This is a really good time to be a fan of athletics, or more specifically the marathon. We are living in a golden era for male marathon running. Allow me to explain.
Over the weekend, there were some absolutely staggering performances in big city marathons. It started on Sunday morning in London with one of the greatest fields ever assembled for a marathon. Behind the start line (and just in front of me – very exciting!) at 9:45 in Blackheath were Martin Lel, Tsegay Kebede, James Kwambai, Emmanuel Mutai, Jaouad Gharib, Abel Kirui, Marilson Gomes Dos Santos and Patrick Makau, amongst others. The start list for the 2011 London Marathon read like a who’s who of world marathon running: the fastest man in the world last year (Makau), two former winners (Kebede and Lel), the world champion (Kirui) and a man who is consistently near the sharp end of any marathon he enters (Mutai).
And it was Mutai who proved to be the story of the day. Sitting back in the lead pack of 9 through half way, there was still no sign of what was yet to come from him. The pacemakers took them through 13.1 miles in 62:45 and hung on for a few more miles. The pack stayed together, hanging in behind last year’s winner and pre-race favourite Kebede, who at first seemed reluctant to make a move. Kebede pushed the pace and dropped a couple off the back before Mutai really got the race started. At 20 miles he put the hammer down and ran back to back miles of 4:30 and 4:31. He followed this up with another 2 miles inside 4:45 and the race was won. The only questions that remained as he charged down the Embankment were about whether the course record of 2:05:10 would be broken, and about who would come second. The first of these was answered emphatically. Slowing down only slightly going past Big Ben and into Birdcage Walk, he powered down the Mall to finish in 2:04:40, making him the 4th fastest man of all time. Behind him, an intriguing battle for second place developed between Martin Lel, winner of this event three times previously, and Patrick Makau, a man who has more sub-60 clockings for the half marathon than any other man in the world. Looking beaten as Makau passed him in the 26th mile, Lel surged again and it came down to a sprint finish down the Mall. he tucked in behind his compatriot and launched a brutal kick with 50 metres to go. He beat Makau by less than a second.
What was remarkable about this race was not just the stunning performance of Emmanuel Mutai, but the way in which the Kenyans dominated the race. The top 3 positions were filled by men from Kenya, as were the first and third positions in the women’s race. Though the distance records belong to Ethiopia, the depth lies in Kenya. The world all time list for the marathon is filled with the names of Kenyan men. The Kenyan dominance now means that the World Marathon Majors and the Diamond League are now far more competitive than the World Championships and the Olympic Games. The reason? These events are only allowed 3 Kenyans in. It is often said that the most competitive race on earth is the Kenyan Cross Country Championships. Without any of the other nations’ athletes diluting the quality of the field, this is the real race that sorts the men from the boys.
So by Sunday afternoon, Emmanuel Mutai was the quickest marathoner in the world for 2011. By Monday afternoon, he wasn’t even the fastest Mutai in the world. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Geoffrey Mutai.
Monday’s Boston Marathon, whilst not boasting as high quality a field as London, still had Gebre Gebremariam, Ryan Hall, debutant Moses Mosop and Geoffrey Mutai. Now this Mutai also has some pedigree. He came second in the Berlin and Rotterdam Marathons last year with 2:05 and 2:04 clockings to his name, and won the Kenyan Cross Country Championships this year by a huge margin. With the American Ryan Hall setting the early pace, the lead group went through half way under 62 minutes. The athletes benefited from a tail wind and ideal temperatures to make this one of the fastest marathons ever. Mosop recorded the fastest time ever by a debutant with 2:03:06, nearly a minute faster than Haile Gebrselassie’s world record. Despite this, he was still outkicked by the phenomenal Geoffrey Mutai, who broke the tape at 2:03:02. Ryan Hall ran the fastest marathon ever by an American in 2:04:57, meaning he now has a better PB than the likes of Wanjiru and Kebede.
Eight years ago Hall’s time would have been a world record. On Monday it was only good enough for 4th. This shows how much men’s marathon running has come on in the last few years. Taking another look at the all time list, there are barely any times in the top 100 where the year doesn’t begin with the digit 2. A golden era indeed.
As an aside, the women’s race at Boston was won by someone from an East African country. Bet you can’t guess which one.