Stuart Weir did this piece on Brent Lakatos, the male wheelchair racer who won the London marathon in 2020….
Updated 6 Jan 2021-to note IPC pulling 5000m event out in Paris 2024 plus typos.
Brent Lakatos, wheelchair racer
Brent Lakatos was the winner of the men’s wheelchair race in the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon but it has been a remarkable journey to reach that pinnacle for the 40 year-old Canadian. When he was six years-old a freak ice-skating accident left his legs paralyzed.
Tokyo 2021 will be his sixth Paralympics but he had to wait until 2016 to win his first gold medal. It was a similar story with World Championships with his first participation being in 2006 but the first gold medal coming in 2013 at the age of 33. Since then he has made up for lost time collecting 13 IPC World Championship track gold medals at distances from 100m to 800m. Classification is sometimes a complicated issue in disability sport. Lakatos was originally wrongly classified as T54, where he struggled to be competitive. Re-classification as T53 opened doors to fair competition. [Google “difference between T53 and T54” and you will find some detailed information but in a sentence a T54 has better trunk function and more strength in their arms].
Still competing at his peak – he won four track gold medals in the 2017 World Championships and two in 2019 – he decided in 2018 to have a go at Marathons. “In 2016 in Rio, I got my butt kicked a couple of times by the Thai kid [Pongsakorn Paeyo]”, he explains, “so I made a change of glove, hoping to get some more speed. But what it did do, was give me more endurance. And in the 2017 season, I set a world record in the 1500m, which is typically the domain of Marcel Hug and David Weir. I set the world record not because I out-sprinted someone at the finish but because, with two guys working with me, we maintained a high average speed. And so my thought process was if I can maintain a good average speed what event is that helpful for? Marathon and long-distance races popped into my head so I decided to give it a shot. I started training for marathons in the summer 2017 and did the Berlin Marathon at the end of 2017. And it went well enough that in 2018 I decided to train properly for marathons and since then I’ve been doing it”.
He finished seventh in Berlin in 2017 and won the race in 2018. He finished 10th in London in 2018 and 12th in 2019 before winning in 2020. While some runners struggled with the 2020 course involving a marathon in 19 laps, it suited Lakatos. “I liked it. That’s how I normally train. Where I train every Sunday is a 2.6 K loop and I do 15/16 laps there. So it was fine for me. I actually think it’s easier because once you’ve done two or three laps you know the course and you know the turns and you don’t have to think about them. It’s not like the normal London course where every corner is different and it’s uphill and downhill. For me, it’s easier than normal.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from the race. Because there were four sprints, [500 m with the person who covered the distance in the shortest time winning an additional prize each time] I didn’t know if people would just sprint there. What seemed to happen – and which I didn’t expect – was that the race was really slow because a couple of laps before the sprint, people tended to slow down and maybe save themselves for the sprint. Then there was a sprint and people were tired so the next lap was also slower. So the whole race was slower than I expected. I thought it might be on a 1:28 marathon but instead, it was 1:36. So, I didn’t have a huge plan going in and also because of the rain – we knew it was likely to rain all day”.
Given Lakatos’ prowess as a sprinter, it seemed to some observers that racers like Marcel Hug and David Weir were playing into his hands by letting him dictate the pace and prepare for a final sprint. Did he see it like that? “On the last lap, yes. I went in front with one lap to go and they let me control the pace for the final lap. I wanted to be in the front because I had set my compensator (my steering) to go to the right. (The compensator is what you use when you’re going around the track. Normally, in a track race, it is set to the left and you set it to whatever lane you are in. And that is how your chair stays in lane 1 or 2 etc during the race).
“At the London Marathon I had set my compensator to go to the right – the opposite of normal – as all the corners on the course was to the right. A couple of other people had done that too. So I was confident that if I set my compensator to the right, and I was in pole position, that would give me an advantage going into the final turn. I wanted to be in front, not just because you are closest to the finish, but because not everyone had set their compensator. So, if I was in position 2, 3, or 4, having set my compensator and there was someone outside me who was not using the compensator, we might crash – because they would be steering by hand and I would be using the set compensator. If that happened, I would have to stop using the compensator and steer by hand, slowing me down. But if I was in front, I could rely on the compensator and not have to worry about steering. So I wanted to be in the first position so that I could use my compensator and be in control of the race”. It worked!
Assuming that the pandemic doesn’t force cancellations, he plans a busy year in 2020, going for every track distance at the Tokyo Paralympics. With all the major marathons in the fall, he sees the possibility of a world tour competing at, say, Berlin and London followed by Chicago and Boston.
Retirement is apparently not on the horizon!