An excited Mo Farah ahead of the 2014 London Marathon (© Getty Images)
It’s been a week of reflection and prediction in the build-up to the 2014 Virgin Money London Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, which takes place on Sunday (13).
The traditionally stellar fields of proven stars have been supplemented by a pair of intriguing debutants, and the most prestigious pacemaker ever to set off from south east London.
Having, yet again, put together two elite line-ups to match any in the history of marathon racing, the organisers have thrown in extra spice for the British public in the shape of marathon neophyte Mo Farah, and added intrigue for global track fans with the presence of another 26.2-mile first-timer, Tirunesh Dibaba.
To cap it off they’ve lured Haile Gebrselassie to run as a pacemaker for the leading men; his task to take them through to 30km on world record schedule before stepping aside to let the drama to unfold.
And what drama there could be.
Gebrselassie himself has called this year’s pair of races “the best ever”, claiming he agreed to do the pacing duties merely so he could have a role in such a “special” event.
“I’ve never seen such big names in one race,” said the former world record holder this week.
“Both the men’s and women’s are fantastic. I’m just happy to be part of it. At least now I can be there at the start of the race.”
The runners who’ll follow in his famous footsteps include four of the fastest 10 men in history, and seven from the all-time top 20, not counting the great man himself.
Three in the line-up have run the distance in under 2:04, and no fewer than seven have sub-2:05 times to their name.
Kebede and Kipsang confident
Among the athletes who’ll be on his heels on Sunday morning are world record holder Wilson Kipsang, World and Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich, defending London champion Tsegaye Kebede, and London course record holder Emmanuel Mutai, not to mention the two-times New York Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai, and a batch of swift young Ethiopians led by their latest rising star Tsegaye Mekonnen.
Both Kebede and Kipsang have returned to London bouncing with confidence: Kebede after winning in such dramatic fashion 12 months ago, when he fought back from fifth place and a minute down at 35km to reclaim the title he’d taken three years before; Kipsang after breaking Patrick Makau’s world record at the Berlin Marathon last September.
The diminutive and ever-smiling Kebede went on to finish fourth at the IAAF World Championships last summer and then second in New York last November, bagging the lucrative World Marathon Majors prize in the process, and is now aiming to become only the fourth man to win the London title three times.
“Last year was amazing for me. I couldn’t believe it. After running in New York I have focused only on the London Marathon. I am in good shape and I will win again,” announced Kebede boldly.
Kipsang is in similar mood. The Kenyan was disappointed to finish fifth in 2013 when he faded in the closing stages, having dominated in 2012 when he missed Mutai’s course record by just four seconds.
Now, he perches proudly at the top of the tree as the world record holder. He is the only man with two sub-2:04 times, two of the three quickest times ever, and four runs under 2:05.
“I sit here today as the marathon world record holder so I feel full of confidence compared to last year,” he said on Thursday.
“We have a more experienced pacemaker in Haile this year. He will take us through halfway in 61:45. It won’t be easy, but I believe it’s possible to set another world record.”
As for the Mutai namesakes, who are unrelated, they both have something to prove in London: Emmanuel because he just missed out last year when he was overhauled by Kebede in the last half-mile, and Geoffrey because he dropped out on his London debut.
Emmanuel went on to join the exclusive sub-2:04 club when he was second in Chicago last October, while Geoffrey, of course, ran the quickest marathon ever seen in Boston in 2011, although it was not on a world record-eligible course.
Ethiopia’s emerging stars
Kebede leads an equally strong Ethiopian contingent that includes three young marathon runners who have all burst on to the scene in the last few years, plus the 2011 World Championships 10,000m gold medallist Ibrahim Jeilan who is making his debut.
The young guns include the 2012 Dubai Marathon champion, Ayele Abshero, and the 2011 World Championships bronze medallist, Feyisa Lilesa, who finished third and fourth respectively last year; while youngest of all is the 18-year-old Mekonnen, who set a world junior best for the distance on his debut in Dubai this January.
As for Kiprotich, he returns to the British capital after adding the World title in Moscow last August to his London 2012 Olympic Games crown.
Now a proven championship racer, the Ugandan was only 12th in New York last November and is still looking to make his mark in a big city event.
Quite what mark Mo Farah will make on his marathon debut has been the subject of much media debate over the last few days.
Great Britain’s double Olympic and world track champion is doing his best to play down expectations, officially setting his sights on Steve Jones’s long-standing British record of 2:07:13 which has survived for more than 28 years.
The women’s race is almost as strong with the 2012 Olympic champion Tiki Gelana, the double world champion Edna Kiplagat, and the twice Berlin champion and newly-minted world half marathon record holder Florence Kiplagat among defending champion Priscah Jeptoo’s main opponents.
No jitters for Jeptoo
Like Kebede, Jeptoo returns for her title defence full of confidence after a near-perfect year in 2013.
The 2012 Olympic silver medallist beat Dibaba to win the Great North Run in September, and then added the New York Marathon title two months later to secure half a million dollars as 2012-13 World Marathon Majors champion.
The Kenyan claims her focus is her own personal best of 2:20:14, but there’s been much talk of a threat to Paula Radcliffe’s women-only world record of 2:17:42 if wind and will power are blowing the women’s way.
One athlete who could get close on her day is Gelana, the fastest woman in the field with her best of 2:18:58.
The Ethiopian, who beat Jeptoo to the Olympic title in pouring rain at London 2012, claims to be in better shape than ever and has added motivation to do well this year following her collision with a wheelchair racer 12 months ago.
Gelana ended up sprawling, eventually finished 16th, with bruises to body and spirit, and a few months later dropped out of the World Championships marathon with a knee injury.
“The incident last year hurt me, it hurt my pride as well as physically,” said Gelana. “It has given me a lot of motivation to win this time, to show that I am still a good competitor. I’m prepared to run under 2:20 if I have to.”
The two Kiplagats also have a point to prove in London.
Edna has been runner-up here for the last two years, and was third in 2011, while Florence has yet to produce her best after finishing fourth and sixth on her two appearances so far.
Two other Ethiopians are also likely to be among the leading group – Aberu Kebede, who has twice won the Berlin Marathon, and Feysa Tadese, who won the Shanghai Marathon in 2012 and the Paris Marathon last April.
The experienced marathon runners will all keep a wary eye on another Ethiopian, as Dibaba steps up to the classic distance after a glittering career on the track.
Like Farah, Dibaba will carry a heavy burden of expectation as she sets off for her first marathon foray. She was due to make her debut in London last year but withdrew with a shin injury just a month out.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF