Just moments after Shura Kitata sent shockwaves through the sport of marathon running by dethroning the great Eliud Kipchoge at the Virgin Money London Marathon, a World Athletics Platinum Label road race, the victorious Ethiopian experienced a seismic shock of his own.
Kitata’s coach, the highly respected Haji Adilo, had remained in Ethiopia instead of accompanying his athlete to London for what Kitata had been told was family reasons.
It was only after Kitata’s dramatic triumph in The Mall on Sunday (4) that the athlete was informed of the real reason Adilo had stayed at home – a positive Covid-19 test that had forced him into quarantine.
The bombshell news had been deliberately withheld from Kitata by Adilo and the rest of his support team, who worried it might have a negative impact on his state of mind in London.
And even though Adilo’s positive test had been revealed in the media several days before the race, the news somehow never filtered through to Kitata. Social distancing rules at the athletes’ out-of-town hotel had insulated the Ethiopian from any gossip.
Instead, Kitata went to the start-line on Sunday in blissful ignorance, which turned to blissful joy a little over two hours later when he outpaced Kenyan Vincent Kipchumba by a single second in a dramatic final sprint to win in 2:05:41.
Kipchoge, meanwhile, was left languishing in eighth place in 2:06:42 after suffering a mid-race problem with his right ear and cramp in his hip. The Kenyan’s 10-race winning streak had come to a crushing end.
“First, I had a Covid test with my coach [in Ethiopia],” explained Kitata. “On that day, my coach is with me. We are together. Nothing is happening. But after that test, I didn’t see him physically. He called every day, speaking to me and the assistant coaches, but I did not see him.
“Up until the flight day [to London], nobody told me that he was affected. Before, he told me that we would go together, no problem. Maybe he thought that I would be shocked because at the airport I called him and he told me he had a problem with his family, kids.
“He said to me, ‘I can’t fly with you. Maybe I will come to London on Saturday or Friday’.”
“Even among the athletes here [in London], most of them had heard about it and yet nobody told me he was affected by coronavirus. Nobody told me until after the race.”
The good news is that Adilo has suffered only minor symptoms while the strategy of silence paid off handsomely in delivering Kitata to the finish line in first place with only positive thoughts in his mind.
Bekele as adviser
And in Adilo’s absence, Kitata had access to a perfect substitute in the shape of his training partner, Kenenisa Bekele, who played a crucial role in advising Kitata on his race plan after himself being forced to withdraw two days before the contest due to an injured calf.
“The first thing he [Kenenisa] told me was, ‘Don’t push like you did in other races in the beginning. Try to wait for the last parts of the race. This course is very strange and maybe if someone is pushing you, you can fall down.
“Please don’t run at the front until after 35 kilometres. After 35 kilometres, try to push it depending on how you feel. If somebody runs with you, don’t push again until the last part of the race. What he advised me, I tried my best to do.”
Kitata’s willingness to take advice from the best, learn from experience and respect the event are constant themes in his relatively short marathon career that suggest he has the temperament to become a major force in years to come. He is, after all, still only 24 but with an engaging confidence that belies his youth.
Having announced his talent with victories in the Rome and Frankfurt marathons in 2017, he finished runner-up behind Kipchoge in London in 2018 in a career-best 2:04:49 before taking the runner-up spot in New York later in the year.
Last year, he could manage only fourth in London but, significantly, he learned from the experience after admitting he had not eaten enough breakfast before the race and had run out of energy when the pace quickened. It was a mistake he did not repeat this time round.
“This year, in the morning, I had porridge, banana and bread. What I learned last year gave me the chance to prepare myself,” he said.
Gebrselassie an early inspiration
Inspired to run by the Ethiopian marathon legends he saw on TV and read about in newspapers, his childhood is a powerful echo of that of Haile Gebrselassie.
“My family are farmers in a rural area and my home was five or six kilometres from my school,” he said. “When I went there in the morning, and when I went home in the evening, I would run.
“I started from that point, and the school organised some races. Most of those races I won, and more of my teachers and my family members were encouraging me to run as a member of a club.
“But I did not think for one day that I would arrive in this situation. Now I am in this position, I am very happy.”
‘Kipchoge is still the king’
If Sunday was a decisive breakthrough for Kitata, transforming him from supporting cast member to leading role, it will also go down in history as the moment Kipchoge became beatable, his aura of invincibility punctured. No longer will his rivals be running just for second place.
But Kitata is too respectful of the man who has elevated it to such extraordinary heights to believe that Kipchoge’s reign is over. Instead, he talks in a reverential tone about working with him rather than against him.
“I am willing to say that Kipchoge is the greatest person in this world and he did in his life more than science,” said Kitata. “He ran sub-two hours, and science says that nobody can run sub-two.
“If you look at his life, he took our sport to another level. I appreciate what he did before and he is still my hero. He is in my heart and I say to him, ‘No problem. We are together. We can work together again for more years’
“Kipchoge is still the king of us. He is always the king to us, even when he is beaten.”
Simon Hart for World Athletics