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Kenya Believe It?

Tuesday 19th April 2011

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.

Tsegay Kebede

Monday 4th April 2011

5 reasons why Tsegay Kebede will win the London Marathon on April 17th…

1. He won last year

Kebede produced an excellent performance to win the race last year, improving on his second placing in 2009. He knows the course well and is a popular athlete who will have a lot of support on the streets of London. He isn’t afraid to push the pace and will take on anyone who fancies a race.

2. Kenyans

Prize money, pride and international acclaim aside, there is nothing that motivates an Ethiopian athlete quite like the idea of sticking it to the Kenyans. Gebrselassie loved beating Tergat. Defar and Dibaba love beating Masai and Cheruiyot. Imane Merga took great pleasure in brushing aside the whole Kenyan team at the recent world cross country, and as recently as last weekend, Dejen Gebremeskel couldn’t help but remind Eliud Kipchoge exactly who had crossed the finish line first at the Carlsbad 5k.

Kebede still holds the memory of some big defeats at the hands of Sammy Wanjiru, absent this year due to injury. This year the challenge from the southern neighbours comes courtesy of last year’s runner up Emmanuel Mutai, 3 time winner Martin Lel, world champion Abel Kirui and sub 2:05 man James Kwambai.

3. Consistency

Tsegay Kebede has run 9 major marathons in his career. The slowest of these was run in 2:10:00 and this was in the Olympic Games in Beijing. He has only finished outside the top 3 once and this was on his debut. He has a personal best of 2:05:18 and has finished within seconds of this time on other occasions. Throw in a few 2:06s and World and Olympic medals and you have the most consistent marathon racer around. The phrase ‘bad race’ is not in this man’s vocabulary.

4. The Course

Kebede runs his best races on flat courses. London fits that bill well. Although London is regarded by the elites as a twisty course, it generally produces quick times. Dave Bedford will have assembled a high quality team of pacemakers to make sure the pace stays high and that wheat and chaff are well and truly sorted. Not that our man will need them though. He is more than happy to take up the running and push the pace out of reach of weaker athletes.

5. World Championships

Assuming this summer’s world championships in South Korea are part of Kebede’s race plans, he will want to put down a marker to show the world he is the man to beat, as well as making sure he is the first name on the Ethiopian squad list. The marathon here will form part of the World Marathon Majors for 2010/2011, a title the Kebede is known to covet, particularly having lost so narrowly to Wanjiru at Chicago in October.

…and one reason he won’t:

1. Patrick Makau will.

Don’t ask why. It’s just a hunch.