London Marathon Preview — Kipchoge To Go It Alone?

Kenenisa Bekele kept an eye on Eliud Kipchoge in their first marathon clash, Chicago ’14, but he was a late scratch this year. (SEAN HARTNETT)

(Check out Ken Nakamura’s stats-based London preview here)

AFTER A 7-MONTH C19 HIATUS, world-class marathon competitions return in London on Sunday—much as they left off last March in Tokyo with elite-only races sans mass participation and spectators.

While lacking the usual trimmings of this truly massive sporting event, the Virgin Money London Marathon features its usual super field of the world’s best marathoners, headlined by World Record holders Eliud Kipchoge and Brigid Kosgei.

Premeet hype has centered on Kipchoge’s fifth career marathon battle with Kenenisa Bekele (the Kenyan is 4–0), but the Ethiopian star withdrew on Friday with a calf problem (see sidebar).

In staging this event, postponed from April 26—cruelly, a day on which London saw WR-quality weather—the London team has embraced the bubble strategies adopted by other sports. Athletes and coaches were flown in from Africa by chartered jet and housed at a hotel outside the city with a 40-acre grounds. While the race purse has been halved, London has never shied away from lucrative appearance stipends.

The race’s bio-secure competition bubble is a 2150m (1.34M) loop around St. James’ Park, half of which runs along the traditional finishing stretch in front of Buckingham Palace. Flat and protected by trees the loop is fast enough to have been considered for Kipchoge’s INEOS challenge in Vienna last fall.

Unbeaten over the past 7 years, Kipchoge has become the living epitome of a marathoner, mastering both the training and the racing, and fully committed in all aspects of his life. Going into any of his 26-mile competitions over the past 5 years it has been almost unfathomable that he might lose—and rightly so—as he has proven dominant on every occasion.

At the Wednesday presser, when Bekele was still in play, Kipchoge effused confidence and seemed ready for another crack at marathon history. “I am feeling well and happy to be back in London to run for my fifth title,” he said. “I think the race will be a really fruitful one for us on Sunday and a fast race.”

He admitted that the pandemic presented some problems in his preparations, saying, “It was really difficult when I had to train on my own because for 17 years, I have been training with 6, 10 or 20 people all year round. So, it was like an electric shock when I had to train on my own. It was hard to get fit and up to a high level of training. But lately we have consolidated a bigger team around me and training has been good.”

A veteran of loop courses at the ’16 Olympics and his Breaking2 efforts, Kipchoge appears ready for the 19-plus clockwise loops around the historic park. “I think running laps like this will be OK,” he said. “We will be able to access more drinks than normal so that will help. But I don’t think the focus will change from normal, we are all doing the same laps with the same pacemakers.”

As a runner who often smiles his way around a course, Kipchoge will be challenged by the absence of fans lining the route. “The crowd plays a massive role in the marathon, he admitted. “Sunday will be difficult because it will have a silent feel.”

How fast will the race be? In this case the 35-year-old Kipchoge was the guarded one, offering only, “We will decide in the next 2 days,” which in his case usually means a very fast opening half.

While the St. James’ loop looks swift enough to make Berlin race director Mark Milde nervous in the fast-time sweepstakes (see sidebar), Kipchoge may well end up competing against father time and mother nature on Sunday.

Chasing the revered elder will be a younger generation of emerging talent. Chief among them are Kipchoge’s closest pursuers last year in London, 28-year-old Mosinet Geremew (2:02:55) and 26-year-old Mule Wasihun (2:03:16).

The Ethiopian duo stuck with Kipchoge past 35K last year in London and they may well be joined by their countrymen Sisay Lemma (2:03:36), Shura Kitata (2:04:49), Tamirat Tola (2:04:06), and Kenyans Marius Kipserem (2:04:11), Vincent Kipchumba (2:05:09) and Benson Kipruto (2:05:13). Jared Ward is the lone U.S. entry and has a good opportunity to better his 2:09.25 PR.

The quest for fast times may also appears to be challenged by a batch of wet weather that has inundated London for the past week. The race’s loop offers some shelter from wind, but 42K in cold rain is no picnic.

Offsetting the prospects of inclement weather are the prospects of another standard-breaking demonstration of shoe technology. Lest we forget that when we left marathoning last year the sport was being transformed by oversized carbon-plated footwear. At least we’ll get a chance to see how these shoes perform on wet surfaces, but will someone make a huge splash with an unexpected breakthrough?

That brings us to the women’s race, where WR holder Brigid Kosgei defends a title that presaged her stunning 2:14:04 in Chicago a few months later. The 26-year-old Kenyan will be challenged by reigning world champ Ruth Chepngetich (2:17:08) and ’18 London winner Vivian Cheruiyot (2:18:31).

Sarah Hall (2:22:16) heads up a strong U.S. contingent that includes Molly Seidel (2:27:31) and Lindsay Flanagan (2:28:05). The women will start the day’s races at 7:15 AM local time, safely spaced 3 hours ahead of the men.

While marathoners usually race sparingly, a year’s absence from significant competition is a stretch. With the potential for fast pacing, this race is far from a rustbuster and rather hard to predict. Fortunately, it is a made-for-BBC event, and live saturation coverage will be broadcast worldwide.

The early-early start time means that U.S. fans planning on following the races live will either have to stay up very late or get up very early. ◻︎