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Event report: Women's Marathon

This was hot. In conditions which would make a casual Sunday morning stroll feel like hard work in a hot shower, Catherine Ndereba regained the World title she had won in 2003 in the most closely contested women’s race over the classic distance in the 24-year history of the IAAF World Championships.

For several minutes after she had crossed the finishing line in the Nagai Stadium, Ndereba crouched on her hands and knees on the trackside, oblivious to the other runners finishing or the camermen hovering around her. For she was offering up a prayer of thanks.
“It was the toughest marathon of my career,” said four-time Boston Marathon-winner. “It was so hot. It was very tough.”

The role in this epic race of the host nation’s Reiko Tosa, herself a past medal-winner at the Worlds, cannot be underestimated, the 31-year-old delivering, at last, Japan’s one and only individual medal of the week, a bronze rescued with a display of immense courage and grit from what appeared to be a lost cause less than 5km from the finish.

In broiling conditions, with the mercury rising above 30 degrees, Ndereba outlasted, just, China’s forceful Zhou Chunxiu – the world’s fastest this year – runing 5min 30sec per mile pace at the end to break away in the final 2km to come home in 2hr 30min 37sec, with Zhou 8sec further back and Tosa third in 2:30:55, as eight women finished within two minutes of the winner.

Ndereba, with Rita Jeptoo in 7th and Edith Masai 8th, led Kenya to their second successive victory in the World Cup, ahead of China and Japan. Determined by combined running times, a demonstration of the competitiveness of this race was that none of the nine scorers in the three teams finished lower than 14th.

Clearly, the closeness of the finish owed something to the fact that this was also the slowest winning time in the history of the championships – nearly 10min outside the championship record set in the thrilling duel between Ndereba and Paula Radcliffe two years ago.

But then, Helsinki’s cool slate-grey skies had offered ideal conditions for distance running. Here, even with a 7am start time, the heat was intense. You could sense the panic among leading runners when, for instance, Jeptoo missed her drink at 35km, stopped and went back for the bottle. Fluid intake was essential; drink too little and the cost could be high.

Experienced, well-trained marathon runners were left prostate on the roadside, unable to cope with the fierce sun’s grilling.

Whatever the race may have lacked in pace, it more than made up for in drama.

The runners’ early caution was therefore well judged, as the leaders passed successive 5km marks in 18:27, 17:56, 18:03 and 18:08, and 27 athletes were knotted tightly together as they reached the halfway point in 1:16:33, with a lot of hard running still to come.

Tosa had been prominent throughout the early miles, with her team mates Yumiko Hara and Yasuko Hashimoto, the Russian record-holder Galina Bogomolova, Zhou and her team mate Zhu Xialolin, Britain’s Tokyo-based Mara Yamauchi, and Lidia Simon, of Romania. But Ndereba, as is her racing custom, hung back, a stride or two off the leading group, watching every move, but being involved in none of them. She was waiting for her moment, said one wag in the press box, like an African lion eyeing its prey.

As the temperatures rose, so the pace dropped, the 5km between 20 and 25km covered in 18:20 (1:30:50) as the runners approached Osaka Castle, and the stiffest climb on the course.

As is customary in Japanese marathons, the course was basically out and back, with the one diversion through the castle park, taking the 67-runner field on a grand tour through Osaka, a city of rivers, inlets and 808 bridges, the latticework of six-lane flyovers between modern steel and glass skyscrapers giving the city the futuristic feel of the set from the movie Blade Runner.

It was as the leaders left the park to head back to Nagai that Yamamuchi seemed to take on the pace, and the group started, at last, to split and fracture. Nina Rillstone, the tall slender New Zealander who had been prominent, was among those discarded as Tosa, Jeptoo and Zhou ran four-abreast with the Briton. The 5km section from 25km to 30km (reached in 1:48:30) was covered 36sec quicker than the previous 5km. The pedal was being put to the metal, and as Yamauchi lost contact, only eight were left in the hunt: three Kenyans, Simon of Romania, two Chinese and Tosa and Kiyoko Shimahara, the third-placer in last year’s Osaka city marathon.

It was Jeptoo and Tosa who led the bunch, in four pairs in line astern, into as the 5km to 35km (reached in 2:06:11) was covered in a lung-searing 17:41. The next 5km was the quickest of the race, 17:26 (40km: 2:23:37), and it told.

Then there were four, and for a while it looked as if Osaka’s World Championships might be remembered for Japan winning no individual medals at all, as Ndereba and Zhou embarked in a heavyweight battle, accompanied a step or so behind by Zhu, a sub-2:24 performer. Were the hosts’ biggest hope of medal success about to be eclipsed by their rivals from across the Sea of Japan?

Tosa, silver medallist in 2001 when outrun only in the last 200m, was enduring agonies again, her face contorted with pain. Yet however hard she tried, however loudly she was urged by the big crowds out on the course, she could not keep close to Zhu.

Around 5,000 people, mostly Japanese, were inside the stadium to witness the finish, watching the race on the big screens, and their dismay was palpable.
And then Tosa rallied. Improbably, she passed her Chinese rival with little more than 1km to race. For a moment, it seemed she was even closing on the front two. “I was able to come through because of the cherring of the crowds,” she said. “I was not going to give up."
Ahead, Ndereba had made a decisive surge for home, yet she was not certain it was enough. Time and again, the Kenyan afforded herself an edgy glance over her shoulder, signalling concern that Zhou, the winner of the London Marathon in April in a world-leading 2:19:51, might yet have some last reserves of energy to trump her before the finish.

Ndereba was not to know, but Zhou had injured her foot in training a week before coming to Osaka, and now she was suffering pain as well as severe fatigue. “That was one of the reasons I could not stick with Ndereba,” Zhou said. “The other is the weather here. And Catherine was very strong today.”

Even when running down the finishing straight, Ndereba could not stop herself looking, the 35-year-old anxious not to get another silver to go with her second-place medals from Helsinki and the Athens Olympics. “Some people said after I did not win in Athens or Helsinki that Catherine is finished,” the champion said, with a hint of relish. “But I showed that with the help of god that I can win again.”

Osaka 20-07 News Team/sd