Shura Kitata took the win at the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon today as he produced a devastating sprint finish to depose four-time winner and world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge and become only the third Ethiopian to win the elite men’s title.

The 24-year-old farmer finished second to Kipchoge two years ago when the great Kenyan won the third of his four London crowns. This time he triumphed in a thrilling three-way sprint for the line ahead of Kenya’s Vincent Kipchumba and fellow Ethiopian Sisay Lemma, as Kipchoge faded to eighth – the master revealing later that he had been troubled by a sore right hip.

With his closest rival Kenenisa Bekele out of the race, Kipchoge had started as odds-on favourite to become the most successful able-bodied athlete in the history of the event and seal his 12th successive marathon victory. There had even been talk of an attack on his own world record over the flat, looped course around St James’s Park.

But the cold, wet weather put paid to any thought of that in the first-ever autumn London Marathon, which instead turned into one of the most exciting races in 40 editions of the event.

Kitata crossed the line in 2:05:41, just one second ahead of Kipchumba with Lemma a mere three behind. It was the slowest winning time since 2013, when Tsegaye Kebede, the last Ethiopian to win here, took his second title.

It was another compatriot who Kitata credited with inspiring his victory, however: Bekele, the second-fastest man in history whose ‘niggling’ calf injury had forced him out of the race on Friday.

“I prepared well and was full of concentration today because Kenenisa has helped me so much,” said Kitata, a former world junior record holder whose only previous marathon wins came three years ago in Rome and Frankfurt.

“Kenenisa has been training with me and advising me about the race, so I am very grateful to him,” he added. “I had trained for a looped course and now I’m very happy to have won the race against a very strong field for my country and for my group of teammates.”

It was a close-run thing, though, as just four seconds separated the top three after five runners had been locked together with just one of the 19.6 tightly packed biosecure laps to go.

Kipchoge’s absence from that quintet was a story in itself. The Olympic champion failed to dominate the race in the way he has in previous years and eventually lost touch with three miles to go.

“My right hip was really blocked and my legs felt cramped in the last 15km,” the disappointed Kipchoge said later. “It only happened during the race. I had been feeling good beforehand. I can’t blame the conditions, it was more in my head.”

Three other Ethiopians finished ahead of Kipchoge, including Mosinet Geremew and Mule Wasihun, who were second and third to him 18 months ago. Indeed, his only previous defeat in a marathon came in September 2013 in Berlin when he was second to a Wilson Kipsang world record.

Two years ago he made that record his own, and last October wrote his name into the history books as the first man ever to break the two-hour barrier.

So it was with great expectations that he set off in pursuit of his fifth title today, capped and gloved in his customary position behind the pacemakers. It was never going to be plain sailing, however. The 10-strong group of men that formed around him included four of the top 10 fastest marathon runners ever, and seven who have broken 2:05.

The finish may have been sensational but the early pace was anything but, the leaders going as steady as the rain through 10km in 29:45, on for a 2:05 finish – a time Kipchoge had bettered nine times in his 12 races before this morning.

At times, the champion appeared impatient to get on with matters, urging his pacers to up their game as they strode through 15km in 44:31 and 20km in 59:37.

The change finally came at halfway, passed in a ‘sluggish’ 62:54, almost two minutes slower than expected at just inside 2:06 pace. Gradually, the bunch became a strung-out line of athletes as heads began to bow in concentration, poised for the champion’s assault.

It wasn’t Kipchoge who sparked the first move, however, but Lemma. Now with 80 minutes of running behind them, the Ethiopian threw down the gauntlet, followed by Kipchumba with Kipchoge at first on their heels. Few could remember the last time he had not led a marathon, let alone not won one.

Tamirat Tola was next to attack as they hit 30km in 1:29:00, Kipchoge now eighth in line behind him. Could this be the day he finally tasted defeat?

Discarding his cap and gloves, he briefly moved up again to shadow the leaders. In previous years, Kipchoge had always been away and clear by this stage of the race, but, with five laps to go, he now had eight for company.

Kitata took the reins two laps later and the champion’s title defence was finally done. Geremew glanced back to see where he was, hardly able to believe it. What he saw was Kipchoge losing touch, his crown slipping from his grasp with every stride.

With two laps to go Kipchoge was 20 metres adrift of a six-strong group led by Kitata, who strode on with compatriots Lemma, Wasihun and Geremew, plus the one remaining Kenyan, Kipchumba.

Wasihun lost contact at the bell as Lemma powered down Horse Guards Parade one last time. Geremew had been lurking in the bunch covering every move for more than 26 miles, but his challenge faded up Birdcage Walk as now Kitata kicked ahead.

Three men passed Buckingham Palace and turned into The Mall together, eyeballs out for the line. The Kenyan struck first, but Kitata responded and clawed his way in front to take the tape. It was the closest finish since 2003, when Ethiopia’s first-ever London winner Gezahegne Abera and Italy’s Stefano Baldini crossed the line in the same time.

“All the time I kept myself in the back to attack when I needed to,” said Kitata, whose coach tested positive for Covid-19 last week and was unable to travel to London.

“My coach, because of Covid-19, is back in Ethiopia. I will bring back the medals for him and I am very happy to do that for him.”

Kipchumba said: “I was not expecting to be in that position to run second place because we had a champion and a legend in Eliud, but I’m very happy.”

As for Kipchoge, his time of 2:06:49 was his slowest since winning the Rio Olympic gold four years ago. His defence of that title next year must now be in question.

“I still have more marathons in me,” he said defiantly. “I will be back.”