I Was Bored, So I Watched the Greatest Marathon Ever — 2002 London

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Throwback Thursday #14

By Jonathan Gault
July 9, 2020

Welcome back to Throwback Thursday. With limited live events during the coronavirus quarantine, I’m plumbing the depths of YouTube and watching/sharing my thoughts about one classic race per week. If you missed any of the first 13 installments, click here.

How great was the 2002 London Marathon? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Paula Radcliffe, making her marathon debut and racing on home soil, ran 2:18:56 to set a women’s-only world record and miss the overall WR by nine seconds — and it wasn’t even the biggest story of the day.
  • Haile Gebrselassie, at the time the 5,000/10,000m world record holder and regarded by many as the greatest runner in history, made his marathon debut, and ran well, running the 7th-fastest time ever, but that only resulted in him finishing 3rd.
  • Khalid Khannouchi set a world record of 2:05:38 — and barely won the race as runner-up Paul Tergat clocked 2:05:48 to move to #2 on the all-time list.

It seems like every year, we talk about how London has assembled the greatest marathon field ever and go in with the expectation that such a field should therefore produce the greatest marathon ever. Well in 2002, it actually happened. The hype surrounding this race was unreal, and the actual race exceeded it: with two miles to go, the world record holder and the two greatest distance runners of their generation were locked in a three-way battle for the win with the world record on the line. How do you top that?

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it. We’re headed back to London on April 14, 2002, for one of the greatest days of distance running the world has ever seen…

Note: The picture quality isn’t great, but this feed has the entire men’s race with BBC commentary, so it’s the one I’m using.

0:30 We open with a shot of Geb. At 28 years old and winner of the last two Olympic 10ks as well as WR holder at 5k and 10k, it’s hard to overstate how momentous this debut was. Though Geb had only taken the bronze at Worlds in the 10k in 2001, he won the World Half in October and tuned up for London with a fast 59:41 half in Lisbon. Commentator Brendan Foster sets the scene:

“There, the man we’ve awaited so long to step up to the marathon…the greatest distance runner of all time over 10,000 meters, on his way now trying to emulate the man who set the tone for Ethiopian distance running, the great Abebe Bikila.”

No pressure, Geb.

4:56 Commentator Steve Cram calls this “the greatest field ever assembled for the London Marathon.” Those of you playing the London Marathon drinking game, go ahead and take a sip.

Conditions, by the way, were just about perfect for marathoning: high 40s and minimal wind.

5:29 We’re off! Go Ken!

9:55 This video didn’t include the first nine miles of the women’s race, which started before the men’s. Which means we’ve missed the only part of the race in which Radcliffe had any company. After a string of miles in the 5:30s, Radcliffe has run her last two miles in 5:21 and 5:25 and has dropped the other racers (the two other women in the shot above are pacers).

For context on how the 28-year-old Radcliffe was viewed heading into this race, check out this BBC recap of her 4th-place finish in the 10,000 at the previous year’s Worlds, a race won by Ethiopian rival Derartu Tulu:

Paula Radcliffe…continues to be the nearly-woman of British athletics after another heartbreak in the Worlds at Edmonton.

What wouldn’t Paula Radcliffe give to shake off her tag as the plucky but unlucky Brit of world athletics?

Wherever the sport is followed around the globe, she is known for her series of near-misses at the highest level.

That reputation wasn’t entirely fair — she had won the World Half in 2000 and 2001 and World XC in 2001 and 2002 — but on the track, Radcliffe had six top-five finishes between Worlds and the Olympics but just one medal, a 10k silver in 1999.

10:27 Though this would turn into a Radcliffe blowout, the women’s race was pretty stacked as well. Defending champ Derartu Tulu (in blue) — who was also the reigning World/Olympic 10,000 champ — was entered, as was Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei (in black), who had run a half marathon world record of 65:44 the year before, plus two-time London champ Joyce Chepchumba (farther back). They’re eight seconds back of Radcliffe in this clip and will never get closer.

12:57 As the broadcast cuts back to the start, I have serious questions about this poster. This individual’s aim seems to be striking the very delicate balance between shouting out his significant other and his favorite football club (Leeds United) on the same poster. I need to know Sue’s thoughts about this.

15:43 Geb has requested 62:30 for the opening half — very quick, considering the current WR was Khannouchi’s 2:05:42 — and there’s a large lead group willing to run that pace. They pass two miles in 9:34 (2:05:19 pace).

20:06 Radcliffe continues to roll in the women’s race, dropping a 5:17 11th mile, the fastest of the race so far.

21:06 Fred Flintstone in his car is one of the best costumes I’ve seen on the course today — though he’s not moving anywhere near as fast as Fred does in the cartoon.

25:51 Everyone seems hyped for these elite races — except for the director of the BBC broadcast. We’re now over 25 minutes in and I’ve seen more overhead shots of the start than actual elite racing. I’m tired of seeing camels and teapots. Give me the good stuff!

