Women’s race report: Tufa breaks Kenyan stranglehold to take win for Ethiopia
Tigist Tufa tore up the prediction book at the Virgin Money London Marathon today to hand Ethiopia its first women’s win at the 35-year-old event since the great Derartu Tulu won in 2001.
It was billed as a battle between Kenya’s ‘fantastic four’, but Tufa delivered a shock to the favourites when she grabbed the topsy-turvy race by the scruff of its neck with a devastating burst between 35 and 40K that ripped apart a nine-strong group containing two-times London winner Mary Keitany and world half marathon record holder Florence Kiplagat.
Tufa threw in a 24th mile of 5:05 to pull clear of the pack and strode home alone to win in 2:23:22, only the second Ethiopian ever to take the women’s crown.
“I knew Derartu had won here in the past, and I was planning to follow her and win as well,” said the 28-year-old. “This is a very, very big race and a great place to run.
“The last four years I have worked hard to be here and to be in the top three, so I am very grateful to have won today.”
Keitany won the battle for the runner-up spot with a sprint finish over Tirfi Tsegaye, the New York champion crossing the line one second in front in 2:23:40, while this year’s Dubai Marathon champion Aselefech Mergia capped a great day for Ethiopia by finishing fourth ahead of Florence Kiplagat who couldn’t match her second place from 12 months ago.
As for her namesake, Edna, the defending and two-times world champion, never featured at the head of the field. The 35-year-old lost touch with the fluctuating lead group in the second half, eventually finishing 11th in 2:27:16, almost seven minutes slower than her winning time here 12 months ago.
Tufa won the Shanghai Marathon last year but has never featured highly in a World Marathon Majors race, her previous best being eighth in New York in 2013. But today she broke a Kenyan stranglehold on the London title that stretches back over four years.
Indeed, the Kenyans dominated the pre-race publicity and Kiplagat even suggested at their press conference on Wednesday that Paula Radcliffe’s women-only world record could come under threat on the day of the Briton’s last ever performance.
In the event, the gusty weather put paid to that and soon after the start it quickly became clear that the leading contenders were here to race not chase times.
London’s first women’s winner Joyce Smith pressed the big red button to get the contest underway, and a field containing nine sub-2:22 performers set off from Blackheath, many of them wearing hats and gloves to ward off the cold on a damp and windy morning in the British capital.
Edna Kiplagat opted for bright yellow arm-warmers and she soon settled in at the back of the leading group of nine, led by pacemakers Peres Jepchirchir and Rebecca Chesir, whose task was to take them through half way at around 69:15.
Among those who tucked in behind them were five Kenyans – the two Kiplagats, Keitany, 2013 champion Priscah Jeptoo and New York Marathon runner-up Jemima Sumgong – plus the three Ethiopians, and one former Ethiopian, Turkey’s former world 5000m record holder Elvan Abeylegesse.
They ran the first mile in 5:40, around 2:28 pace, and some way off Radcliffe’s first mile of 5:03. Keitany, for one, was never going to let that last for long and it was the diminutive Kenyan – many pundits’ pre-race favourite – who picked up the pace, taking the pack through the first 5K in 16:54.
The first casualty was Abeylegesse who slipped back when Mergia stepped up to tuck in behind the pacers. The tall Ethiopian discarded her gloves and kicked in a 5:11 fifth mile to open a brief gap. It seemed the Dubai champion meant business in London and she led the pack through 10K in 33:22, five seconds behind the pacers.
That pattern of fluctuating speed continued to 15K, passed in 50:53, with the pacemakers eight seconds ahead, and 20K (68:05), as a first half of uneven and unspectacular running went by in 71:42, two and a half minutes outside their schedule.
All the slowing and speeding meant the group soon swelled and suddenly it was Ana Dulce Felix at the front, the Portuguese athlete finding herself in an unexpected position, dictating the pace as they strode through the Docklands.
All this time, Edna Kiplagat had been tucked out of sight at the back, and she finally slipped behind as Felix took them through 30K in 1:42:36. Morocco’s Rkia El Moukim then took a turn at the front as the favourites continued to play cat and mouse.
No one seemed prepared to make a move, and eight passed 35K together in 1:59:58 before Tsegaye finally broke the deadlock, taking Tufa clear of Mergia, Keitany, Florence Kiplagat and Jeptoo.
The pair opened a 50m gap with a 23rd mile of 5:19, but it was Tufa who had the edge. She gestured for her compatriot to keep up, but Tsegaye was finished.
Tufa has misjudged her races in the past – most recently in Dubai this January when she blew up in the closing stages after taking a big lead. But in London she timed her move to perfection, stretching out along the Embankment to create an 11-second gap on Keitany, Tsegaye and Mergia.
She swept past Big Ben and around St James’s Park to cross the Finish Line on The Mall in 2:23:22, her arms aloft in celebration of the biggest win of her life.
“I am very, very happy because I beat the world’s top athletes,” she said. “I was working to get a good time, but it was not about fast times today, and I saved myself to try very hard from the last 5K.”
Sonia Samuels was the first Briton home in 16th place, clocking 2:31:46, while Radcliffe rolled home with the leading club runners to clock 2:36:55, 10 years and nine days after setting that spectacular course record.