By Jonathan Gault, LetsRun.com
April 24, 2016
Greatest marathon ever?
Greatest marathoner ever?
Once again on Sunday morning, Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge produced an awe-inspiring marathon performance to defend his Virgin Money London Marathon title in 2:03:05, just eight seconds off countryman Dennis Kimetto’s world record. After a 2:04:42 win in London last spring and a ridiculous 2:04:00 in Berlin last fall — with his insoles trying to escape his shoes — it was hard to imagine that Kipchoge could do anything to shock the masses assembled in London. But he did just that, running perhaps the finest marathon in history to destroy a star-studded field in the British capital. In the process, Kipchoge became the first man in history to win four straight Abbott World Marathon Majors, reaffirmed his status as the world’s best marathoner and added to a growing list of accomplishments in a career that may one day go down as the greatest of all time.
Kipchoge’s margin of victory was 46 seconds — all coming during the final two miles — over New York City Marathon champion Stanley Biwott (2:03:51), who would have smashed Wilson Kipsang’s course record of 2:04:29 had it not been for Kipchoge’s brilliance.
The other major story was the return of Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, who despite being limited in training completed his first marathon in 18 months, finishing an impressive third in 2:06:36 despite saying he was only at 90% fitness prior to the race.
With the top group of rabbits scheduled to run 2:03:30 pace through halfway and a loaded field assembled behind them, this one was always going to go out fast. Conditions were good for running (temps in the mid-40s, though winds between 5 and 10 mph) and the men wasted no time getting after it, hitting the mile in a blistering 4:30. However, as the nine men (plus three rabbits) hit the 5k split in 14:16 (the third mile is downhill), it brought flashbacks to 2013 and 2014, when the leaders went out ahead of world record pace but faded badly over the second half. In those years, the leaders “only” ran 14:21 and 14:26; what would a 14:16 do to the field?
Well, for most of the field, the hot early pace would come back to bite them as only three men ran faster than 2:07:46. But for Kipchoge and Biwott, it was merely the opening salvo on a historic day. (By the way, 14:16 isn’t even the fastest opening 5k in London history; when Sammy Wanjiru won London in 2:05:10 in 2009, the leaders hit 5k in 14:08!)
The pace relented, but only slightly, over the next eight miles. 5K splits of 14:21, 14:40 and 14:53 took six racers — Kipchoge, Biwott, Bekele, world champ Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, two-time London champ Wilson Kipsang and Ethiopian Tilahun Regassa (plus rabbit Gideon Kipketer) — through the half in 1:01:24, the fastest ever first half marathon split in a marathon. They were on pace to run 2:02:48 — nine seconds ahead of the world record.
After that 14:53 fourth 5k, Kipchoge ratcheted the pace up once again and over the next two miles, Ghebreslassie and Regassa fell behind. Both Kipsang and Bekele began to drop after the fluid station at 25k (1:12:39; 14:29 split) and though Bekele would battle back to rejoin the leaders briefly, by the time Biwott and Kipchoge passed 30 kilometers — in a world-record of 1:27:13 — they had 12 seconds on Bekele and a minute on the rest of the field.
World #1 Vs. World #2 For All The Glory
This is what everyone signed up for. Kipchoge, the world #1 and defending champion, against Biwott, the world #2 and man who won NYC last fall by ripping off a 28:35 final 10k over Central Park’s hills. The world’s two best marathoners, head-to-head, with the London Marathon title — and perhaps the world record — on the line.
With over seven miles remaining, neither wanted to risk moving too hard too early, and that caution caused the world record to start slipping away. Their 5k from 35k to 40k (14:54) was the slowest of the race, and for the first time, they were outside world record pace (now projected to finish at 2:03:06, world record pace is 4:41.4 per mile or 14:34.15 5k pace). A 4:50 23rd mile and a 4:43 24th mile caused them to fall even further behind; the focus was now clearly on winning. It seemed as if the world record was no longer a possibility.
After running side-by-side together for nine miles, Kipchoge probed again as they ran along the River Thames during mile 25 and found a gap in Biwott’s defenses. Kipchoge moved in front and his lead grew exponentially over the course of a few minutes; 5 meters, 25 meters, 125 meters. His 4:38 25th mile broke Biwott and as Kipchoge coasted toward his second straight London victory, a smile stretched across his face: he was enjoying this.
