The mighty Kenyan marathoners wilted in the heat and humidity of Beijing, with the current world-record holder dropping out late and none of them finishing anywhere near the podium – or even in the top 20, for that matter.
Not a day – a sweltering one at that – to remember for a nation so rich in marathon tradition. Just the opposite for teenager Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, a 19-year-old Eritrean who became the youngest man to win the marathon at the world championships on Saturday.
Ghebreslassie finished in 2 hours, 12 minutes, 27 seconds, holding off Yemane Tsegay of Ethiopia by 40 seconds. Solomon Mutai of Uganda was third, while his teammate, defending world champion Stephen Kiprotich, was sixth.
The soaring temperature didn’t seem to bother Ghebreslassie, who said “the weather was very nice for me”. The searing heat certainly thwarted the Kenyans, whose top finisher was Mark Korir in 22nd, a distant 8:52 behind Ghebreslassie’s winning time.
Korir at least finished. Current world-record holder Dennis Kimetto dropped out late in the race. So did Wilson Kipsang, the former world-record holder.
“I don’t know what happened. Things were not going well. The whole body would not,” respond, Kipsang said.
The Kenyans entered the event thinking about a possible sweep. Not even close.
“We had a lot of hope, of course, in the marathon. We know our guys are good, but I think the weather didn’t favour them,” Olympic 800-metre champion David Rudisha, another of Kenya’s great runners, said after his opening heat.
It’s the second straight world championships in which the Kenyans failed to finish on the podium. The country’s top performance in Moscow two years ago was ninth. This from a nation that has captured seven medals in the event, including four golds.
“The pace was not there – but the weather, it was difficult,” Kipsang said. “We could not run normally.”
A concern for Kenya ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?
“No, no, no,” Kipsang said. “It’s OK.”
There’s another runner now to contend with in Brazil for the games – Ghebreslassie.
Although he only has a few marathons under his belt, Ghebreslassie’s plan all along was to pull away at about 34 kilometres. And with the Kenyans nowhere in sight, it worked.
“Even strong athletes can get challenged from athletes and from the course,” said Ghebreslassie, who grabbed his country’s flag as he entered the Bird’s Nest and waved it to the cheering crowd. “Things can happen. So you cannot be surprised.”
It was the first marathon win for Ghebreslassie, whose parents encouraged him to attend university over becoming an international runner. The family is becoming more and more supportive.
“They start to believe I can do some special history,” he said.
The race began early with the temperature already hot. It only soared from there, with the thermometer reading 28 Celsius (83F) by the time the racers finished. The field tried to find shade whenever possible, hugging the side of the road to gain cover from the trees if only for a few steps. They also ran under coolers spraying water in the second half of the race.
The air quality was listed as “good” by the US Embassy Beijing air quality monitor throughout the race. Much of the concern around the marathon had to do with pollution levels. There were 25 “DNFs” – runners who did not finish – and another who didn’t start.
After entering the stadium for the finish, Ghebreslassie and dozens of others were confused about the finish line. Typically, marathoners run a lap around the stadium before completing the race. But this year, the course ended after only about 100 metres of running on the track.
“I didn’t know which one was the finish line,” Ghebreslassie said. “I wasn’t sure.”
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