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Marathoning in 2011, a review

by Peter Gambaccini

There are rare occasions when even the most inflated form of hyperbole can barely do justice to the evidence at hand. So it is when we attempt to describe what the marathon’s world class men accomplished in 2011. The women had a terrific year, too — and we’ll get to that. Maybe some of us are too close to it to see it for what it is, but this was the greatest year in men’s marathoning history. That’s irrefutable. The accomplishments weren’t just off the charts. There hadn’t even been charts devised for what was achieved by a breakthrough band of distance-running heroes.

All five World Marathon Majors — Virgin London, BAA Boston, BMW Berlin, Bank of America Chicago, and ING New York City, in chronological order — saw new course records set, and in Boston and New York, the standards were taken down to times that few fans or pundits would ever have deemed possible for those race courses. There was a new all-time fastest marathon by Geoffrey Mutai, a 2:03:02 in Boston followed closely by Moses Mosop’s 2:03:06. And while that wasn’t deemed a “world record” by the governing bodies (because of the geographical distance between Boston’s Hopkinton start and its downtown Boston finish), there was a “real” world record of 2:03:38 by Patrick Makau in Berlin in September — followed not long after by Wilson Kipsang’s close brush with that new standard, his own 2:03:42 in Frankfurt.

The men responded to the challenge of taking down stellar course marks set by the late and already legendary 2008 Olympic gold medalist Sammy Wanjiru. Emmanuel Mutai’s 2:04:40 erased Wanjiru’s record in London, and Moses Mosop did the same in Chicago with his 2:05:37. The only “major” marathon where a men’s record was not set was the World Championships — and that’s mainly because the gold medalist, Abel Kirui, already had the Championships record (2:06:54) from his gold medal effort in 2009. But Kirui did establish another standard of supremacy; his winning margin of two minutes and 28 seconds was the largest ever in the men’s marathon at the Worlds.

By the time Geoffrey Mutai was taking more than two minutes off New York City’s course record with a 2:05:06 - which was in its own way, nearly as stunning as his 2:03:02 in Boston - one could only think that, yes, 2:05 is the new 2:08. And 2:03 is the new 2:05. What once seemed phenomenal was becoming … well, if not commonplace, at least far from unique. There were 2:05s in 2011 marathons (on easier courses than New York’s) with such frequency that we might be forgiven for greeting them with a shrug. Be honest now — did anyone even notice, for example, that Jafred Chirchir Kipchumba won in Eindhoven in October in 2:05:48? No you did not.

Thus far, every name mentioned is Kenyan. Kenyans didn’t just win every World Marathon Major in 2011. They also got all five runner-up spots, and a one-two finish at the World Championships. On the IAAF’s list of top marks, which doesn’t include Boston (Ethiopia’s Gebre Gebremariam, with a 2:04:53, and American Ryan Hall, with a 2:04:58 would be on it if it did), the 20 fastest marathoners and 24 best performances for 2011 are all Kenyan.

It’s not that everyone else is standing still. Ethiopians Gebre Gebremariam and Tsegaye Kebede, winners of World Marathon Majors in 2010 and third place finishers in 2011’s Boston and New York City Marathons, respectively, are going to be medal contenders whenever they enter a 26.2-mile race. New faces are emerging in Uganda and Eritrea, and Brazil’s Marilson Gomes dos Santos, the first non-Kenyan name on that IAAF list, is still to be reckoned with. And there is Ryan Hall. But the big issue, gazing ahead to the 2012 London Olympic marathon, is deciding who’s going to be there for Kenya. Imagine having Geoffrey Mutai, Emmanuel Mutai, Patrick Makau, Moses Mosop, Wilson Kipsang, Abel Kirui, and Martin Lel in your ranks and only being able to select three of them to go to the Games. The Kenyan juggernaut is so great that the World Championships silver medalist, Vincent Kipruto, never even seems to be a part of this discussion.

Ultimately, the winner of the dramatically close battle for the 2010-2011 men's World Marathon Majors title, and $500,000, was Emmanuel Mutai with 70 points, followed by Geoffrey Mutai with 65, Patrick Makau with 60, and Tsegaye Kebede with 51. Emmanuel scored in four marathons during the qualifying period but only won once but his consistency put him over Geoffrey who notched two victories.

Emmanuel had been second in both the London and New York City Marathons in 2010 and did produce his course record 2:04:40 victory in London in 2011. And his second place finish behind Geoffrey in New York City this past November should not be overlooked or minimized. Not only did he secure the points he needed for the WMM championship, but his 2:06:28 was 75 seconds below the five-borough course record that had endured for a decade before Geoffrey shattered it. It was the first time in the WMM five year history the men’s title was decided on the last race of the cycle - a situation that had presented itself twice before on the women’s side.

Let’s not be blasé about what we’re seeing. A 2:03 on any course, and a 2:05 on a tough one, is still an amazing feat. And it’s important to appreciate what we’re witnessing while it’s in front of our eyes — these are among the most prodigious endurance athletes the globe has ever seen. And they raised the bar so much in a single year that we have to recalculate what we deem to be humanly possible in this sport. How can anyone not be thrilled by this?