As he passed Buckingham Palace, the king of the marathon waved to his adoring subjects, but his regal manner shifted as he made the turn for home onto the Mall. Catching a glimpse of the finish-line clock, Kipchoge thought that the world record and a sub-2:03 clocking were still within reach, and he shifted into sprinter mode, trying to summon the speed that carried him to a 3:50 mile in this very city 12 years ago. Alas, he had gone too late, but when he crossed the finish line the clock read 2:03:05 — 1:24 ahead of Kipsang’s course record and the third-fastest marathon ever run. Kipchoge’s expression was one of disbelief as just before the line he covered his eyes as he seemingly couldn’t believe he was so close to the record. Then about 10 yards past the finish, he turned his head and looked back at the clock over his left shoulder as if to confirm that he’d indeed come so close.
Biwott held on for a well-earned second, running 2:03:51, becoming the ninth man to break 2:04 and the third to do it in a race he did not win. Bekele was well behind in third in 2:06:36, and though he was not close to the win, the performance marked a major resurgence in a career that looked as if it may have fizzled out. World champ Ghebreslassie was fourth (2:07:46), Kipsang fifth (2:07:52).
Behind the leaders, a separate race was going on for the two spots on the British Olympic team (the top two men would earn spots in Rio as long as they broke 2:14). Butler University grad Callum Hawkins claimed the first spot with a tremendous 2:10:52 run, passing world record holder Kimetto for eighth late in the race. It was just Hawkins’ second career marathon, a 1:25 improvement on his debut in Frankfurt last fall. The second Olympic berth went to Eritrean-born Brit Tsegai Tewelde, who ran 2:12:23 to take 12th in his marathon debut. The Brits can take three to Rio, and you would think that they would take Callum’s brother Derek Hawkins, who ran 2:12:57 to hit GB’s Olympic standard. It would be a great story — two brothers standing on the Olympic start line together. But GB only guaranteed spots to the top two in London, so Derek may have to stay home.
Analysis below the results.
Top 20 finishers (leaderboard with splits)
|Pl.||Athlete / Team||Cnt.||Birth||Result||Score|
|1.||Eliud KIPCHOGE||KEN||84||2:03:05||1288||WL, PB|
|2.||Stanley Kipleting BIWOTT||KEN||86||2:03:51||1274||PB|
|5.||Wilson Kipsang KIPROTICH||KEN||82||2:07:52||1200||SB|
Quick Take #1: Was this the greatest marathon performance ever?
Given the quality of the field, the ease with which he dropped Biwott (the world’s second-best marathoner) and the ridiculous time, Kipchoge’s run today unquestionably goes on the shortlist of greatest marathon performances ever. But is it the greatest?
Obviously it’s very hard to say anything definitively in the marathon as so much depends on the course/conditions, etc. Objectively, Dennis Kimetto’s 2:02:57 in Berlin in 2014 is the fastest ever, but Berlin has traditionally been a faster course than London and Kimetto didn’t have to face Wilson Kipsang in that race, who was the world #1 at the time.
Geoffrey Mutai’s 2:03:02 in Boston in 2011 was groundbreaking, but he only won by four seconds and everyone ran ridiculously fast that day because of the crazy tailwind. A better Mutai performance might be his 2:05:06 CR in New York that fall; no one else has come within 1:22 of that mark and only one other man has broken 2:07 there.
The other performance that stands out is Sammy Wanjiru’s 2:06:32 Olympic marathon in the heat of Beijing in 2008, a bold front-running performance that we called perhaps the greatest marathon ever run.
We can’t say with certainty, but line 2016 Kipchoge up against anyone in history and we like his odds. He looked like he had more in the tank even after he broke Biwott and only really got going once he saw the finish line. On our list, this is probably #1.
Kipchoge is also rapidly ascending the list of the world’s greatest-ever marathoners; you could even argue he’s #1 after today (though an Olympic gold this summer would strengthen that case). He’s won six of his seven career marathons, including five straight and four straight majors. He’s won London twice against two of the most competitive fields in history. He’s run 2:03:05, #2 all-time (record-eligible course); his slowest career marathon is 2:05:30 while his average marathon is 2:04:21. Certainly no one has ever started their marathon career better.
His only marathon defeat came in Berlin in 2013 when Wilson Kipsang set the world record to beat him.
Spring 2013 Hamburg 2:05:30 1st
Fall 2013 Berlin 2:04:05 2nd
Spring 2014 Rotterdam 2:05:00 1st
Fall 2014 Chicago 2:04:11 1st
Spring 2015 London 2:04:42 1st
Fall 2015 Berlin 2:04:00 1st
Spring 2016 London 2:03:05 1st (CR)
LRC Discussion: Is Kipchoge the GOAT of the marathon?
