Daniel Wanjiru held off the Ethiopian track legend Kenenisa Bekele in a thrilling finish to win his first London Marathon on Sunday(23) in 2:05:48 shortly after fellow Kenyan Mary Keitany won the women’s race in a world record.
The 24-year-old Kenyan made a break just before the 21-mile mark and battled hard over the last five miles to hold off the fast-finishing favourite Keneisa Bekele, who had fallen behind after suffering with blisters caused by ill-fitting shoes.
Bekele, won ran the world’s second fastest time in Berlin last September, was just six seconds behind with one mile to go, but he couldn’t quite close the gap and had to settle for the runner-up spot, eight seconds behind the winner.
The 2016 Amsterdam Marathon champion, Wanjiru didn’t beat his personal best time of 2:05:21 today but he did beat one of the greatest distance runners of all time.
“I’m really happy as it’s my biggest win at my first attempt at a World Marathon Majors race,” he said afterwards. “I’ve been preparing to win this race since Christmas so I’m very grateful that I achieved my goal.”
The men’s elite field was set on its way at 10:00 from Blackheath by Prince Harry and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on a perfect morning for marathon running.
A group of 10 east Africans quickly formed behind the three Kenyan pacemakers as the runners in the mass race streamed across the Start Line behind them.
Bekele immediately went to the front, tucked in behind the pacers, as if to signal that he would be the man to beat. He was joined by four of his countrymen, Feyisa Lilesa, Asefa Mengstu, Tsefay Abera and Tilahun Regassa, along with a trio of Kenyans, Wanjiru, Abel Kirui, the 2016 Chicago Marathon champion, and Bedan Karoki, making his debut at the 26.2-mile distance at the age of 26.
Ghirmay Ghebreslassie and Amanuel Mesel from Eritrea, and the Tanzanian runner, Alphonce Simbu, completed the 10.
The pacers took the group through 10K on world record pace at 28:51, the athletes making the most of the first few downhill miles, before the pace settled down to 4:45 miles, which suited Wanjiru perfectly.
“The pace was fast at the start but we all helped each other, rather than trying to destroy each other,” he said.
It was too much for Abera though, who fell back from the leading group just as the young world champion Ghebreslassie joined Bekele behind the pace makers at the front.
The remaining nine looked comfortable as they ticked off the miles through Deptford and Rotherhithe before crossing Tower Bridge and onto The Highway, passing half way in 61:40 – the perfect pace if they were to break Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 world record of 2:02:57.
The group of nine stretched out down the road with Lilesa – the Rio Olympic silver medallist – taking his turn on the front while Bekele, surprisingly, began to struggle.
“From 15K to 20K, I was getting blisters because my foot wasn’t in a good position in my shoe,” he explained later. “I changed my running style and that affected my pace and balance, which made my right hamstring sore and slowed me down.”
Bekele’s difficulties were far from the thoughts of the leaders, however, as the remaining eight strode through the twists and turns of the Isle of Dogs, now bathed in spring sunshine. At 25K, Bekele dropped out of the top 10, still in touch but looking uncomfortable, shaking his arms at his sides.
Ghebreslassie, Mengstu and Regassa also began to feel the early pace and they slipped back to leave four in the leading group. Wanjiru and Kirui were shoulder to shoulder at the front, with Lilesa a stride behind and Karoki fourth.
Ghebrslassie rejoined them at 30K as they clicked through that mark in 1:28:21, but the five didn’t stay together for long.
Lilesa cracked as they turned west along Poplar High Street, leaving four to battle it out for the three podium places. At least that’s how it looked.
Wanjiru put in a burst as they passed mile 21 in 1:40:01, pulling away from Kirui who was 10 metres ahead of Lilesa as they turned onto The Highway and past the colourful masses on the opposite side of the road, streaming east towards Canary Wharf.
Now Wanjiru was 20 metres ahead of his nearest rival and seemingly clear. But Bekele wasn’t done. The world record holder for 5000m and 10,000m pulled himself back into third, then passed Kirui to move into second.
It seemed only a matter of time before the Ethiopian would reel in the inexperienced Wanjiru, who couldn’t resist a glance behind to assess the threat.
“I looked behind at 39K and knew someone was coming, so that gave me renewed purpose,” said Wanjiru.
“I wasn’t scared when I saw Bekele behind me; if someone’s coming from behind you have to push on to win the race.”
And push on he did, keeping the gap between the two men to around 10 seconds as the pair battled it out, thrilling the crowds lining the Embankment.
As the pair past Big Ben, Wanjiru started to look more relaxed as he extended his lead over the chasing Bekele from eight seconds to 10 thanks to a 4:27 mile.
The crowds had just seen Kenya’s Mary Keitany set a new women-only world record, and they went wild again as the two leading men hit Birdcage Walk.
Bekele responded to Wanjiru’s surge, putting in a final effort to bring the gap between the two men down to six seconds, but the Ethiopian didn’t have enough in his legs to reel in the Kenyan. He started to rock and roll as he realised the London title was slipping out of his grasp.
As Wanjiru turned onto The Mall, the victory was his. He crossed the Finish Line, arms aloft, to become the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon champion in 2:05:48, proving that mind over matter works for elite runners as well as the masses by holding off a man reputed to have one of the most devastating sprint finishes in the business.
“I am the happiest man in the world,” he said. “The fast pace at the start helped me enormously, and the rest of the race was just good for me. Everything went well, it was perfect.
“I’m looking to the future and hope to come back here to defend my title and do even better next year.”
Bekele’s second place effort of 2:05:57 was one better than his result here last year, and better than he could have hoped after his mid-race problems.
“I’m not too disappointed because anything can happen in a marathon,” he said. “I planned to run better than I did but I was 400m back at one point so to come back to the leaders wasn’t easy.
“I feel I have more good marathons in me and I plan to achieve more because that’s life: you do your best, you prepare well, try to achieve more, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.”
In third place, Bedan Karoki made a great marathon debut, crossing the line 2:07:41, followed by Abel Kirui who finished in fourth in 2:07:45 to put three Kenyan men in the top four. Simbu came through to finish fifth in 2:09:10.
In the race for British World Championship selection, Josh Griffiths of Swansea Harriers delivered the shock of the day by finishing first Briton in 2:14:49 on his marathon debut.
The 23-year-old wasn’t even part of the elite field but his performance has earned him a place on the British team for the London World Championships in August.