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Men's race report: Kebede ends Kenya's domination

25 April 2010

Tsegaye Kebede turned silver to gold in London this morning as the 2009 runner-up triumphed in a drizzly Virgin London Marathon, taking the men's title in 2:05:19, just nine seconds outside the one-year-old course record.

Kebede, who has won Olympic and world bronze medals in the last two years, took his World Marathon Majors victory in some style, crossing the line with more than a minute to spare to become the first non-Kenyan winner since his fellow Ethiopian Gezahegne Abera triumphed here in 2003.

"I was second last year, so it is good to win this year," said Kebede. "Maybe next year I could run 2:04. I thought I could get the course record but the rain made it difficult."

World silver medallist Emmanuel Mutai of Kenya had to be satisfied with second again, in 2:06:23, with the evergreen Moroccan Jaouad Gharib third for the second year in a row in 2:06:55.

After second here last year, and a storming victory in Fukuoka last December, Kebede's win was hardly a surprise. Indeed, the defending champion, Sammy Wanjiru said on Friday that if he didn't retain his title, Kebede was the man to watch.

In fact, the big shock came when Wanjiru dropped out. The Olympic champion had won four of his five marathons before today and never finished lower than second. But today he was forced to pull out after 27km, around mile 17, with a right knee problem.

"I was confident about winning but you can't predict the body," he said. "I started to feel pain about 20km and it became very serious. I was thinking about hanging on and finishing in the top 10 but I didn't want to make it any worse."

Wanjiru was one of four talented Kenyans who set off in cool light rain, running the usual fast opening miles behind the three Kenyan pacemakers, John Kales, Moses Arusei and Titus Masai. They had been asked to run to 20 miles at 2:04 pace and, at first, they hit their stride perfectly, passing 5km in 14:39, with all the big names bunched behind them.

It soon became clear they weren't sticking to the script, however, and as they slipped behind schedule through miles six and seven, Wanjiru urged the pacemakers to pick up their speed.

At this stage the hotly-tipped Eritrean Zersenay Tadese was sitting quietly in the middle of the group with Gharib and Kebede around him, but it wasn't to be Tadese's day either as he again struggled to make the transition from a half-marathon speedster to a full marathon to champion.

Twelve months ago the leading men went through half way in 61:35, the quickest split ever in a marathon. This time they'd planned to hit half way in 62:00 but the pacemakers had taken it easy, clocking 63:06 with no fewer than 12 on their heels.

The Kenyans were living up to their promise to run as a team with Mutai and Kirui picking up the pace through miles 14 (4:39) and 15 (4:39). As the pace lifted again, Wanjiru began to feel his pain, and Tadese, the world half marathon record holder, began to struggle.

By mile 16, the group was down to five with Kirui and Mutai leading Kebede and Gharib, followed by the surprise in the pack, Abderrahime Bouramdane. The Moroccan's best of 2:08:20 was under significant threat.

It was Kebede and Kirui who took the lead as they went through 30km in 1:28:46 - a 10km split of 28:52. They were now running at 2:05-pace and just inside course record schedule. These two opened a gap on Mutai as they wound through the Docklands under Canary Wharf tower.

A year ago, Kebede had battled Wanjiru over the last eight miles. This time, it was Kirui who emerged as his main rival. After a swift 20th mile (4:28) Kebede made his move. Maintaining his punchy, compact style the 23-year-old kicked away from Kirui and by 35km (1:43:30) had a seven-second lead.

Now he not only had Wanjiru's title in his sights, but his course record too. At the world championships in Berlin last year, he lost out when Kirui and Mutai took the top two spots, but this time the diminutive power-house got it right.

He ran hard through miles 22 (4:55), 23 (4:51) and 24 (4:46) building an unassailable lead as he swept down to the Embankment for the lone run to the line. The victory secured, he allowed himself to slow and enjoy the moment. Well he might, not even his great compatriot Haile Gebrselassie has managed to beat the Kenyans in London.

As he turned into the The Mall he spotted the finish line ahead of him and made a last sprint for Wanjiru's record. It wasn't to be, those slow early miles proving too much to overcome. He crossed the line as the third quickest ever over the London course, behind Wanjiru and Martin Lel, missing his PB by just one second.

"I had to make the pace on my own at the end," he said. "The pacemakers were not good today, so I am happy to run 2:05 on a day like today."

Behind him, Kirui blew up in the last mile and a half to be passed by Mutai, who improved from fourth in 2008 and 2009 to take second, with the remarkable Gharib third again.

"When Kebede pushed I was left behind," said Mutai. "I couldn't go with him, so I focused on getting on the podium. I have finished fourth twice, so I am very pleased to be second at last."

As for Gharib, he had to overcome mid-race stomach problems. "I was aiming to do better," he said. "But after the problems I had I'm happy with the result."

Bouramdane smashed his PB to take fourth in 2:07:33, 47 seconds inside his previous best while Kirui limped home in fifth in 2:08:04.

The sad Tadese jogged home for his first marathon finish - seventh place in 2:12:03 just ahead of the first Briton, Andrew Lemoncello, who clocked 2:13:40 on an impressive debut.

Kebede made his marathon debut just three years ago. Four years ago he was helping his father sell firewood to feed him and 12 siblings in Addis Ababa. Today he earned $130,000 for his marathon efforts.

"It was a good day for him," as the unfortunate Wanjiru said. "Kebede did a good job today. I hope to be back next year."