Quick Take #2: Could Kipchoge have gotten the world record?
Kipchoge ran 6:16 from 40k to the finish — that’s 4:35 pace (2:00:27 for a whole marathon). But by 40k, he already had nine seconds on Biwott and didn’t look as if he was really pushing himself. In fact, Kipchoge may not have even realized how close he was to the world record as they had fallen behind WR pace at 35k. If someone had told Kipchoge “you have to run 4:29 pace from here to the finish” at the 40k mark, he may have been able to get the WR.
Alternately, had he chosen to attack Biwott earlier, he may have been able to pick up a few extra seconds, leaving him less work to do at the end. Having someone to run with during a WR attempt is helpful but if they stick around long enough, athletes naturally start to think about winning the race rather than breaking the WR — as they should.
Kipchoge in his current form could break the WR in Berlin this fall if everything fell right for him (after all, he ran 2:04:00 there last year with his flappy insoles) but Kipchoge probably won’t get another crack at the record until London 2017 at the earliest as the Olympics fall too close to Berlin/Chicago for him to do both.
Quick Take #3: Eliud Kipchoge has raised marathoning to a new level
Three years ago, when the London Marathon went out in 61:34, we said the runners were foolish for challenging the marathon gods by running world record pace in London. At the time, the WR was 2:03:38 and going out at 2:03:08 pace on any course was viewed as suicide. Well three years later, Kipchoge went out even faster (61:24), and though he positive-splitted slightly, he still wound up producing one of the greatest runs in history. He’s simply on a different level than the top guys were in 2013.
Quick Take #4: Poor Stanley Biwott
It’s natural to feel some sympathy for Biwott. His 2:03:51 today ranks among the finest marathons ever run but no one will remember it because of Kipchoge’s dominance. At this point, Biwott must be wondering what he has to do to get a win in London. In 2013, he had the lead at 22 miles but faded all the way to eighth. The next year, he ran 2:04:55 but lost thanks to a course record by Wilson Kipsang. Today he was well under the old course record — and almost three minutes ahead of everybody else — but got smoked over the final two miles by Kipchoge. At least he got a PR out of it.
Quick Take #5: Kenenisa Bekele is back…but will he go to Rio?
Bekele’s performance today was brave and brilliant. Though he lost to Kipchoge and Biwott — no shame as those guys are the best two in the world right now — he beat Wilson Kipsang and the reigning world champ by over a minute and beat the other Ethiopians in the field by over three minutes. It was a much-needed return to form for Bekele, who dropped out of his last marathon in Dubai in January 2015 and has battled a nagging calf injury for several years that has prevented him from training at full intensity.
It may not be enough for Bekele to gain selection to the Olympics, however. The Ethiopian federation hasn’t announced its selection criteria for this year, but it usually goes by time, and Bekele’s 2:06:36 today is only eighth-best among Ethiopians in 2016. The two fastest Ethiopians this year, Tesfaye Abera and Lemi Berhanu Hayle, seem like locks for the team; they went 1-2 in Dubai in January and both won spring marathons (Hamburg for Abera, Boston for Hayle). The third spot is where it gets tricky. London has the best field of any marathon, but is third place in 2:06:36 enough to beat out Tsegaye Mekonnen (#3 Ethiopian on the year with 2:04:46 in Dubai, though he was only 12th in Boston) or Lelisa Desisa, who was second in Boston and always runs well in big races?
Bekele said he was only at 90% coming in and if he gets back to 100% by the Olympics, he’ll certainly be a medal contender. But if he doesn’t get picked at 26.2, that medal may have to come in the 10,000, not the marathon.
Discuss: Bekele’s Back!?
Quick Take #6: Kenyan Olympic team
Kipchoge and Biwott are locks for Rio assuming they stay healthy, but the third spot could go to a number of guys. Wilson Kipsang is the defending bronze medallist, was the third Kenyan today (5th in 2:07:52) and generally runs well against the best competition (though he DNF’d Worlds last year). We doubt Kenya would take EPO cheat Wilson Erupe who has the #3 time by a Kenyan this year (2:05:13) and has won all seven of his career marathons as he’s never raced outside of South Korea as he’s banned from World Marathon Major events and he tried to switch his allegiance to South Korea. Dickson Chumba won Chicago last fall and was third in Tokyo while Bernard Kipyego won Amsterdam last fall and was second in Tokyo.
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