London Marathon contenders
Eliud Kipchoge may be absent from the start-line for the Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday (3) but compatriot Brigid Kosgei will be aiming to emulate his dominance of the World Athletics Elite Platinum Label road race when she goes in search of a third consecutive victory.
Kipchoge, a four-time London winner but surprisingly beaten a year ago, has chosen to sit out this year’s race to recover from his gold medal-winning exertions in the Olympic marathon, though Kosgei has no such qualms about returning to the scene of her triumphs in 2019 and 2020 just eight weeks after earning silver in the heat and humidity of Sapporo.
“My body was very tired [after the Olympics] but I did a lot of correction until I became okay,” said the Kenyan world record-holder. “That’s why I’ve come to London to try to do my best.”
Whether Kosgei has genuinely recovered is certain to be exposed by a stellar women’s field that includes five women who have run faster than 2:19 and nine who have gone sub 2:20.
Among them are Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who clocked 2:17:45 to win the 2020 Tokyo Marathon, as well as Ethiopian pair Roza Dereje and Birhane Dibaba, who have personal bests of 2:18:30 and 2:18:35 respectively.
The caveat is that all three were also in action at the Olympics in August, though with wildly differing fortunes. While Dereje just missed out on the podium in fourth place, Salpeter placed a weary 66th and Dibaba failed to finish.
If post-Olympic fatigue does play its part on Sunday, the big beneficiary could be Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei, who was not part of the Kenyan team in Japan and who will be making her London debut after her victory in New York in 2019 (2:22:38) and runner-up spot in Valencia in 2020 (2:18:40).
Joyciline Jepkosgei and Brigid Kosgei (© London Marathon Events)
Given the size of the challenge she faces, Kosgei has already ruled out any attempt on Mary Keitany’s women-only world record of 2:17:01, set in London in 2017, to add to the mixed-sex race world record of 2:14:04 she set in Chicago two years ago.
“I don’t have any course record in mind,” said Kosgei. “I’m coming from the Olympics just over a month ago, so there’s been no time for preparation for the women-only record.”
Regardless of the clock, a victory for Kosgei would equal another significant mark by making her only the second woman to complete three back-to-back London victories after Germany’s Katrin Dorre achieved the feat between 1992 and 1994.
“I would really like to do that here because I love London, including the crowds,” said Kosgei, who has finished in the top two in 12 of her 13 marathons to date. “Everyone cheers and makes my powers go to the maximum.”
Those crowds were absent a year ago when the race was staged on a behind-closed-doors loop course around St James’s Park and Kosgei triumphed in 2:18:58 with an eye-watering three minutes to spare. Despite the scale of her victory, Kosgei is delighted this year’s race is returning to its traditional route from Blackheath to The Mall – and with 40,000 mass participation runners in hot pursuit.
“I didn’t like the loops like last year,” she admitted. “Last year I went round and round and my head was turning, turning, turning. I’m happy this time because there’s no loop and we go straight.”
Last year’s men’s race could not have been more different to Kosgei’s one-woman show as Ethiopia’s Shura Kitata prevailed by just a single second in 2:05:41 over Kenyan’s Vincent Kipchumba in an exhilarating sprint finish. Kipchoge, suffering from an ear infection, experienced a rare off-day and came home in eighth place, ending a 10-race unbeaten run.
Kitata is back to defend his crown but his chances appear to have receded after he revealed in his pre-race press conference that he had suffered a hamstring injury two weeks before the Olympic marathon, which resulted in him dropping out after less than 10km.
“I’ve prepared well and I feel confident about being competitive on Sunday,” said Kitata. “But the hamstring pain is not really easy and, when it’s very fast speed, there might be some problem.”
Shura Kitata at the press conference ahead of the London Marathon (© London Marathon Events)
Aside from his physical shape, Kitata’s personal best of 2:04:49 is only the seventh fastest in the men’s field, with the top six all having run sub 2:04.
Among them is Ethiopia’s Birhanu Legese, the third quickest marathon runner in history after clocking 2:02:48 to finish second behind compatriot Kenenisa Bekele at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. Such is his confidence on his London debut that he admits he has Kipchoge’s course record of 2:02:37 in his sights.
“If the weather is good, I plan to break the course record and that's my target and I have prepared for that," said Legese, who has the added advantage of having missed the Olympic marathon after an injury ruled him out of the Ethiopian trials earlier in the year.
Keeping him company will be fellow Ethiopian Mosinet Geremew, the fourth fastest marathon runner of all time after his 2:02:55 runner-up finish in London two years ago and an athlete who has never finished outside the top five in a major marathon.
If recent form is a more accurate gauge, then the Kenyan duo of Evans Chebet and Titus Ekiru could prove a potent threat to the Ethiopian contingent. Chebet was the quickest in the world in 2020 when winning the Valencia Marathon in 2:03:00 while Ekiru arrives in London as the quickest of 2021 with his super-fast winning time of 2:02:57 in Milan in May.
Having been inspired by Kipchoge’s four London victories in the past five years, Chebet admitted he would summon the spirit of his compatriot when he goes to the start-line for his debut race in the UK capital.
“If Eliud is watching on Sunday, it will give me more motivation to run faster,” said Chebet. “Eliud gives us morale, but I have my own intrinsic motivation as well.”
Kosgei said she would also draw strength from the great man’s example.
“I am inspired by Eliud Kipchoge,” she said. “He’s a good man. Usually, he talks with the young athletes and encourages them, especially juniors. He tells us to be disciplined, to be honest and to be focused in whatever you do.”
Simon Hart for World Athletics
Brigid Kosgei (KEN) 2:14:04
Lonah Chemtai Selpeter (ISR) 2:17:45
Roza Dereje (ETH) 2:18:30
Birhane Dibaba (ETH) 2:18:35
Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) 2:18:40
Valary Jemeli (KEN) 2:19:10
Degitu Azimeraw (ETH) 2:19:26
Zeineba Yimer (ETH) 2:19:28
Tigist Girma (ETH) 2:19:52
Ashete Bekere (ETH) 2:20:14
Alemu Megertu (ETH) 2:21:20
Sinead Diver (AUS) 2:24:11
Charlotte Purdue (GBR) 2:25:38
Eloise Wellings (AUS) debut
Birhanu Legese (ETH) 2:02:48
Mosinet Geremew (ETH) 2:02:55
Titus Ekiru (KEN) 2:02:57
Evans Chebet (KEN) 2:03:00
Sisay Lemma (ETH) 2:03:36
Kinde Atanaw (ETH) 2:03:51
Shura Kitata (ETH) 2:04:49
Vincent Kipchumba (KEN) 2:05:09
Jonny Mellor (GBR) 2:10:05
Tristan Woodfine (CAN) 2:10:51
Mohamud Aadan (GBR) 2:12:20
Josh Griffiths (GBR) 2:13:11
Charlie Hulson (GBR) 2:13:34
Andrew Davies (GBR) 2:14:36