Kosgei defends her London title in challenging conditions
Brigid Kosgei underlined her position as one of the greatest endurance runners of all time as she successfully defended her Virgin Money London Marathon title with a magnificent performance truly fit to adorn the unique 40th Race on Sunday.
It felt apt that this most remarkable one-off edition, staged in a crowd-free biosecure bubble around St James’s Park amid the Covid-19 pandemic, should be won by a truly remarkable athlete, as Kosgei turned an absorbing duel with her compatriot, world champion Ruth Chepngetich, into a procession on a challenging damp and cool morning.
The 26-year-old Kosgei came home in glorious isolation in 2 hours 18 minutes and 58 seconds, far outside the incredible world record of 2:14:04 that she set in Chicago last year but, amazingly, still more than three minutes ahead of American Sara Hall, the surprise package of the race who produced the most thrilling sprint finish to pip Chepngetich for the runner-up spot.
Hall’s wonderful finale after a perfectly timed race saw the 37-year-old American roar through the final few hundred metres and power past a weary Chepngetich just before the world-famous Finish Line on The Mall for a lifetime best of 2:22:01 – four seconds clear of the world champion.
Kosgei, though, had long finished but admitted that, though she had made it look all so easy, even having summoned up a smile for large parts of the last of the 19.6 laps, she had found this a really tough examination.
At halfway, she and Chepngetich, leading the way, were on course to break Mary Keitany’s world women’s-only record of 2:17:01 set in London three years ago, but, after a few slower miles on the inward stretch as they sized each other up, that was soon out of reach.
“The weather wasn’t good, so we struggled a lot,” conceded Kosgei. “I struggled up to the moment I finished.”
Like the rest of the field, though, Kosgei felt it had been a “wonderful” experience as she celebrated a second London Marathon crown to go with her two Chicago victories. Like her great men’s compatriot Eliud Kipchoge, she is beginning to seem invincible.
The Kenyan domination, though, was interrupted in the most spectacular way by Hall, the former US champion who made up for the disappointment of not making their Olympic team with the run of her life, snaking her way through the field while running solo for long spells and overhauling both the world-class duo of fourth-placed Ethiopian Ashete Bekere and Chepngetich.
“I was fighting that whole way, just catching people, and seeing the world champion there in the last lap, that definitely motivated me to give it my all,” she said, admitting it had felt “surreal” to pip Chepngetich.
Told that she was the first American woman on the London podium in 14 years since Deena Kastor lifted the 2006 title, Hall was equally amazed.
“Wow, I didn’t know that! Oh man, I’m still in shock. Deena was my teammate when she set the American record here, so I feel so honoured to be enjoying my career the most I ever have at 37. Hopefully, more to come.”
There were plenty of fascinating races within the race, as Natasha Cockram battled back to overtake Naomi Mitchell and become UK champion as the leading British finisher in 13th place in 2:33:19, having just held off the challenge of Naomi Mitchell, who enjoyed a big personal best of 2:33.23.
It proved a hugely disappointing morning for the pair who had been considered the leading British challengers, Steph Twell and Lily Partridge, who were both forced to pull out during the race.
Twell suffered a flare up of her old foot-injury woes, while Partridge cramped up in the difficult conditions.
For the most extraordinary elite marathon of modern times, naturally the athletes had an extraordinary start, most of them rising before 04:00 before being transported from their hotel outside London to the biosecure course, which was being soaked by driving rain.
Thankfully, the wretched conditions at 07:15 when the race started gradually eased as the elite field began the first of their circuits of St James’s Park and, driven on by three Kenyan pacemakers, a leading group of five soon developed.
That was quickly cut to just the leading three Kenyans ¬– Kosgei, Chepngetich and Valary Jemeli, only for the Frankfurt Marathon champion Jemeli to be dropped approaching the 10-mile marker.
The final pacemaker Vivian Kiplagat did a fine job in pulling the leading pair through halfway in 68:11, with Keitany’s landmark well within view – and once Kiplagat stepped aside to let the principals battle it out, it was down to just two.
Chepngetich was the first to test out Kosgei, moving seven to eight metres clear, but was quickly hauled back and, with just over five laps to go and sensing the world champion’s weakness, she struck decisively, immediately opening up a sizeable gap.
“Nothing I planned, I just feel good,” explained Kosgei. “I feel my body move, but my legs could not move. So I tried my best.”
Her best was in a different league to the rest. She even believed the world record would have been possible if it hadn’t been such a cool, damp morning.
“Yeah, the record is possible because if not the conditions, we could run good. If not the weather, maybe next time we try if no rain. If weather’s good we try again this course, and I hope I will do my best.”
The tough early morning conditions took their toll with Vivian Cheruiyot, the 2018 champion, quickly dropping off the leading pace and eventually failing to finish. At the end, Chepngetich was left too cold – and probably too stunned by Hall’s finish – to talk about her performance.
Yet for all the unusual feel to the morning, in the cold and without the crowds, Hall summed up the feelings of the competitors in this once-in-a-lifetime competition.
“They were tough conditions for sure, especially without the crowds, and I was alone quite a bit of the race so that was really challenging,” said the American.
“But, you know, when I started to feel sorry for myself, I would just say how blessed I was to have a race during this time of Covid. I’m so grateful for the London Marathon for putting this on.”