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Star-Studded 2008 Flora London Marathon Men's Field Addresses the Media
By: LetsRun.com
April 9, 2008

Photo Gallery from Wednesday
*London's field is so good that 2 guys who ran 2:06 in their last marathons didn't even make the podium.

For the first time, LetsRun.com is in London to cover the world's greatest marathon, the Flora London Marathon. Annually, London features an incredible star-studded field that makes Boston practically look like a JV race. The field has been so stacked the last few years, it's almost enticed us a few times to go over the pond to cover it.  Now that America's big hope Ryan Hall is in the mix once again, we had no choice but to fly over to London.

Wednesday was the elite men's press conference and we were there to cover it.

The men's race this year, as always, is completely loaded. It features the world's top competitive marathoner, the defending champ, and the NY Champ - all the same person in Martin Lel (Gebrselassie is the top time trialer). It also features the World Champ, Luke Kibet; the Olympic Champ, Stefano Baldini; the top young marathoner in the world (2:06:39 in his debut for the win in Fukuoka) and the world half marathon record holder, Sammy Wanjiru; and the hope for all of Western Civilization, America's Ryan Hall. Not to mention Abderrahim Goumri, who if it wasn't for Lel, might be regarded as the top marathoner in the world (Goumri is a 12:50 5ker on the track and finished 2nd in sprint finishes to Lel in both London and NY last year).

We're not done yet as the race also includes the 2004 Berlin, 2005 Chicago and 2006 London champ, Felix Limo; and the eternal threat Hendrick Ramaala (NY champ in 2004, 5th in London, 3rd in NY last year).

Two-time World Champ Jaouad Gharib was not at the press conference so we're assuming he's not running. That's how great London is.  The field is so great, no one even asked if he was running.

All of the above were at Wednesday's press conference/photo shoot..London is so sick that Emmanual Mutai, the world's 2nd fastest marathoner in 2007 (2:06:29 in Amsterdam) does not even get mentioned by us in our first paragraph, and doesn't get a spot at the press conference either.

Londo Marathon 2008
The Studs Under the Tower Bridge

American Ryan Hall garnered more than his fare share of attention Wednesday (the sportswriters love interviewing a white face who speaks perfect English), and it's clear from Wednesday's press conference that if there was any doubt if Ryan Hall had arrived as one of the world's top marathoners, that is now gone.

The Olympic champion Stefano Baldini had this to say about Ryan when asked what he thought of Ryan's run at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, "I was very excited about his last 2 or 3 kilometers because he was smiling ... He is an athlete who can win a lot of things, win a lot of medals ... He is able to read the race and react. He's the future." (Ryan got so much attention that we discuss him separately in this article).

4 Kenyan Studs

Wanjiru, Limo and Lel

Up first on the podium on Wednesday were the 4 Kenyan contenders, current London and NY Champ, Martin Lel, current World Champ, Luke Kibet, current world half marathon record holder and Fukuoka champ, Sammy Wanjiru, and former Berlin, Chicago and London champ, Felix Limo.

It says something about the quality of the four, that the World Champion, Kibet, is on paper probably the least likely to win on Sunday.

Of particular note to the journalists was how much the widespread violence in January and February in Kenya following the disputed elections in December impacted all the runners.

Londo Marathon 2008
Luke Kibet

Kibet was the most impacted as he was attacked by a rioting mob and suffered a gash on the back of his head that required stitches. In addition he missed 12 says in March with an Achilles problem, so we are not expecting much from him this weekend. Then again, not much was expected from him when he won the World Champs in August.

Lel, Wanjiru (who was in Kenya for a lot of the unstable time period and not training in Japan where he is based for 6 months of the year), and Limo suffered much less from the Kenyan violence.

Lel, the favorite on Sunday based on his two straight Marathon Major wins, went to Namibia (where Stefano Baldini has gone to train as well the last few years) to train with 12 others (including 2007 Boston Champ Robert Cheruiyot) in February to make sure he could continue to train at full speed, instead of altering his training locations within Kenya for safety reasons. Lel said he had a slight problem with his foot for a couple of days (a rock got in his shoes and caused some very minor problems), but overall was pleased with his training, "My preparations have been going well."

Lel clearly has found a formula that works. Very rare indeed is the marathoner who stays at the top of his game for a long time, but Lel has been near the top since 2003 when he first won NY (He then won London in 2005, was 2nd in 2006, won again in 2007, and won NY last year). He indicated that his preparations for the difficult NY course and the fast London course are very similar. "I've been doing the same programs," he said.

Young Gun Wanjiru

Sammy Wanjiru
21 Years Old and 3 World Records
Sammy Wanjiru

Sammy Wanjiru may be the future of the marathon distance for a long, long time. He has broken the half marathon world record 3 times, and cruised to a 2:06:39 marathon win in Fukuoka in his debut marathon in December. Oh yeah, he's only 21. And unlike a few Kenyans in the past who misrepresented their age so they could stay in the junior ranks longer, Wanjiru really looks young.

On top of being young, Wanjiru is already filthy rich. He won $300,000 at the Zayeg International Half Marathon this past February. That goes a long, long way in Kenya, but Wanjiru seemed grounded and said for now the money is just going into the bank. He said the key to a long career is to not race too often. With 1992 Olympic silver medallist, Koichi Morishita, as his coach, we think Wanjiru is in good hands.

It was interesting to hear Wanjiru say that, despite the tremendous success he enjoyed in his debut Fukuoka, he found the marathon to be "very hard," especially after 30k. No worries, for us the marathon being hard is a universal constant and it doesn't lead us to discount Wanjiru's chances on Sunday,

The Overlooked Felix Limo
The Kenyan who is being overlooked on Sunday by most pundits but in our minds has a very good chance to triumph is Felix Limo. Limo won Chicago and London back-to-back in the fall of 2005 and spring of 2006, plus Berlin in 2004. Limo was 3rd last year and has shown he clearly has the marathon figured out.

A major topic of conversation was whether any of the Kenyan runners knew how their Olympic team was going to be selected. They all laughed. Limo talked the most on Kenya needing a better system. Limo said that Athletics Kenya head Isaac Kiplagat was like a good poker player who "keeps his cards close to his chest." On Kenya needing a better selection system (apparently the selection system is Athletics Kenya picks whoever it wants) he said, "For the best selection (process) you should have a guideline with steps you have to take (to make the team)." In Kenya, that apparently is revolutionary.

Making the Olympic team is so tough in the marathon that Limo and the others did not seem preoccupied with it at all. Limo said, "I do not put the Olympics in my mind, because it is very hard (to make the team). You can be obsessed with the Olympics, and you likely will be disappointed ... I put it out of my mind so if I am selected it will be a surprise."

Londo Marathon 2008

Mr. Paul Tergat The II - Abderrahim Goumri
With all the focus on the Kenyans and Ryan Hall, Morocco's Abderrahim Goumri is still garnering a lot of attention. Last year, his first marathon ever was London. He finished 2nd in the sprint finish loss to Martin Lel. He then dropped out of the World Champs marathon in the heat of Osaka, but came back to lose again to Lel over the final quarter mile of the ING New York City Marathon.

Goumri clearly has the marathon credentials, and he also has the best track speed in the field. A 12:50 5ker, he does most of his training in Ifrane, Morocco, where most of the top Moroccans train. Goumri clearly has not abandoned his track roots. "I always work on my speed," he said.

Wisdom From Ramaala
Hendrick Ramaala first emerged as a track, cross country, and half marathon runner before finding late success in the marathon. The 36-year-old veteran had a successful 2007 (5th in London where he lost out in the final half mile sprint, and 3rd in New York). Nonetheless, he felt he needed to return to his speed roots. He said, "the last 2k (at London last year) I was hanging on, and I was thinking, I'm missing those track sessions. I'm from a track background, from cross country. The last year and the year before, I left the track. This year I've got to work on my finishing power."

With that in mind, Ramaala did run two 10ks in S. Africa and a half marathon. He said things went "really well" and then said he ran under 29 minutes in both (our stats show he ran a 28:45 on the roads on Feb 10 and a 28:53 on the track on March 14th - winning both). Moderator Tim Hutchings then assumed this had to have been at altitude as for most world class marathoners, 29 minutes is not something to brag about. Ramaala then said no, at sea level, and then laughed, "for me that is good enough."

Ramaala may not have the speed he once had, but his savvy and intellect (he's a lawyer in S. Africa) have prepared him well for the mental stress of big city marathons. He said as he's gotten older he no longer feels "much pressure".

Another runner advancing in age is Olympic champ Stefano Baldini. He's the only guy we will say without a doubt mentioned today that won't win the race. Baldini plans on going out with the second group (tentative plans for the top group seemed to indicate a 1:02:30 pace for the half marathon). He knows at nearly age 37 (next month) he's not suddenly going to become a 2:05 guy (although his pr of 2:07 is from 2005). Baldini believes the heat and humidity at the Olympics helps him bridge the gap to the 2:05 Africans and his focus is on defending his Olympic title (he's going to Beijing on Monday to look at the course).

LetsRun.com Longshot? Deriba Merga. Only at London could a 2:06:50 guy in his last marathon be a long shot.  Merga is a late comer to professional running as he didn't enter the international scene until 2005 as a 25-year-old. He showed a ton of improvement in his last marathon (2:06:50 2nd at Fukuoka) and enters the race in good form (He won the World's Best 10k in Puerto Rico, one of the top road races in the world, in February). Others to watch include Yonas Kifle, the Eritrean record holder at 2:07:34 (5th in Amsterdam last year), and of course Emmanual Mutai, who we mentioned at the top, who had the fastest marathon in the world in 2007. We'll have our predictions later this week.

With the star-studded field assembled, no doubt the winner will be extremely fit and perhaps a bit lucky. Veteran Hendrick Ramaala summed it up best when he imparted this wisdom, "You may be in your best shape and in the game of marathon and you might not end up finishing the race." 

That's the case in any marathon, but particularly in London where the pace and competition can crush anyone.

*Photo Gallery from Wednesday

Interviews (We'll have more later. These are just short clips from a few of the big names. Wejo is hoping to do a short highlight clip for the majority of you who don't want to watch most of these)

Sammy Wanjiru (3:14)

Martin Lel (2:12)

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