After An Epic Battle, Daniel Wanjiru Outduels Kenenisa Bekele To Win The 2017 London Marathon

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April 23, 2017

While the women’s race at the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon saw jaw-dropping times, the men’s race offered a thrilling alternative for those who enjoy head-to-head racing as Daniel Wanjiru and Kenenisa Bekele staged a high-stakes game of cat and mouse over the final miles on Sunday morning. Ultimately, the great Bekele’s late heroics were not enough as the 24-year-old Wanjiru, who set the course record at last year’s Amsterdam Marathon, held off a strong surge from Bekele with a surge of his own the final mile to win in 2:05:48 to Bekele’s 2:05:57.

Bekele, who at 30k appeared to be well beaten as he was 17 seconds back and in just 6th place, stormed back to within 3 seconds of Wanjiru, but Wanjiru rallied deep — to hold off Bekele’s late charge. 

(LRC note: Earlier we wrote Wanjiru ran a 4:27 26th mile as that was what was reported on the race broadcast, but the split had to be incorrect. The timing website shows Wanjiru running 4:53 pace from 40km to the finish (1.35 miles), so there is no way he ran 4:27 for a mile on that stretch. Hat tip to Peter Geithner for first pointing this out to us).

The Race

As is the norm with Bekele’s marathons these days, there was plenty of world record hype in the buildup, and the men opened with a scorching 14:11 split on the downhill first 5k. They backed off from there, however, and the 13-man lead pack (nine racers, four pacers) hit halfway in 61:41 — quick for any marathon, but 12 seconds behind world record pace.

Wanjiru began to increase the tempo just after crossing Tower Bridge near the halfway mark, ripping off a four-mile stretch of 4:44-4:42-4:44-4:45 from 12 to 16 miles (14:39 from 20k to 25k), and by 30k, the lead pack had dwindled to five men: Wanjiru, debutant Bedan Karoki, world champ Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, Chicago champ Abel Kirui and Olympic silver medallist Feyisa Lilesa. Bekele, who repeatedly stretched his arm above his head, just as he did in Berlin last fall, looked to be falling out of it and was 18 seconds adrift.

Update: After the race, Bekele told Reuters he fell back as he was having a problem with his shoes that were causing him to get blisters so he altered his stride and that created a hamstring issue. 

After breaking the race open with a 4:53 21st mile, Wanjiru held an 11-second lead over Karoki at 35k. But Bekele had begun to rally, and was now in fourth place, 15 seconds behind. He quickly passed Kirui and Karoki and set his sights on the leader. By 23 miles, he had narrowed the gap to six seconds but struggled to close it further, and though Wanjiru wasn’t running absurdly fast — 4:53 and 5:02 for the next two miles — his lead was back to almost 10 seconds by mile 25.

Bekele still wasn’t licked, however, and launched a furious attack during mile 26. Wanjiru’s lead was down to eight seconds as they passed Big Ben and with a kilometer to run, Bekele was just three seconds behind. Bekele looked set to add another epic come-from-behind victory to a collection that included the 2013 Great North Run and last year’s Berlin Marathon.

But Wanjiru had one final move up his sleeve and as they headed through Westminster, he accelerated once again. This time, Bekele had no response and Wanjiru had time to celebrate on the way in with Buckingham Palace in the background, earning a tough victory in 2:05:48. Bekele improved one spot and 39 seconds from last year, but was disappointed to take second in 2:05:57. Karoki held on well to take third in his debut in 2:07:41.

Quick take analysis and top 10 results appear below. Top 30 results are at the end of the document.

Top 10 Results
1. Daniel KINYUA KEN 2:05:48
2. Kenenisa BEKELE ETH 2:05:57
3. Bitan KAROKI KEN 2:07:41 PB
4. Abel KIRUI 2:07:45 SB
5. Alphonce Felix SIMBU TAN 2:09:10 PB
6. Ghirmay GHEBRESLASSIE ERI 2:09:57
7. Asefa MENGSTU ETH 2:10:04 PB
8. Amanuel MESEL ERI 2:10:44
9. Javier GUERRA ESP 2:10:55
10. Michael SHELLEY AUS 2:11:38

Quick Take #1: Daniel Wanjiru has arrived as a marathon stud

This take is a little tautological as anyone who wins London is by definition a stud, but what Wanjiru has done in his last two marathons (2:05:21 course record in Amsterdam, fending off Bekele to win in London) is truly impressive. Plus he’s still only 24 years old. In terms of Best Marathoner Alive, you’d have to rank Eliud Kipchoge above him right now (and probably Wilson Kipsang too) but that’s about it.

