Chunxiu Zhou today became the first Chinese athlete to win the Flora London Marathon with a run of meticulous timing when, 16 months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, she demonstrated that the sport has a new superstar. Wearing a white peaked-cap to protect herself from temperatures which rose steadily during the morning from 14.1C at the start to 20.5 at midday, Zhou was the one athlete who never looked troubled during a fascinating and gripping race. Zhou, 28, won in 2:20:38, having taken control after 22 miles. As the runners made their towards The Mall, Zhou broke away from Gete Wami (Eth) and from then on there was only one outcome.
Wami was second in 2:21:45 with Constantina Tomescu-Dita (Rom) overcoming a setback at halfway to finish third in 2:23:55.
Zhou arrived here with a superb record for her debut not only just in London but in the World Marathon Majors. She was the only competitor in the field to have broken 2:20, having won in Seoul last September in 2:19:51 prior to her victory in at the Asian Games three months later in 2:27:03. But this field was the toughest she had ever faced.
Lornah Kiplagat (Ned) had won the World Cross Championships in Mombasa last month and she made the first move after an opening mile of 5:27. But she was not allowed to take any sort of charge despite gaining a 15 metre advantage behind the Kenyan pacemakers of Mary Keitany and Irene Kipchumba. Kiplagat might have been the favourite but the opening half of the race quickly developed into a confrontation between the six main protagonists after they had been set on their way by Dame Mary Peters, Britain's pentathlon gold medallist from the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972.
Berhane Adere (Eth) and Wami (Eth), Zhou, Constantina Tomescu-Dita (Rom) and Benita Johnson (Aus) were jostling for position just behind Kiplagat. There was a consistently fast pace set by Keitany and Kipchumba, with mile two at 5:15 before 5:04 for the third mile and 5:15 again for the fourth. Just how close the field were bunched was evident at the 15km mark. Kiplagat led in 49:34 and her five rivals were all recorded at being just a second behind her. At that stage, Mara Yamauchi (GB), who was sixth last year when she ran a personal best of 2:25:13, was eighth, trailing Kiplagat by 1:14 with her fellow Briton Liz Yelling next, but 51 seconds behind.
The pacemakers were aiming for 69:45 and as the runners made their way through the 11-mile mark, a significant change to the order.
Suddenly, Johnson found the pace too much as she became the first of the leaders to drop away. The pace itself was starting to prove too much even for one of the women establishing it, when Kipchumba dropped behind the group. But Keitany looked powerful, particularly noticeable by the rapid movement of her arms, and as the runners made their way over Tower Bridge led by Zhou in 1:06:18, there was nothing to choose between them. The Tower is arguably the one site which links this race to the capital and it is seen as perhaps the key point of the event. As many people say, it is here where the real race begins after 13.5 miles of sparring. But who would land the best punches as the athletes headed into Wapping supported by large crowds, on their way to the less-populated areas of the Isle Of Dogs and Canary Wharf?
It was a race which you could not take your eyes off. Keitany led them through halfway in 69:58, just 13 seconds off the pace which was required - a second a mile - which in these warm conditions was an excellent piece of running. And those theories about the second-half of the race were quickly confirmed when Tomescu-Dita, who had started fast, dropped off very quickly inside the opening two miles along The Highway.
It was now down to four. And by the time the 16-mile point was passed in 1:26, there was only three. Adere, the world half-marathon champion in 2001 who was fourth last year, was the next to discover that as the weather was growing warmer, the slight climb towards the Isle Of Dogs was proving too much. She quickly disappeared from the leaders before Keitany bowed out. The fact that this group had split from six to three was evidence of how well that Keitany had performed; she not only set almost the exact standard which had been asked for, but she still had enough to go on for almost another three miles.
Prior to Adere disappearing, Kiplagat had gone through 25km in 1:22:50 but her timing was not totally as she may have liked: she missed her drink at the water-station and had to go on another 5km before the next time she could refuel. But the race was now left with a thrilling final third in store: Zhou, Kiplagat and Wami. Canada Square, the landmark building in Canary Wharf, was in the eyesight of the three with the 19-mile point ahead when Zhou went into the lead for the first time. And while there was nothing to choose between them at 30km, there was an equally interesting race developing behind them. As Adere dropped totally out of any contention, in eighth place, 3:19 behind the leaders, was Salina Kosgei (Ken) with Yamauchi just 46 seconds adrift in the next position and closing.
Everything changed when the runners had run through mile 22 in 5:34. In the space of a few strides, Kiplagat was back in third behind Zhou and Wami and it was then that the Chinese took over. The next two miles decided the race. Zhou increased the pace slightly as the runners went through mile 23 in 5:27 before a punishing mile 24 of 5:09 which put her clear as the Embankment appeared on their left. A telling moment was Wami looking behind her, an indication, perhaps, that she was more concerned by being caught for third place instead of making a challenge for first. Zhou was too far in front, and so it proved as she reached Birdcage Walk without a challenge, on towards The Mall, and the finish, looking steady but just unable to break the 2:20 barrier. But the women's race had a new champion and Zhou was delighted with her victory.
She said: �"This result shows that my training has worked and it was always my ambition to win the London Marathon. I started to train for the marathon only in 2002, so to win a race such as this one is fantastic.
�"In Beijing, the women marathon's team was set up only this year and it lacks experience. But we will go there to the Olympic Games ready.
�"I am honoured to be the first Chinese person to win the race."
Wami's run moved her into second place in the 2006-2007 World Marathon Majors, just 15 points behind leader Jelena Prokopcuka (Lat).
She said: �"I came here in 2004 but because of injuries I had to drop out at the 10-mile point. It was my dream to run well here and it is a great day for me to finish in second place. I was surprised by Zhou because I had never heard of her."
Tomescu-Dita said: �"I am happy with third. It is a great day for me. I do not like the hot weather. I wanted to run under 2:20 but it was not possible."
Kosgei was fourth in 2:24:13 followed by Kiplagat in 2:24:46. Yamauchi was next, repeating her finishing position from 12 months ago, in 2:25:41 with Yelling eighth in 2:30:44, delighted to have been just inside the 2:31 qualifying time for Beijing.