This is the best, says Fearnley
“Outside the Paralympics, this is the best line-up in the world”, said Kurt Fearnley about Sunday’s Virgin London Marathon wheelchair race.
The Australian Paralympic champion, and London course record holder, Fearnley says he is just happy to be here after being told earlier this week that his flight was cancelled. Instead of flying, he relaxed and got used to the idea he would not be able to defend his title.
The next morning he woke to find the golden ticket to London waiting for him.
“I would rather have a shocking race here, than not be able to race at all,” he said. “After training for London over the last six months, I was so disappointed when I thought I couldn’t get here. But I knew, given a chance, I was going to get here whatever it took.”
Fearnley’s time of 1:28:56 last year meant he finished just one second ahead of his arch rival, Britain’s David Weir. It was a dramatic finish and this year should not be much different, with the natural “pack formation” in wheelchair road racing.
But, they are both aware that this year there are more athletes who stand a realistic chance of being first to cross the line if they can master London’s technical course.
“London’s a tough course and I prefer lots of hills in my road racing,” said Fearnley. “If I could do a marathon across the Alps I would be very happy. In the past at London, it’s been decided in the last 200m sprint.”
Weir is Britain’s finest wheelchair athlete on road and track. He holds the British record and has claimed the London title four times. The last win was in 2008. This was followed by one of his toughest years in athletics. He suffered with illness throughout the Beijing Paralympics and at last year’s London Marathon, and admits he was not in a good place mentally.
“Training last year was long and hard and my body just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I knew I was not in good shape but this year it feels so much better. I have trained hard and have a new racing chair, which has been designed for the road.”
The new chair may help his performance on the day, but he knows about Fearnley’s fantastic racing reputation, especially in London.
“He’s the world’s best racer and you have to be at the top of your game to beat him,” said Weir, who believes that if the conditions are right they can challenge the IPC T54 marathon ‘A’ standard (1:25:00) to qualify for the Athletics World Championships in New Zealand next January.
“Hopefully, I have done enough work to beat him on Sunday,” added Weir. “I’m happy to share a beer with him on Sunday, whatever the result.”
Other racers Weir considers to be in top form include South African Ernst Van Dyk and Canadian Josh Cassidy. Van Dyk has never won in London, but came third in last year’s close finish. Holder of the world’s best marathon time, Van Dyk won a remarkable ninth Boston just last week and is looking in great condition for the course he loves to hate.
Debutant Cassidy has been training with Weir in London for the last few weeks, to prepare for the race. The 25-year-old is the Canadian record holder over 5000m and 10,000m and has been ranked among the top five in the world for the last three years.
Japan’s Masazumi Soejima, who was fourth here last year’s race (in 1:30:13) and in last week’s Boston Marathon, says he was just getting to know the course a year ago and learnt lessons to help him this time out. This year he travelled with debutant Kota Hokinoue, and has been giving his team-mate helpful tips.
“After the travel chaos to get over here, I am just happy to be in London,” said Soejima. “I have been training hard in preparation for this and the Boston last week.”
He and Hokinoue are hopeful of their chances. Hokinoue said: “I’ve been talking to Masazumi about the technical aspects and the worst bits, so I am really excited about it."
The two Japanese men arrived with another compatriot, Wakako Tsuchida, who is fresh from winning her fourth Boston women’s title in a row. Tsuchida is excited at trying the course that everyone talks about for the first time. “Even though I won Boston, this is my first time in this marathon,” she said. “I haven’t been able to go out on the course but I’ve studied the map. It looks like it’s going to be technical with strong female athletes."
Tsuchida is well-respected in the women’s field, but she is joined by some talented and more experienced London entrants. Among them, last year’s winner Amanda McGrory from the USA.
McGrory is looking forward to the challenge ahead when she faces course record holder Sandra Graf and Briton Shelly Woods. The American took silver in the Beijing Paralympics in 2008 but is never one to ignore her opposition after coming third in Boston.
McGrory said: “Boston is always a challenge for me so I was quite happy with third. I love the London course and it ends up being a pack race, which can be more fun. My experience in the race has shown me that it all happens at the end."
Woods won the title in 2007 but after the pack finish last year, she settled for sixth place in an honourable time of 1:50:46. She too thinks Sunday’s winner will be decided by technique. “You’re always working on your weaknesses and strengths,” said Woods, who was fourth in the Beijing Paralympics marathon. “Everyone has a game plan and you have to work against others’ plans on the day.”
Like other racers, the Blackpool racer’s training has suffered from the unusually cold winter. “I’ve been warm weather training in Australia, which has gone really well,” she said. “I’m always trying to learn from the previous race, hoping to do better.”
Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson pointed to the overall class of the field. A previous winner herself, she said the race has come a long way since she began watching in the early 1980s.
She praised the London Marathon organisation: “It’s grown so much in quality,” she said. “Over the years there has been tremendous support and the calibre of athletes taking part this weekend shows just how much the London Wheelchair Marathon has changed.”