Shura Kitata of Ethiopia. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of London Marathon and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Kipchoge dethroned

Brigid Kosgei defends her title

Close contests decide top two positions among men, and second and third positions among women

Although Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, the athlete billed as his closest competitor pulled out ahead of the race, world record holder and defending champion, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, was not his usual self. He seemed to struggle and came in much after the podium finishers; he finished eighth in 2:06:49. The 35 year-old Kenyan great was trying for his fifth London Marathon title; He had won the event previously in 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019. The crown eventually went to 24 year-old Kitata, who two years earlier had finished second behind Kipchoge at the 2018 London Marathon. The course record for men in London is 2:02:37, set by Kipchoge in 2019.

Defending champion, Brigid Kosgei of Kenya won the women’s race covering the distance in 2:18:58. Her compatriot and 2019 marathon world champion, Ruth Chepngetich placed third, while Sarah Hall of the US finished second. The top ten women athletes finished within 2:28:30, the race commentators said; the qualification mark for the women’s marathon at the Tokyo Olympics due next year is 2:29:30. Kosgei’s performance in less than ideal conditions in London compares to the world record she holds of 2:14:04 – for women running in a mixed sex race – set at the 2019 Chicago Marathon. The course record for women in London is 2:15:25, set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003.

Going by the commentary, the early laps in the women’s marathon was fast but the pace reduced later. An hour and 33 minutes into the race, the commentators observed that the pace was close to world record requirements and yet not quite there.  Potential reasons spoken of included pandemic, cancellation of events, lockdown and the impact of these developments on athletes’ training, especially opportunities to train with others. Distance runners are known to periodically train in the company of fellow runners, an arrangement that allows them to push each other’s abilities. Further, race day in London followed a spate of heavy rains. The course was visibly wet and at one point during the women’s race, there was a hint of hail. Such conditions typically force runners to tread with caution especially at the corners, details which matter when it comes to performance in the elite category where every second counts.

Ruth Chepngetich (left) and Brigid Kosgei – both in orange vests at the 2020 London Marathon. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

Notwithstanding the general pace, by 1:44 hours into the women’s marathon, Kosgei was clearly leading Chepngetich and a sizable gap had opened between them and Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere (winner among women at the 2019 Berlin Marathon), who was in third place. The 35 kilometer-mark went by in approximately 1:55 hours.  By around 1:58, Lily Partridge and Steph Twell, among the top British contenders, had dropped off the race. By 2:04, even as Kosgei cemented her lead further, the gap was progressively reducing between Bekere and Sarah Hall following her in fourth place.  Around 2:12, Kosgei betrayed a smile as she neared the last lap; she eventually finished in 2:18:58. But it was Sarah Hall who turned in a truly inspiring performance. Having overtaken Bekere, she ran past Chepngetich in the last 100 meters or so to finish a brilliant second with new personal best to boot.     

Probably taking a cue from the women’s race, which was held first, the men’s race too maintained a momentum that was slower than what was expected of the talent crammed into it. At 44:50 the commentator said, “ it is not going to be as fast as we would have normally expected from Eliud Kipchoge.’’ At just past the half way mark, the pace was still steady and not yet showing signs of stepping up. In retrospect this may have played to the disadvantage of Kipchoge. He was older compared to those around him in the lead formation and as the defending champion and the only runner in history to have managed a sub-two hour-marathon, albeit unofficially, there was much riding on his shoulders. As the commentators pointed out, the slower pace wasn’t Kipchoge’s regular style. In the past he has displayed the habit of breaking away past the half way mark and striking out on his own. On Sunday, he appeared either struggling or hemmed in by the larger formation settled into a slightly slower pace with prospects of a sprint finish gradually opening up. On more than one occasion, the commentators pointed out that at a slightly higher pace in the early stages, Kipchoge may have shrugged off some of the runners keeping him company.  

