Polline Wanjiku Njeru wins the Warsaw Half Marathon (© Organisers)
There was a double Kenyan victory at the 13th edition of the PZU Warsaw Half Marathon as Ezrah Sang and Pauline Njeru won in 1:01:37 and 1:10:02 respectively at the IAAF Bronze Label road race on Sunday (25).
Sang, one of the pre-race favourites, attacked three kilometres from the finish to run away from Kassa Mekashaw of Ethiopia, with Hillary Maiyo, a regular on Polish roads, taking third place.
Returning to Warsaw after four years, course record-holder Njeru became the first repeat winner of the women’s contest in the history of the race. After having lost all her rivals just after the halfway point, she was never in danger of being caught. Birhan Mihretu and Marege Hayelom, both of Ethiopia, followed her home in second and third.
On a brisk sunny morning, with temperature at the start at 3C, the field started the race at an equally brisk pace. After an opening five kilometres run in 14:38 and the 10 kilometre point reached in 29:14, the leading pack was quickly reduced, with only African runners remaining at the front. One early surprise was that the course record-holder Victor Kipchirchir was dropped early and withdrew less than 10 kilometres into the race.
Shortly after halfway, a four-man leading group emerged at the front, split evenly between Kenya, represented by Ezrah Sang and Hillary Maiyo, and Ethiopia, with Masresha Bire and Kassa Mekashaw.
That group was still together at 15 kilometres with 44:01, but just beyond that point, Sang and Mekashaw attacked. Bire was immediately dropped. Maiyo attempted to rejoin the leaders, but in the end had to yield as well.
The race was decided some two kilometres later, when the Kenyan decided to make a decisive move. Mekashaw had no response. Sang continued moving away until the finish and broke the tape after 1:01:37, scoring a victory in his first ever outing in Poland.
Mekashaw was the first to follow him 15 seconds later, and Maiyo was a comfortable third with 1:02:18. The Kenyan, a winner of many past races in Poland, finally made the podium in Warsaw after finishing fifth and fourth in the previous two editions.
In a close battle for the next three places, El Hassan Oubaddi of Morocco, second last week in Gdynia, came through for fourth in 1:02:52. Abel Rop of Kenya followed in 1:02:57, just one second ahead of Bire, who paid a price for staying with the leading group until later stages of the race.
Blazej Brzezinski, winner of the Warsaw Marathon last year, was the top Polish runner in 10th place with 1:05:17.
The women's race also started fast. By the time the runners reached five kilometres in 16:14, only five athletes were left in the front: Birhan Mihretu and Marege Hayelom of Ethiopia, as well as Pauline Njeru, Christine Oigo and Lilian Jelagat of Kenya.
Three more kilometres into the race, that small group was reduced to just two. Njeru and Mihretu continued at much the same pace as before, with 32:29 the split at 10 kilometres, but none of the others could keep up. Jelagat, third at that point, was already 10 seconds behind, with Oigo in fourth a further eight seconds back.
Just a few minutes later, Njeru started to pull away. The gap between her and Mihretu started growing, slowly but steadily. At 15 kilometres, with 49:16, the Kenyan was already eight seconds ahead of the Ethiopian. Meanwhile, some way back, Hayelom was fighting her way through the field and overtook the other Kenyans to move into third.
On course for a possible Polish all-comers’ record for much of the race, Njeru slowed down somewhat in the latter stages, but her advantage continued to grow.
She broke the tape in 1:10:01, the second-fastest time in the 13-year history of the race, behind only her own 1:09:06 from 2014. Mihretu followed in 1:10:26 and Hayelom, in her half marathon debut, took third in 1:10:52.
Kenyan athletes filled the next three positions as Jelagat took fourth in 1:11:03, Joyce Kiplimo, after running behind the leading group early in the race, came through for fifth in 1:11:29 and Oigo, winner in Gdynia the previous weekend, finished sixth in 1:11:43.
There was then a big gap down to Anna Gosk in seventh place. Gosk could nonetheless be pleased with her 1:14:49, a personal best by more than minutes making her the top Polish finisher.
Pawel Jackowski for the IAAF