In women’s marathoning in 2011, the most powerful players were two women who built upon their existing top tier credentials, Liliya Shobhukova and Edna Kiplagat, and two young champions at other distances who matured to become 2:19 marathoners, Mary Keitany and Florence Kiplagat. Shobhukova, originally a middle distance track star, became the first person to “three-peat” at the Chicago Marathon with her 2011 win. Adding that to her London victory in 2010 and a second place there in 2011combined to make her the 2010-2011 World Marathon Majors women’s champion; she’d also topped the “WMM” for 2009-2010. Her cadence in Chicago in October was so remarkably assured and metronomic that many viewers didn’t realize until very near the end just how fast the Russian was going. With her 2:18:20, three minutes and 49 seconds ahead of the runner-up and fast enough for 13th OVERALL in the race, Shobhukova became the fastest female marathoner not named Paula Radcliffe.

Edna Kiplagat, who’d won the Los Angeles and New York City Marathons in 2010, managed just a third place in London in April, but she did run a personal best of 2:20:46. And then she provided us with a memorably dramatic brush with disaster. In the summer, she proved herself to be a tenacious competitor, and a resilient one, at the World Championships in Daegu. Clipped from behind by one of her Kenyan teammates with 5k remaining, Kiplagat tumbled to the pavement but rose quickly and went on to win gold, leading a Kenyan sweep of all three medals. Injury subsequently prevented her from running in New York as planned.

Florence Kiplagat had been a World Cross Country champion in 2009 and was the World Half Marathon title-holder in 2010; this was the year she mastered the full marathon distance with her 2:19:44 victory in Berlin. Mary Keitany, the world record-holder for the half-marathon and 25k, had long been thought to be a spectacular marathoner-in-waiting. The wait ended with her brisk 2:19:19 victory in London.

Keitany supplied a scintillating story line in New York City, where she took off at an audaciously fast pace and kept pushing it, extending her lead to two and half minutes as she seemed destined to obliterate Margaret Okayo’s course record. Gradually but inexorably, Keitany’s lead was eroded, partly from her own fatigue but even more so by the relentless and steady teamwork of Ethiopians Firehiwot Dado and Buzunesh Deba, who closed in and passed her in the late stages in Manhattan. Dado prevailed by four seconds over Deba, who lives in the Bronx, therefore denying New Yorkers their first “hometown” champion in the history of the five-borough race. Dado won in 2:23:15 and Deba did a 2:23:19. Ethiopia had so many outstanding women’s marathon performances in 2011 that it’s not a certainty that both of them will be 2012 Olympians. They’ll be measured against Mamitu Daska, a 2:21:59 winner in Frankfurt; Tiki Gelana, who triumphed in Amsterdam in 2:22:08; and Ejegayehu Dibaba, the runner-up in Chicago in 2:22:09.

If an excruciatingly close duel is your cup of tea, the Boston Marathon gave you everything you could wish for. Desiree Davila is an American known for laying off the early pace; this time she was so far behind the lead pack that they’d given her up for lost. But as that group thinned out, there was Davila storming from behind, and suddenly she was in a push me/pull you contest with Kenyans Caroline Kilel and Caroline Rotich. Leads switched back and forth with regularity, and as soon as it seemed that one runner had the decisive upper hand, another would re-emerge in front. On the final straightaway, the outcome was still in doubt, and there were moments when it did appear that Davila would be the first American champion of the Boston Marathon since the early 1980s. But Kilel, who would collapse in utter exhaustion, summoned up one last surge to earn her winner’s laurels. Sporting spectacles like this are not soon forgotten.

Davila, of course, gave great encouragement to the United States, where sub-2:30 women’s marathons are far more plentiful than they were four years ago. Japan gave evidence that it is still a marathoning power — Yoshimi Ozaki won in Yokohama in 2:23:56 and Yukiko Akaba ran 2:24:06 in London. On the other hand, China, which in 2009 had seemed poised to challenge for supremacy in women’s marathoning, made little impact in 2011, with no runners under 2:26. Portugal, which has seen some of its top track and cross country talent move onto the roads, was the European representative with the most depth, having two women under 2:25 and another under 2:26.

The upper echelon of the sport is not entirely occupied by stupendous newcomers. In 2011, we saw the rise of two immortals who’d been down but obviously not out. World recordholder Paula Radcliffe, after a second childbirth, injuries, and tepid results in her initial return, acquitted herself with a 2:23:46 third place performance in Berlin. And Germany’s Irina Mikitenko, a past winner of the Berlin and London Marathons and two World Marathon Majors crown, erased the sting of recent disappointments with her 2:22:18 second place finish in a return to Berlin. If their comebacks continue, we could see an intriguing mix of cagey veterans, newly established world-beaters, and rising upstarts in an epic struggle for marathoning’s top spot in 2012. We’ll be watching.