Den Boer and Lakatos defy odds to win elite wheelchair races
Nikita den Boer and Brent Lakatos brought the curtain down on an unprecedented and very special edition of the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday as they raced to superb, if wholly unexpected, elite wheelchair race triumphs around St James’s Park.
Just as Eliud Kipchoge had seen his magnificent unbeaten streak ended earlier in the day, Manuela Schär, the maestro of the women’s wheelchair racing circuit, saw her hope of a third victory destroyed by Dutchwoman Den Boer’s unrelenting drive and spirit in difficult rainy conditions.
Amazingly, Den Boer sliced more than 10 minutes off her lifetime best in these challenging conditions, clocking 1 hour, 40 minutes and 7 seconds, 1:22 clear of Schär, who had won all nine of her previous Abbott World Major Marathons races, but who ended up looking wet and rather dispirited here.
“I’m really, really happy. I didn’t know I could do this,” beamed the elated Dutch athlete.
Canadian Lakatos, at the tender age of 40, also delivered the greatest marathon of his distinguished career, as the track sprint specialist, pushing from the front throughout, proved the strongest to drive away from home hero David Weir in a sprint finish down the Mall.
It meant there was to be no record-extending ninth title for Britain’s ‘Weirwolf’, but the runner-up, who pushed his old rival Marcel Hug into third place, was quick to acknowledge the mastery of Lakatos: “He’s a world-record holder and I knew he’d be strongest over the sprints,” said 41-year-old Weir, who ensured it would be a one-two for the forty-somethings.
“But I did my best – and it was better than last year,” added the tireless eight-time champion as he celebrated his 18th podium finish in 21 London Marathons.
This time, as he had feared, he found Lakatos, the T53 100 metres champion from the Rio Paralympics, just too swift after the race turned into an unevenly-paced and tactical affair that always looked as if it would play into the hands of the fastest track men.
Despite the weather, this really felt like a landmark afternoon. With the two races staged together on the biosecure course, it offered a fabulous showcase for wheelchair racing, as the best in the world were watched live by millions as they careered around a course against the backdrop of some of London’s most celebrated landmarks.
Lakatos, who was left with paralysed legs after he had a blood clot on his spine following a freak ice-skating accident as a youngster, has enjoyed a wonderful career as an eleven-time gold medallist at the World Championships, a seven-time Paralympic medallist and world 1,500 metres record holder.
Yet this triumph, in 1:36:04, just a couple of seconds clear of Weir and four ahead of Hug, ranked right up there with all those achievements, he felt.
“The London Marathon is the biggest marathon out there and when they suggested there was going to be an elite-only race at the beginning of the summer, it gave me all that motivation to keep training, because I knew if anyone could pull it off, the London Marathon could,” said the man from Quebec.
The denouement took a lot of patience, timing and tactical nous, as the six contenders down the Mall all slowed and jockeyed for position across the course. Yet when Lakatos hit overdrive, not even Paralympic marathon champion Hug, nor Weir, who burst past Hug, could get on the Canadian’s wheels.
Lakatos had looked in commanding form throughout the race, earlier largely dominating the four intermediate sprints of the Abbott World Marathon Majors Accumulator that had added such spice to the overall contest.
Two years earlier, he recalled, he had suffered hypothermia during a chilly Tokyo Marathon, so this time he made sure he was perfectly prepared.
“I learned from that and had a waterproof jacket this time, so I wasn’t cold the whole race,” he explained. “The other thing is the grip, we are pushing rubber on rubber, and that gets quite slippery in the rain so everybody has a different solution. Mine worked quite well today.”
So well that when it came to the second sprint, he pulled away from the rest of the other five contenders in a manner that persuaded him to think “I might have a chance here – and I did!”.
Few would have given Den Boer, an athlete who has spina bifida and whose personal best going into the race was some 22 minutes slower than Schär’s, a hope of staying close to the Swiss.
Yet far from it turning into the predicted one-woman show, the 29-year-old decided to gamble everything on sticking with the title holder.
Her courage and persistence eventually paid off after the pair had quickly opened up a vast gap over their pursuers, including Britain’s 2012 Paralympic silver medallist Shelly Woods, who ended up pulling out.
Indeed, the front two were so dominant that the third-placed finisher, American Jenna Fesemyer, ended up over 10 minutes behind them in 1:52:16.
The impression was that the Netherlands athlete was having to push twice as hard as the economical Schär, while the front of her chair also seemed to be bumping up and down on the road. Yet it became clear when she made her big push with three of the 19.6 laps left that Schär, who had admitted pre-race to not liking competing in the rain, was suffering.
It was a tour de force from Den Boer, who even had the satisfaction beating three of the men’s field after their joint start. “My coach said ‘just go for it’, and I was going for it. Manuela was speeding down, and I (thought), ‘I have to go on my own, I’m alone now. I have to go faster.’”
She ended as the first Dutch athlete, man or woman, ever to prevail in the London Marathon. “I didn’t know I was the first one,” she smiled. “I think it’s really, really special.”
So special, she was sure, that she promised herself one particular post-race treat. A hot bath? “Of course!” she laughed.