34:20 Radcliffe drops the last remaining pacemaker just after Tower Bridge and hits halfway in 1:11:04, giving her a 50-second lead over Chepkemei and Tulu. At this point, only seven women in history had broken 2:22. Radcliffe is making that pace look easy.

35:28 Around a dozen men hit 10k well under WR pace in 29:37 (2:04:53 marathon pace). Aside from the Big 3 of Geb, Tergat, and Khannouchi, there’s also Ethiopia’s Tesfaye Jifar (fresh of a 2:07:43 CR in New York), three-time London champ Antonio Pinto of Portugal and reigning London champ Abdelkader El Mouaziz of Morocco.

World Athletics reported that, all told, London spent $3 million to assemble its elite field in 2002.

37:33 I’ve watched a lot of marathons and can’t ever remember one of the wheelchair athletes blowing a turn this badly. With no one around him — and while leading the race — Pierre Fairbank plows right into this sign. Ouch!

42:00 Radcliffe rips off a 5:07 14th mile, followed by a 5:08 15th mile, which is 2:14:30 pace at a time when the WR is 2:18:47. Foster and Cram start losing their minds. Remember, this is Radcliffe’s debut marathon, and she’s still got 10+ miles to the finish.

She’s in a very interesting position. Radcliffe is obviously feeling great, but she’s also in uncharted territory and knows the eyes of the nation are upon her. You never quite know what the second half of a marathon will feel like until you race one, and that thought was weighing on Radcliffe as she surged.

“You’d better not blow this, or you’ll be the idiot who didn’t respect the marathon,” Radcliffe later recalled of her mid-race mindset, according to Roger Robinson.

49:00 Cram mentions that, technically, this isn’t Gebrselassie’s marathon debut: he ran 2:48 as a 15-year-old back in Ethiopia.

55:16 Radcliffe backs off slightly for miles 16 (5:11) and 17 (5:14), but has shown no signs of cracking and her lead is nearing two minutes. The women’s debut (2:23:11) and course records (2:21:06) look destined to be smashed. It’s becoming clear we’re witnessing something special.

1:03:16 Here’s a shot of Haile drinking water — according to the New York Times (yes they actually covered this race), he only drank water (and nothing else) during the race.

1:18:59 After more Paula love and the wheelchair finish, we cut back to the men’s race, which is absolutely bonkers — 10 guys have come through halfway on world record pace at 62:47. Most of the commentators’ attention has been focused on Geb, so let’s quickly mention a few other guys.

First, the white guy in the back. That’s Great Britain’s Mark Steinle, who is running way above his head right now. His marathon pb is 2:10:46, yet he’s hanging onto the back of a pack running 2:05 pace — the 62:47 HM split is just 24 seconds off his PR. Steinle would fade over the second half but still hold on to finish 8th in 2:09:17 — his lifetime best.

Steinle’s got nothing on the guy in the yellow, though. That’s South Africa’s Ian Syster, whose pbs (62:44/2:13:30) are even slower than Steinle’s. Syster, who would sadly die in a car accident two years later, would hold on for 5th in a lifetime best of 2:07:06.

Finally, the guy on the left in all black. That’s Khalid Khannouchi, the Moroccan-born star who became a US citizen in 2000. Though he had set the world record in 1999 and won Chicago in 2000, Khannouchi entered London as something of an afterthought — injuries limited him to just one race in 2001, a DNF at the World Championships in Edmonton. So far, he’s been keeping a low profile in this race at the back of the lead pack.

1:28:00 The men are 17 miles in and the rabbits are gone, but Haile is continuing to push the pace. Steinle is among the victims as the lead pack has dwindled to seven men.

1:33:13 Radcliffe is a charter member of the “always looks like they’re hurting despite running insanely fast” club (other members include Dathan Ritzenhein and Nico Young). They zoom in, and she’s at full head bob, with her face scrunched up in pain. Yet she’s just run her 25th mile in 5:06 — her fastest of the race.

1:43:45 Radcliffe wins it in 2:18:56, nine seconds off the WR and just the third woman under 2:20. She has run a ridiculous negative split of 71:05-67:51 — had it been a standalone race, her second half would have been the second-fastest half marathon run in all of 2002. That tells Radcliffe the marathon world record is hers for the taking, and she would eventually smash it in Chicago six months later with a little help from LetsRun.com before taking women’s marathoning into a new stratosphere with her 2:15:25 at 2003 London.

One more thing: Radcliffe won World XC three weeks before this race. Runners used to do the World XC/spring marathon double all the time in the ’80s. Can we stop pretending it’s impossible to do both in the 2020s?

1:45:00 I can’t ever recall more praise for a performance than what Cram and Foster have ladled upon Radcliffe in the last few minutes. Not that it’s not deserved…but even the third man in the booth, Paul Dickenson, can’t help but notice the excess.

