Weir seeks ninth crown as Swiss aim to dominate wheelchair races
David Weir is determined to demonstrate why he sits in the pantheon of Britain’s all-time great athletes one more time by, at 41 years young, winning his ninth London Marathon men’s elite wheelchair title.
The evergreen ‘Weirwolf’ sounded in soaring spirits as he talked about his preparations for what, astonishingly, will be his 21st London Marathon on Sunday October 4, and promised that, following some mental health issues and a heart scare last year, he was in his best shape for some time and hoped to further adorn his unparalleled record.
“Are you trying to retire me?” Weir joked at a socially distanced press conference on Friday, when the six-time Paralympic champion was asked if a win at the weekend could be the crowning glory of his career.
“It would be amazing to win it again. It feels amazing every time I win it so, yes, it would be nice to crown off a win on Sunday – but the competition’s going be tough.”
“There are a lot of guys who look like they’re pushing well but I’m not retiring yet! I haven’t put a date on that. I keep changing the date in my head – to be honest, it goes year by year.”
In the women’s race, which starts alongside the men’s, another home hero of the 2012 Paralympics in London, Shelly Woods, who won marathon silver while Weir was annexing four golds, will be enjoying the biggest race since returning to the sport following the birth of her three-year-old son, Leo.
Yet both these great Britons will have their work cut out in two superb fields where the prospect of a Swiss double looks very inviting. Reigning champion Manuela Schär is the overwhelming favourite to defend her crown, while her compatriot, Paralympic champion Marcel Hug, is seeking his third title.
All the wheelchair athletes are particularly thrilled that the world’s eyes will be on their competitions, interspersed with a series of exciting Abbott World Marathon Majors Accumulator sprints, which will take centre stage and be shown live on TV as the final highlight on Race Day.
“It’s great isn’t it? How good is that for them to be showing the race live?” said Woods. “Over the years, the coverage has got better and better, but there has never really been a focus on the wheelchair race. So it’s incredible and really cool to be able to say to my mum, ‘you can watch on TV’.”
Watching Weir in action promises to be a treat. In his previous 20 London Marathons stretching back over half his lifetime (and that’s not even taking into account his seven Mini-Marathon wins as a child) he’s only finished off the podium three times.
One of those rare occasions was last year when he finished fifth but, as he explained on Friday, his preparations for that race were far from ideal.
“I’d struggled with mental health and stuff like that, and leading into last year’s marathon I struggled with infections, blood poisoning in January, then another infection just before Boston, so my training was in and out,” he said.
“I also had a few problems with my heart. They found I had a tiny hole at the top of it so I had a few issues I had to try to sort out last year. They said I’ve had it since birth. I had it scanned last year and they said it was not a problem.
“This year I’ve not been ill, I’ve not had infections and mentally I’ve been in a better place than I’ve ever been. Yes, I’m 41 but I feel like I’m in better shape than I was for New York last year.”
Weir has left his familiar Richmond Park training ground to join his partner in Hastings, a move that has given him new routes to follow, while also being refreshed by a new aluminium US racing chair. “It has made a massive difference. As soon as I got in it, it made me feel alive again.”
If he could win again, it would only extend Weir’s record as the most successful athlete in the London Marathon’s history.
“He’s a legend, isn’t he?” said an admiring Woods today. “What he’s achieved during his whole career has been amazing. I’ve witnessed him first-hand in training – he’s an absolute beast! – and 21 London Marathons is amazing. It’s very cool that we’re sharing the same Start Line.”
Woods has the same problem as the rest of the women’s field: how to beat Schär? The double London champion has carved out one of the great unbeaten sequences in the sport, having won nine Abbott World Marathon Majors races in a row since finishing fourth here in 2018.
Schär’s run only ended when she did not compete in Tokyo in March, but she’s keen to continue where she left off. She did, however, sound a little uncertain on Friday, admitting that both the sense of racing into the unknown after the Covid-19 lockdown and racing into a possible deluge of rain on Sunday left her uneasy.
“Me personally, I don’t like the rain too much; I’m not a good athlete in rainy conditions; let’s hope for dry conditions,” said Schär, who thinks the races could be very open.
“It’s such a different situation. Normally, we get to see each other race so often and do all the majors, so you usually know everybody’s shape. We don’t have that at the moment. So it’s a completely new situation. It’s going to be a surprise, so I just try to focus on myself.”
If the races go to form, though, it could be a day of celebration for Switzerland, with Schär’s friend Hug, who’s finished runner-up in the last three London races, ready to go one better.
“It’s actually great to win a major marathon,” said Schär, “but it’s even better if you know the men’s race is won by your Swiss friend and teammate. Marcel is a great athlete and it’s great that we can represent Switzerland, such a tiny country. Makes me proud.”
Perhaps the uncertain, cooler weather, the flat, looped course and the vagaries of form following the strangest experience of their athletic careers in lockdown, could lead to surprise victors emerging – especially since the men’s winner in 2019, Daniel Romanchuk of the US, has chosen not to defend his title.
One thing is certain: other winners will emerge during the 19-lap race, as the athletes battle to win cash prizes and charity donations in the Abbott World Marathon Majors Accumulator – a series of four 505-metre sprints that will be contested at the start of laps 5, 9,13 and 18.
“It makes the race a little more exciting I think – a race within a race,” said Woods. “I’ll just have to remember what laps they are on!”
For the likes of Woods and Weir, Sunday is going to feel very different to those times when it seemed the whole of the capital was pushing them to victory at the roadside.
This time, those same athletes will be sparing a thought for the 45,000 runners completing their own, quiet ‘virtual’ Virgin Money London Marathon challenges.
“I know it’s different and strange,” said the great Weir. “But I’ll be thinking about everyone on Sunday and cheering you on as well!”