Running an Olympic qualifying time will be the only goal in mind for most of Britain’s elite marathon runners at the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday.

Yet the country’s leading man this year and favourite for the British title over the gruelling distance has a more ambitious aim in mind – to break the magic 2:10 barrier and put his name among a select band of Britons who have achieved the feat.

Jonny Mellor made a huge breakthrough at the pre-lockdown Seville Marathon this February, when he took more than three minutes from his personal best with 2:10:03, well inside the Tokyo standard of 2:11:30, making him the 17th-quickest Briton of all time.

That put Mellor in pole position to join the pre-selected Callum Hawkins on the GB marathon team at next year’s Games and he starts Sunday’s race knowing another good performance will virtually seal his ticket to Tokyo.

But Mellor, who’s improved his best by more than eight minutes in the last three years, isn’t prepared to rest on his laurels as he enters Sunday’s tussle for UK honours.

“I’ve always thought I was capable of running two zero-something,” said the 33-year-old just two days before the race. “If I can come away with another qualifying time, that’s goal number one. But if I can get under 2:10 then I’d be delighted.”

Indeed, he would be only the 18th British man to run sub-2:10, joining such notable names as former London Marathon winners Hugh Jones, Mike Gratton, Charlie Spedding and Steve Jones, not to mention current British record holder Sir Mo Farah and Hawkins himself, who ran 2:08:14 in London last year and has twice placed fourth at the World Championships.

For Mellor, knowing he has the qualifying time “in my back pocket” means he can run with less pressure than his rivals.

“It is a factor but there are also very talented lads in the field,” he said. “A lot are capable of running the time, but it does give me confidence.

“The way I’ve been feeling in training and at altitude is much the same as the build-up to Seville. And I’ve benefited this year from having a training partner in Ross Millington too, so that’s been a big help.

“Obviously, with the marathon you just don’t know sometimes, but I’m confident I’ve done everything I need to.

“When I ran in Seville, I never thought the next one wouldn’t be until October,” he added. “I’m so grateful to the London Marathon for putting this on. I’m delighted to be here and privileged to be on the Start Line. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Millington makes his marathon debut on Sunday in a loaded British field of 14 men. One of Mellor’s chief rivals will be the evergreen, ebullient 39-year-old Chris Thompson, who’s hoping to rediscover the form that took him to 11th overall on his debut back in 2014 when he ran 2:11:19.

A repeat performance would put the former European 10,000m silver medallist in sight of a second Olympic appearance, his first on the roads.

“If I can be in Jonny’s shoes after the weekend, I’ll be ecstatic,” he said. “We want a handful of athletes with the time and then we can have a shoot-out in a marathon next year. That would draw quite a bit of fun. Hopefully I can be in the mix.”

Thompson said he views Sunday’s race as “a free hit” – “an opportunity that two or three months ago didn’t exist”.

“I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone this long without racing,” said Thompson, who’s last pre-Covid performance was at The Vitality Big Half in early March, when he was runner-up to Kenenisa Bekele, a man he had expected to meet again on Sunday’s Start Line before the Ethiopian pulled out today with a calf injury.

“At first, [during the lockdown] I really took a back seat and rested up, recharged the batteries. I didn’t do much at first, watched a lot of Netflix,” he said.

“But once the London Marathon came on the table I’ve been looking forward to this weekend. It’s not been the most normal of build-ups but I’ve enjoyed it more than any other.

“Everyone is chasing that time and this race has given us the opportunity. Let’s see what we can do.

“I’m going into this feeling it can be a springboard. I’m not putting barriers in the way of that. If I run quick, great.

“But the marathon is a cruel mistress. It can throw up anything. I’ve done what I can and we’ll see what happens. Roll the dice.”

One of those who’ll be rolling alongside him is his old friend and training partner Mo Farah, who’s turning out as a pacemaker for his fellow countrymen. Farah, who set the UK record of 2:05:11 when winning the Chicago Marathon in 2018, has opted to defend his 10,000m title in Tokyo.

“I hope he’s pacing us to 25 miles,” joked Thompson. “I’m sure it’s going to be interesting for him to run at our pace, but hopefully that means he can run to just short of the finish.”

“The longer he can go, the better,” agreed Mellor. “It’s an honour and quite unique to be able to line up alongside him.”

Farah and Hawkins have been the spearheads for a revival in British marathon running over the last few years. And there’s been progress on the women’s side too, where an emerging group of road runners is finally stepping out from behind the long shadow of Paula Radcliffe and her world-beating achievements.

One of those is Steph Twell, a long-standing British international and former world junior 1,500m champion, who is making her London Marathon debut on Sunday at 31.

Like Mellor, Twell is in the enviable position of having bagged the Tokyo standard already when she set a Scottish record of 2:26:40 in Frankfurt a year ago, well inside the women’s qualifying time of 2:29:30.

That made her the sixth-fastest British woman of all time, ahead of such names as Priscilla Welch and Liz McColgan. But with Jess Piasecki and Charlotte Purdue going even quicker last year, Twell knows she needs another strong performance on Sunday’s looped course.

“I am here to race,” she said. “I hear the course is fast, so I don’t want to limit myself. There’s a great opportunity. This is part of building momentum for next year to make sure I am ready and fresh for a big Olympic year.”

Despite years of experience, the self-coached Twell calls herself a “fresh-faced marathon runner” with “room to explore”. Sunday’s race will be only her third over the distance, but it’s already an event she relishes.

“I don’t know my full potential in this event yet, so I don’t think this is the final roll of the dice or my signature marathon,” she said. “That will come with even better preparation and more experience. I still have to put that package together so I can show a signature performance further down the line.

“My main aim for next year is to have the best impact for Britain at an Olympic Games and I don’t know if that is at 10K or marathon yet. This is a chance to see what I can achieve.

“I’ve known from a young age that the marathon would be something I eventually turn to. I love long runs, I love the marathon as a community event, and I love the training, so all that has been a string to my bow. I’ve never been afraid of the hard work.

“It’s my first female-only race, and a British championships too, which is really important to me. This is an opportunity for me to grow again. The time will count too.”

For Lily Partridge Sunday’s showdown is all about the time. With Piasecki and Purdue not among the seven-strong field of Brits, Partridge has a chance to add her name to the four who already hold the standard.

Partridge bettered the all-important mark at the 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon when she clocked 2:29:24, placing eighth overall in the women’s elite and first Briton home. A similar result on Sunday would be just the ticket for the 29-year-old.

“I have full focus on the Olympic standard,” said Partridge. “That’s the goal for the weekend, to make sure I come out ready for next year with what I need for the Olympics

“I need to focus on qualifying, whether that be from a top-10 finish or getting inside 2:29:30. My run in 2018 got me both of those so a repeat would be great.”

  • 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon Elite Fields