An hour and 36 minutes into the race, Kipchoge discarded his cap and there was anticipation that he may be preparing to break free. Around 1:43, the lead runners were still huddled together; there hadn’t been anyone breaking free yet. “ This is relatively slow for the standard these men have run before,’’ the commentator said. By 1:51, Kipchoge had drifted to the back of the lead group; a slight grimace showed up on his face. Around 1:52:50, the commentator said that Kipchoge could possibly be in trouble in the race. By 1:53:46 there was a clear gap between him and the leading lot. “ There is something quite not working for Kipchoge today,’’ the commentator said. By 1:57:30 it was fairly certain that Kipchoge had lost the race and the people to watch out for were the runners nobody had focused on in the days preceding the event when top billing was assigned for a Kipchoge-Bekele face off. As the second hour of running commenced, the lead group stood whittled down to three Ethiopian runners – Kitata, Mosinet Geremew, Lemma and a lone Kenyan, Kipchumba.  Around 2:04, Geremew who had been the most fancied of the lot dropped back. “ There are casualties all around this two and a quarter kilometer-course,’’ the commentator said. It then boiled down to a potential sprint finish between the remaining three and Kipchumba seemed to gain the upper hand briefly before Kitata firmly surged ahead to breast the tape.  It was a final stage with much drama for in those waning moments, few expected Kitata to sustain a sprint given he had often led the pack from the front in the preceding laps and seemed ideal candidate to be tired.

In a post race tweet, Kipchoge said that after 25 kilometers his ear had got blocked and wouldn’t open anymore. “ But this is how sport is,” he said, pointing out that defeat should be accepted and the focus should now be on winning the next race. He hopes to return for the next edition of the London Marathon and the Olympics, Runners World reported in their article on what happened to Kipchoge.

The 2020 London Marathon was run on a specially selected course around St James Park. Athletes ran several loops. According to the race commentators, the said course was considered for the sub-two hour project Kipchoge had executed in 2019. That event finally took place on a special course in Vienna, wherein he achieved an unofficial time of 1:59:40 for the marathon. The London course was quite flat and therefore theoretically, fast. However because the run was happening on a special course due to the pandemic, even if a new course record was set in the 2020 edition, it wouldn’t be counted officially, the commentators said. The pacers for the men’s race on Sunday included Mo Farah.

Mo Farah doing duty as pacer at the 2020 London Marathon. This image was downloaded from the Facebook page of the event and is being used here for representation purpose. No copyright infringement intended.

The 2020 London Marathon will definitely trigger curiosity in terms of what the model – a blend of physical race and larger virtual participation – holds for the business of running worldwide. An estimated 45,000 runners were due to participate in the virtual format of the 2020 London Marathon. Outside of the UK, the highest number of runners participating in the virtual version of the event was in USA, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the race commentators said. At the physical race in London on Sunday, there were no spectators and only the elite athletes running loops on a secure course. As an event then accessed through television and digital media, the physical race showcased elite running as pure performance with no other distractions in the frame. In other words, there was no life around. It is possible that some viewers may have found such running a cold, clinical experience with only the commentary providing warmth. Under the circumstances this blend appears the most viable model (there is however the problem of shrinking free access to streaming and sometimes, overpriced access) and London may provide impetus for managers of events elsewhere in the world, to follow suit. Races in Valencia and Abu Dhabi have already been spoken of in this context particularly because there is a real thirst out there with elite marathoners for events to run at and qualify for the Olympics. The marathon at the 2019 World Athletics Championships in Doha, which was one of the opportunities to qualify so before pandemic struck and the 2020 Olympics got postponed to 2021, was held in very warm, humid conditions. Timings reported there, had been slow.

As is the norm these days, the London Marathon was also watched from the perspective of shoe technology and what advanced shoe design brings to the table at races. It was only the second World Marathon Major this year to physically happen, after the Tokyo Marathon in March. Kipchoge, who has in some ways been the face of new developments in shoe technology, was running the race in London in a version of the Nike Alpha Fly with his timing from Vienna – 1:59:40 – written at the back of it, the commentators said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)