The Olympics traditionally end with the men’s marathon. In this tradition, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda held off two superb Kenyan marathons, Asbel Kirui, two time World Champion and Wilson Kipsang, winner of the 2012 Virgin London Marathon. This column, by Dave Hunter, is Dave’s analysis of the marathon, where he pays proper attention to Meb Keflezighi, who scored
Men’s Marathon Is Olympic Capstone:
Decisive Late-Race Surge by Uganda’s Kiprotich Strikes Gold
August 12, 2012
The British, always respectful toward established protocol, began the final day of the 30th Olympiad in the traditional way – with the running of the Men’s Marathon. Under unfavorable weather conditions – start time temperatures were approaching 70 degrees with 77 percent humidity – 105 marathoners from 67 countries began the race for the final track & field medals. Many of the thousands of fans who lined the streets had to wonder if this Olympic marathon would produce any of the late-race theater that had spiced London’s two earlier Olympic marathons – in 1908 and 1948 – when dramatic medal-altering moves occurred in the races’ final several hundred meters.
Running the same criterium course upon which the women competed one week ago, the men began with a measured pace just under 5:00 per mile. Two Americans – Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman – positioned themselves at the front of the lead pack of 25-30 international marathoners. As the runners were settling in, assessing the weather conditions, and eyeing their competitors, this front-running group – which contained all of the pre-race favorites – passed the 5 mile mark in 24:44. As the pack then began to stretch out with no noticeable uptick in race pace, it was the best evidence that this would be a tough day for marathoning. The “Misting Stations” along the course would likely serve many competitors this day.
Not long after the 10K mark, a defining event occurred. It was an expected surge from an expected aggressor, but at an unexpected time. Kenya’s Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich – known among marathon circles as Wilson Kipsang – quickly changed the complexion of the race. Shortly before the 7 mile mark, Kipsang moved into the lead with authority and proceeded to cover the next two miles in 9:06 – a pack-busting move, to be sure. Considered by many as the pre-race favorite, Kipsang is known for his powerful mid-race surges – a tactic that has proved to be a deadly weapon for him. But given the difficult weather conditions, the quality of the field, and point in the race, his early spurt seemed ill-timed. Was this the type of “mighty performance” that Kipsang confided in pre-race interviews was his Olympic goal? Would this be the Benoit-like break that would allow Kipsang to escape, out of sight, into the labyrinth of London’s winding streets on his way to Olympic gold? Or would this attempted early break proved to a tactical gaffe for which Kipsang would pay dearly?
Early on, Kipsang’s move wrought the expected race course carnage. The tidy lead pack of 20-25 Olympians was destroyed. By Mile 9, Kipsang had built an 85 meter lead over a decimated chase pack of four: Abel Kurui of Kenya; Steven Kiprotich of Uganda; and Ayele Abshero of Ethiopia. Further back up the course, the Americans were having a tough time of it. In the 10th mile, American record-holder Ryan Hall, struggling from the opening gun, walked off the race course holding his uncooperative hamstring. It was his first DNF ever. Minutes later, Abdirahman’s day was over as he also dropped out. Keflezighi, the lone remaining American, had been relegated to 19th place as a result of Kipsang’s surprise move.
Having at one point built his lead to over 100 meters, Kipsang passed the halfway point in 63:15. But the effort observed on his face confirmed what the stopwatch had already proclaimed. He was slowing down. Kipsang’s 5K split at 25 kilometers of 5:01 – the slowest segment yet – had allowed the chase quartet – led by reigning world marathon champion Kurui – to close Kipsang’s shrinking advantage to 35 meters.
The pursuing group seized its opportunity. Leaving Abshero – a 2:03 marathoner – to fend for himself, Kurui and Kiprotich stepped it up and caught Kipsang by mile 17. Shortly, thereafter, this threesome was clearly separated from the rest as they began the final 8-mile loop. It was apparent that they would be the likely medalists. They just had to sort out the colors.
On the final circuit, the race dynamic among the trio was interesting to observe. Kipsang and Kurui, the two Kenyans, ran side by side in a perfectly rhythmic cadence. They spoke frequently as they shared fluids and swapped sponges while the mid-day sun proved to be unrelenting. Kiprotich, the Ugandan interloper in the group, ran a step behind the Kenyans – all alone.
The 5K leading up to 30K was slower still – 15:17. Was this the heat taking its toll or the calm before the storm? The Kenyan duo, tossing in surges on winding cobblestone streets, was working hard to shake the stubborn Ugandan. But Kiprotich appeared unfazed. The trio ran the 20th mile in 5:05 to hit the 21st mile mark in 1:42:16 – on pace for a finish in 2:07.
In a sector of winding streets just before the 23 mile mark, Kiprotich made his move. In a cold and calculating manner from the back, Kiprotich selected a curving uphill section of the course to launch what proved to be the decisive surge. Cresting the hill and entering an extended downhill portion of the circuit, the Ugandan then unleashed a 4:42 24th mile to open up a 65 meter lead on Kurui. The struggling Kipsang, paying the price for his ill-advised earlier move, was back another 75 meters.
Safe from further assault, Kiprotich savored his street-lined coronation over the final 2 kilometers as flag-waving spectators – 10 to 15 deep – exhorted him onward. After a quick trip around the Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace, the Ugandan cruised down the final straightaway, slowing only to grab his national flag from a spectator. Kiprotich crossed the line in 2:08:01 to capture the gold medal. Kurui grabbed the silver in 2:08:27. And Kipsang struggled home for the bronze in 2:09:37.
Back up the race course, 37-year old Keflezighi was exhibiting the heart and competitive fire that won him the silver medal in the ’04 Olympic marathon. 19th at 20 kilometers, Keflezighi was down – but apparently not out. Resorting to patience instead of disappointment, the American never lost focus and began to battle his way up the ladder. After regrouping in the wake of Kipsang’s early race surge, Keflezighi methodically picked off competitors – one by one – and clawed his way to a 4th place finish. “4th is not the place I wanted to finish – but 4th in the world, I’ll take it. I am very proud of myself and my country. It was very hard work. My inspiration was Carlos Lopes. In 1984 on August 12 – this day – he won it [the Olympic marathon]. My goal was to beat his time or get close to the podium. The whole crowd was phenomenal and the “USA” chant was awesome. In the middle of the race, I was probably in 10th -15th place and I worked my way back up to 4th.”
After the race, the winning Kiprotich reflected upon his need to be patient. Citing Kipsang’s surprise early surge, the gold medalist said, “The pace was too fast. I had to run with the pack. When I got them [the Kenyans], I tried to sit on them. Then I tried to break off, because I wanted a medal. My aim was to win a medal.” On this day, the patience of Uganda’s newest gold medalist was rewarded.