It has been a sombre week of sadness and solidarity ahead of start of the 2013 Virgin London Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, this coming Sunday.
Having proudly, and justifiably, proclaimed their elite men’s field as ‘the greatest ever assembled’, after the appalling events in Boston on Monday, the race organisers’ attentions have switched from thinking about fast times and fierce competition to gestures of support for the victims, families and friends in the marathon-running community across the Atlantic.
Runners in Sunday’s race are being encouraged to wear black ribbons as a mark of remembrance, and there’ll be a 30-second silence before the start. The London Marathon has also pledged to donate £2 for every finisher to the One Fund Boston, which means more than $100,000 USD will go to help those most affected by the explosions.
However, when former London Marathon race director and 10000m World record holder David Bedford sounds the famous claxon to get more than 35,000 on their way on Sunday morning, there will be two races which are enticing enough to turn many minds from tragedy.
In brief, the men’s line-up includes three of the four fastest men in history, and six of the 10 quickest ever.
Even without the three-time London champion, Martin Lel, and double World champion Abel Kirui, who have both withdrawn with injuries over the last seven days, the field still contains nine men who have run 26.2 miles in under 2:06.
Among them are the gold and bronze medallists from the London 2012 Olympic Games, three World Marathon Majors champions, and winners of the 2012 marathons in Berlin, Chicago, Frankfurt and Dubai.
Makau and Kipsang lead the field
Top of the tree are the two quickest men of all time, both Kenyans: World record holder Patrick Makau, who back in London to make amends after dropping out last year, and defending champion Wilson Kipsang, the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist who’s aiming to become the first man since Lel in 2008 to retain the title.
Close behind them is their compatriot Geoffrey Mutai, the current World Marathon Majors champion who won in Berlin last September in a time only those two and Haile Gebrselassie have ever bettered.
Tipped by Bedford as the one to watch, Mutai also ran the quickest marathon ever seen in Boston in 2011, although it did not qualify as a World record because of the nature of the course.
Although only seventh last year, another Kenyan, the London course record holder, Emmanuel Mutai, should not be overlooked either.
The 2011 champion is running London for the sixth time with something to prove after missing out 12 months ago while a fifth Kenyan, the 2012 Paris champion Stanley Biwott, makes his first appearance in a World Marathon Majors raced.
As ever, the chief challenge to Kenya’s dominance will come from Ethiopians, not least, the 2010 London champion and 2008 Olympic bronze medallist, Tsegaye Kebede, who dipped under 2:05 to win in Chicago last October, and 2012 Dubai marathon winner Ayele Abshero, who clicked his personal best of 2:04:23.
They’ll be supported by Feyisa Lilesa, second behind Kebede in Chicago, and Deressa Chimsa, another sub-2:06 man at his best.
All that is without mentioning Uganda’s 2012 Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich, who is returning to the city where he made his name so dramatically eight months ago, and Great Britain’s double Olympic champion on the track Mo Farah, who has been garnering mountains of media attention because of his decision to run to half way with the leaders as preparation for a full marathon debut in 2014.
Gelana and Jeptoo reprise Olympic rivallry
Meanwhile, the women’s race is almost as strong, featuring the 2012 Olympic gold and silver medallists, Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana and Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo, as well as Kenya’s 2011 World champion, Edna Kiplagat.
The women’s field boasts of four athletes who have run quicker than 2:20 and 10 women who have gone under 2:25.
Gelana claims to be in better shape now than she was last August when she defied torrential rain and a cut elbow to take the Olympic title, while Jeptoo says she’s learned from her mistake on The Mall that day and will attack early to get the better of her Ethiopian rival.
Kiplagat, who had a disappointing Olympics, is also sounding confident again. After finishing third and second in the last two years, she’ll be hoping to complete the sequence in 2013 ahead of defending her title at the IAAF World Championships this summer.
Last year Kenyans claimed the first five places in the women’s race, led by the imperious Mary Keitany, who’s taking a year out in 2013 to have her second child.
The first three 12 months’ ago were selected for the Kenyan Olympic team, leaving Florence Kiplagat as the unlucky one to miss out after having finished fourth, so the 2011 Berlin champion will have something to prove this time.
A repeat of Kenya’s 2012 dominance seems unlikely, however, as Gelana will have support from two talented in-form compatriots: Atsede Baysa, an impressive winner in Chicago last October, and Meselech Melkamu, whose debut win in Frankfurt a few weeks later was even more eye-catching.
There will also be a strong Japanese presence led by Yoko Shibui, the second quickest in the line-up behind Gelana with a best of 2:19:41, although that dates back to Berlin in 2004.
Shibui is not in that kind of shape these days and her target will be qualifying for Japan’s team for Moscow.
Her compatriot Yukiko Akaba seems more likely to appear among the Kenyans and Ethiopians at the front of the pack. She’s finished fifth and sixth here in recent years and could have an outside shot at the podium if some of the bigger favourites falter.
The European challenge is led by Portugal’s Jessica Augusto who’s been eighth in both of the last two years, while Kenya’s Joyce Chepkirui will be an intriguing debutante after running as a pacemaker 12 months ago.
Chepkirui, the 2012 African cross country champion, is a cousin of Geoffrey Mutai, so it’s just possible London could witness a family affair on The Mall this Sunday.
After a week in which the marathon family has been forced to pull together, it would sound a fitting note.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF