Feature28 Sep 2023

Two decades since Tergat became the first to go sub 2:05


Paul Tergat wins the Berlin Marathon (© Victah Sailer)

It was probably just as well that Paul Tergat gave a few wary glances over his right shoulder after passing through the Brandenburg Gate on the morning of 28 September 2003. Had the great Kenyan king of cross country not seen Sammy Korir stealing up on the outside, he might not have claimed his place in the history books as the first man to break the 2:05 barrier in the marathon.

As it was, having lost two or three metres while momentarily veering off course at the iconic Berlin landmark, Tergat was able to resist a late charge by his compatriot and break the tape at the finish line in 2:04:55. Korir was just a second behind in 2:04:56, but it was Tergat who took the landmark honour.

Fittingly so.

On the country, the Kenyan Air Force sergeant might have reigned supreme, with his five successive world titles from 1995 to 1999, but on the track he could never quite escape the shadow of Haile Gebrselassie. Twice at the World Championships and twice at the Olympic Games, he had to settle for 10,000m silver behind his Ethiopian nemesis – missing out by a tantalising 0.09 in a titanic tussle at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Finally, in Berlin in 2003, it was Tergat’s turn to secure a place among the all-time greats of the distance running game. At the age of 34, after five failed attempts to translate the world-beating road form he had produced in his world half marathon victories in Palermo in 1999 and Veracruz in 2000 into success at the full marathon distance, he had not just a major victory but a boundary-breaching one.

Staying focused

Fifty years after the English optician Jim Peters broke the 2:20 mark in a pair of Woolworth plimsolls, running 2:18:40.4 in the classic Polytechnic Harriers Marathon from Windsor to Chiswick in the western suburbs of London, Tergat had pushed the limit of speed endurance at the 26.2 mile/42km distance below 2:05. In doing so, the statuesque Kenyan averaged 4:46 per mile and 2:57 per kilometre.

“I always said that my time in the marathon would come if I stay focused,” he said. “I knew that I would be able to break the marathon world record one day.”

The previous record, 2:05:38, had been set in London in 2002 by Khalid Khannouchi of the USA – in a race in which Tergat managed to get the better of Gebrselassie. Tergat finished runner up in 2:05:48. Gebrselassie, in his debut marathon, was third in 2:06:35.

That was Tergat’s third marathon, and third second-placing. He made his debut in London the previous year, in April 2001, finishing runner up to Moroccan Abdelkader El Mouaziz (2:07:11) in 2:08:15. Then, in Chicago six months later, he finished behind fellow Kenyan Ben Kimondiu (2:08:52) in 2:08:56.

His advance to 2:05:48 in London in April 2002 hinted at a major breakthrough but then followed two steps in a backward direction: fourth place in the 2002 Chicago race in 2:06:18, and fourth again in London in April 2003 in 2:07:59.

'We decided to go for the world record'

With his 35th birthday approaching, Tergat took advantage of perfect weather conditions (with the temperature between 9 and 16 degrees Celsius and no wind) to make his mark in Berlin. The pace making provided by his compatriots and training partners Sammy Korir and Titus Munji was vital, too.

All three Kenyans were coached and managed by the Italian marathon and sports physiology guru Gabriele Rosa. They reached halfway in 63:01 and were accompanied through 25km (1:14.42) by their compatriot Raymond Kipkoech, though the 2002 Berlin winner faded when Tergat hit the front and pushed the pace for the first time, eventually finishing fifth in 2:06:47.

Passing 30km in 1:29:24 and 35km in 1:43:59, Tergat, Korir and Munji were still together. Then, at 36km, Korir injected a surge that dropped Munji, who proceeded to finish a detached third in 2:06:15.

Tergat made his decisive move with 1km to go, keeping enough in reserve to resist Korir’s late rally.

“I have to thank Sammy and Titus,” he said. “They have helped me to achieve this world record.

“In the morning, when it was clear we would have perfect weather conditions, we decided to go for the world record. Although they were the pacemakers, I expected that they would run the whole race.

“I also want to thank my wife, my manager, and the organisers, who all supported me to make this possible. There was great support from the spectators too. That helped a lot.

“I think today we got the maximum result that was possible for us. In the future, I might perhaps be able to run something like 2:04:30. But I don’t expect to be able to run a 2:03 marathon.”

Gebrselassie - friend and nemesis

It was not the first time that Paul Kibii Tergat had run his way into the world record book. In August 1997 he had the satisfaction of eclipsing Gebrselassie’s six-week-old 10,000m record, becoming the first man to crack 26:30 with 26:27.85 at the Ivo Van Damme Memorial in Brussels. The following June, Gebrselassie regained the world record, clocking 26:22.75 at the Fanny Blankers Koen Games in Hengelo.

As on the track, it was Gebrselassie who eclipsed Tergat’s global mark on the road.

After running 2:04:26 in Berlin in 2007, the Ethiopian could be overheard offering an apology while receiving a congratulatory telephone call. “It was my friend Paul Tergat,” he said. “I am sorry to break his record. I am sorry because this record belonged to him.”

Gebrselassie proceeded to run a 2:03 marathon, reducing the world record to 2:03:39 in Berlin in 2008.

Tergat never managed to improve on his 2:04:55. His last Marathon Majors victory came in New York in 2005, the five-time world cross country champion prevailing in 2:09:29.90 after a thrilling sprint finish though Central Park with defending champion Hendrik Ramaala of South Africa.

Now 54, Tergat runs a foundation to help disadvantaged sportspeople in his homeland. For the past decade he has continued to hold an influential role on the global sporting stage as a member of the International Olympic Committee.

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics Heritage

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