Quick Take #2: Never count out Kenenisa Bekele

Usually when someone starts to drop off of the lead pack in a road race, they don’t come back unless there’s a major blowup up front. But Kenenisa Bekele has shown an incredible ability to rally (or play dead) during his road racing career and almost claimed another come-from-behind win today.

He came up short for two reasons. 1) Wanjiru was brilliant. Not only was his race tremendous but he saved something for the final mile when Bekele closed the gap. That is rare in a marathon. 2) Bekele left it too late. Obviously it’s tough to run fast at the end of a marathon, but for miles 19 through 25, the pace never got below 4:53, with four of them being run in 5:00 or slower. Bekele really started closing the gap during mile 26. Bekele obviously didn’t know that Wanjiru was capable of matching that move, but if you’re 8-10 seconds down at mile 25, you have to hope the guy in front of you doesn’t have much in reserve — which wasn’t the case today.

Still, the fact that Bekele battled back from sixth place and 18 seconds down at 30k was very impressive. Bekele is lauded for his otherworldly combination of speed and endurance, but he should be commended for his toughness as well — both mental and physical.


Quick Take #3: Rough second halves for Feyisa Lilesa and Tilahun Regassa

None of the early leaders ran close to a negative split (Wanjiru won by going 1:01:43/1:04:03), but Ethiopians Lilesa and Regassa really struggled on the way home. Lilesa wound up 12th in 2:14:12 with splits of 1:04:41/1:09:31 while Regassa, who was 5th and 6th in London the last two years, finished way back in 30th (2:18:53) after going 1:01:42/1:17:11. Both Mary Keitany and Tirunesh Dibaba ran faster than Regassa today.

Quick Take #4: One Of The Two British World Championship Spots Went To A Guy Who Didn’t Even Have An Elite Bib

The top two Brits in the race earned spots in the 2017 World Championships in London. 23-year-old Josh Griffiths, who didn’t even start with the elites (he started a few meters back with the masses), and entered with PRs of 14:19/29:49/65:18, was amazingly the first Brit across the line, running 2:14:49 to finish 14th in his debut marathon. 25-year-old Robbie Simpson grabbed the second spot by finishing 16th in 2:15:04, a small improvement over the 2:15:38 he ran in London last year.

If it wasn’t for Griffiths, the underdog that everyone would be talking about would be 37-year-old Andrew Davies as he ran a big pb of 2:15:11 to finish 17th (previous pb of 2:16:55).

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Top 30 Results Via All-Athletics

Pl.Athlete / TeamCnt.BirthResultScore 
1.Daniel KINYUAKEN922:05:481238SB
2.Kenenisa BEKELEETH822:05:571235SB
3.Bitan KAROKIKEN902:07:411203PB
4.Abel KIRUIKEN822:07:451202SB
5.Alphonce Felix SIMBUTAN922:09:101176PB
6.Ghirmay GHEBRESLASSIEERI952:09:571162SB
7.Asefa MENGSTUETH852:10:041160PB
8.Amanuel MESELERI902:10:441148SB
9.Javier GUERRAESP832:10:551145SB
10.Michael SHELLEYAUS832:11:381133SB
11.Ayad LAMDASSEMESP812:12:301117SB
12.Feyisa LILESAETH902:14:121088SB
13.Kibrom WELDEMICAELERI872:14:521076SB
14.Joshua GRIFFITHSGBR932:14:491077PB
15.Abdellatif MEFTAHFRA822:14:551075SB
16.Robbie SIMPSONGBR912:15:041073PB
17.Andrew DAVIESGBR792:15:111071PB
18.Tesfaye ABERAETH922:16:091054SB
19.Sean HEHIRIRL852:16:181052PB
20.Jesús Arturo ESPARZAMEX902:16:381046PB
21.Scott OVERALLGBR832:16:541041SB
22.Kevin SEAWARDIRL852:17:081038SB
23.Matt SHAWGBR782:17:451027PB
24.Aaron SCOTTGBR872:17:461027PB
25.Jon THEWLISGBR852:17:581023PB
26.Stephen SCULLIONIRL882:17:591023PB
27.Tasama MOOGASISR882:18:331014SB
28.Michael CLOHISEYIRL862:18:341013SB
29.Jonathan MELLORGBR862:18:481010SB
30.Tilahun REGASSAETH902:18:531008SB