Dickenson: “I’ve worked with you guys for quite a few years now, and you rarely hand out superlatives like incredible, fantastic, and phenomenal.”

1:50:26 Once the Paula lovefest wraps up, we go back to the men’s race, where it’s down to three at 21 miles. Foster sums up the epic showdown on tap.

“Haile Gebrselassie, the world record holder for the 10,000 meters (and 5,000). Right next to him, Paul Tergat, the world record holder for the half marathon. And right next to him, Khalid Khannouchi, the world record holder for the marathon…There have never been a [better] collection of athletes in the history of distance running together at this stage of the race.”

What Foster could not know at the time is that this picture also contains the next three world record holders in the marathon. Khannouchi would hold the mark from 1999-2003, Tergat from 2003-2007, and Geb from 2007-2011.

1:58:59 I didn’t realize the London course used to run under Tower Bridge and over cobblestones around the Tower of London (they put mats down to limit the damage to runners’ legs, though in this case, the men’s leaders have ignored them). While the idea of racing on cobblestones looks cool in theory, I can’t imagine it’s something any runner would want to deal with 22 miles into a marathon — which is probably why this section was eliminated in 2005.

2:05:45 We’ve just hit 24 miles in 1:54:58, still under WR pace. Cram warns that Geb will be tough to beat in a kick, but Foster reminds us that Khannouchi is the only one of the three who has run close to this fast in a marathon — Tergat’s pb is 2:08:15, while Haile’s making his debut.

2:07:29 This has been a Haile-centric broadcast, which is never more obvious than when Khannouchi takes the lead during mile 25 and the camera essentially ignores it to continue focusing on Haile. This is only one of the most dramatic marathons of all time. Is it too much to ask to show all three leaders in the same shot?

2:08:49 A minute later, and we’re down to two — the great Gebrselassie can hold on no more as the world record holder makes his move. This is, you might say, a big f—ing deal.

“I’ve never ever seen him dropped in a race before,” Foster says of Gebrselassie.

The interesting thing is, they haven’t been running all that fast recently: miles 21-25 have been 4:54, 4:52, 4:52, 4:53, 4:55 (WR pace is 4:48). This is pretty common when there are still multiple guys left in a fast marathon — the win becomes more important than the time. Now Khannouchi has snapped them out of that rhythm, and the other two men are struggling to respond.

2:10:56 Khannouchi ups the ante and as they press on during mile 26, he gaps Tergat.

2:15:30 Khannouchi sprints it in to ensure he gets under the old world record, and he just manages it, running 2:05:38 to improve his record by four seconds (he covered the final 1.2 miles at 4:44 pace). As impressive as Khannouchi’s run is, I can’t help but think Eliud Kipchoge ran almost four minutes faster in Berlin in 2018 (granted, with the assistance of Nike’s supershoes).

Can we use this race as Exhibit A of why we shouldn’t assume someone should be able to kick better in a marathon because they have a faster track pb? Haile G and Tergat entered this race 1-2 on the all-time 10k list and Haile’s kick was regarded as best in history for a true distance man. Khannouchi, by comparison, had no track career to speak of, yet he prevailed handily in the end. In a 26.2-mile race, your kick depends not on your footspeed, but on how much of it you can still access after two hours of racing.

2:15:47 Tergat takes second, which will only further his reputation as running’s bridesmaid. He owns four silver medals on the track at 10,000, losing to Geb in all four races, and has now run three career marathons — and finished second in all of them.

Today’s outcome is typical of a man who would have a fistful of golds had he not overlapped with one of history’s greatest distance runners. Even though Tergat has finally beaten Geb and run just six seconds off the old WR, he hasn’t even won the race. At least he has those five World XC titles to fall back on (and later the marathon WR).

2:16:28 Haile G, who would later complain of a calf cramp, doesn’t look thrilled to finish third, but it’s taken the two fastest men in history to beat him and he’s still broken the Ethiopian record with his 2:06:35. Not a bad debut, all things considered.

2:16:40 Defending champ El Mouaziz barfs a few meters before the finish line but still runs 2:06:52 — a time that would have won all but one of the previous 21 London Marathons but is only good fourth on this day. At the time, this was easily the deepest race in history, with the top six finishers all setting all-time best marks for place.

***

That’s it for this week. Check back next Thursday for the next installment. Talk about 2002 London on our messageboard. MB: Throwback Thursday #14: Re-Experience the Greatest Marathon In History – The 2002 London Marathon

*TBT #13: I Was Bored, So I Watched Lynn Jennings Win 1992 World XC on Home Soil
*TBT #12: I Was Bored, So I Watched the Crazy 2004 Men’s Olympic Marathon
*TBT #11: 
I Was Bored, So I Watched Craig Mottram Battle Augustine Choge In Melbourne at the 2006 Commonwealth Games
*Previous entries


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