldini, who had battled injury recently, also ran a smart and admirable race and came home 12th.
Americans Ritzenhein and Hall, though not running side-by-side and having no company during the majority of the race, finished in 9th and 10th. Brian Sell, who was in roughly 15th at 22 miles, ended up 22nd. Ritzenhein's performance was the best of his adult career, and the race marked the first time since 1976 that two Americans finished in the top 10 in an Olympic marathon. This field was also undoubtedly the strongest in Olympic history based on career bests and prior honors of the participants.
Ninety-eight runners started, seventy finished. Notable dropouts included Kibet, Worlds silver medallist Mubarak Shami (normally a strong hot-weather runner), former New York winner Marilson dos Santos, and Japan's Atsushi Sato and Satoshi Osaki. The Japanese marathoners experienced a particularly poor Olympics, as the men precisely duplicated the calamitous performance of the women's squad, with their lone finisher in 13th place.