The moments that mattered
Our recap of the 2018 World Marathon Majors
2018 was a remarkable year for the marathon. Not only for the setting of the much anticipated men's world record, but for some amazing scenes, especially on the women’s side. There’s a renewed energy in women’s marathoning, especially after Shalane Flanagan won NYC in 2017 and Des followed up with her run in Boston this year.
As we move into 2019 it’s a new dawn on the men’s side. Any pressure on the great Eliud Kipchoge has now been broken courtesy of his incredible performance in Berlin. Will we see more progression from Mo Farah, or perhaps Suguru Osako? The Japanese will surely be building towards Tokyo 2020. Didn’t catch each of the 6 majors live in 2018? Forget the replays - our recap of the moments that mattered is right here.
TOKYO - 25.02.2018
The youngest race of the WMM series, a sprawling ultra-modern metropolis plays host to a fast course. With over 200,000 applicants each year, Tokyo is one of the fastest selling mass participation sporting events in the world. The nationalistic sporting drive of the Japanese population was embodied by Yuta Shitara in the 2018 race, as financial and historical incentives aligned to create multiple races within the elite race.
Global race previews highlighted the hotly anticipated appearance of Wilson Kipsang, former world record holder and defending champion. Kipsang’s 2017 performance reminded many why the 35-year old is a force to be reckoned with, holding world record pace through 30km. A performance punctuated by the 2:03:58 winning time, an Asian all-comers record that marked Kipsang as the first man with four sub-2:04 marathons to his name.
With nine sub-2:08 performers listed, seven-time WMM podium finisher Dickson Chumba claimed his first major win since Chicago 2015, as Kipsang dropped out after 15-kilometres, citing stomach issues. Chumba was calculated in his approach, gradually wearing down contenders Feyisa Lelisa, Amos Kipruto and Gideon Kipketer from the 32-kilometre mark, accentuated by a final push with 5-kilometres remaining, shedding Kipruto and Kipketer. Chumba was visibly thrilled post-race, clocking 2:05:30 for his second victory in Tokyo, having first won in 2014.
Less than a minute behind Chumba, a quiet storm of marathoning excellence was building to its long-awaited crescendo, as Yuta Shitara worked like a man possessed, becoming more aware of the precipice he stood upon in Japanese athletic history as each kilometre passed. Raucous applause met the 26-year old in the finishing straight, as Shitara’s finishing time of 2:06:11 broke the 16-year old national record, earning Shitara 100-million-yen ($1.2m AUD) in the process, a bonus set forth by the Japanese Corporate Track and Field Federation’s “Project Exceed”.
The race marked a monumental shift forward in Japanese marathoning, as Hiroto Inoue became the 5th Japanese man to break 2:07 in 2:06:54 for 5th.
Four more Japanese men broke 2:09, with another three under 2:10, indicative of the ground swell in marathon success as Tokyo 2020 edges closer.
Shitara’s run was indicative of the trademark bravery Japanese distance athletes have displayed across numerous distances. A new national record marked an alignment of perception and reality - an audacious debut in 2017 saw him pass through halfway in 61:55, a mere seven seconds shy of his half marathon personal best at the time. Whilst Shitara faded during his debut in Tokyo in 2017 to 2:09:17, the force with which Japanese marathoning is improving on the global stage suggests the national team will be a daunting presence on the Olympic marathon course.
BOSTON - 16.04.2018
IMAGES: RILEY WOLFF AND DAVID JAEWON OH
The bus ride to Hopkinton marks the traditional start to a Boston Marathon morning, with 2018’s competitors greeted by the harshest conditions witnessed in the history of the event. A WMM start line isn’t typically lined by jackets, gloves, beanies and long tights, but race day temperatures of 4°C mixed with 60km/h winds and 130mm of driving rain combined for a major change to WMM tactical proceedings.
Boston errs away from the typical major marathon course, with the route from Hopkinton to Copley Square containing climbs such as Heartbreak Hill, mixed with enough net elevation drop to be deemed ineligible for record performances (including the point to point course layout). This series of course and weather-based challenges tend to encourage unconventional tactical risks, with fans treated to one of the boldest race approaches in recent years. Yuki Kawauchi, a name familiar to lovers of the elite marathon scene, is likely less familiar to the mainstream media. Kawauchi defies almost every element of major marathon logic. If one were to build a marathon world-beater from scratch, they wouldn’t work a full time job, they wouldn’t complete many runs to and from their office with a backpack, nor would they be 29:02 10,000m runners. Adding to Kawauchi’s bag of quirks, he races at least weekly, the complete opposite of many East African athletes who prefer to target three to four races a year.
Kawauchi’s race schedule is truly mind-boggling, his 2017 included a 9th place finish at the IAAF World Championships, 12 marathons, 14 half-marathons and a 50km ultra, “tuning up” for the August 6th World Championships with a 3rd place 2:09:18 finish in the Gold Coast Marathon on July 2nd.
Suffice to say, when Kawauchi clipped out a 4:37 opening mile, a field including Galen Rupp, Tamirat Tola, and defending champion Geoffrey Kirui appeared unconcerned by the diminutive Japanese athlete careering off into the distance. Whilst the field did sidle up alongside Kawauchi by the fourth mile, the government clerk was relentless in applying determined surges in the main pack. As Kirui made a seemingly decisive move following 28-kilometres as the notorious Newton Hills approached, Kawauchi’s second group of competitors slimmed, with 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Rupp calling it a day and walking off the side of the course, indicative of the driving rain and freezing temperatures.
The women’s side of the race were experiencing similar casualties, with nine female elite field athletes marked as “did not finish” following the race, the jacket-clad Desi Linden was quietly willing her way through a field of bewildered, yet highly-credentialed East African athletes. With early proceedings unremarkable, Ethiopian Mamitu Daska led through halfway in 79:41, a pace completely foreign to a group of largely sub-2:24 women.
The likes of 2017 New York marathon champion Shalane Flanagan were focused on survival first and competition second.
With a break to a portable toilet around 19-kilometres, Flanagan later described herself as ‘completely delirious’, with her teeth chattering as early as 9-kilometres.
World class marathon’s are decided within a split second decision involving precise management of pace. This concept was illustrated through 40 kilometres of the 2018 Boston Marathon; concern was etched across Geoffrey Kirui’s face, telling the tale of a move made slightly too soon. As quickly as Kirui faded, Kawauchi burst into the frame, passing Kirui with such pace, a post-race interview with the government clerk noted that he wasn’t aware who he had passed, or if he was leading, until he was directed into the right-side finishing chute – reserved for victorious athletes and camera crews.
Linden and Kenya’s Gladys Chesir converged upon Daska at the 35-kilometre mark, in scenes entirely unfamiliar to a WMM, Linden’s decisive move was marked by a 5-kilometre section of 18:51. Her final winning time of 2:39:54 was the slowest women’s winning time since 1978, but her winning margin of 4:10 stood as the largest since 1993. Linden ultimately dealt best with conditions that reduced some of the world’s best to 4-minute kilometre pace finishing splits, as the top-10 women’s board was littered with unsponsored athletes, such as Sarah Sellers, a full-time nurse in Arizona, running 2:44:04 to place 2nd, well ahead of defending Boston champion and 2-time world champion Edna Kiplagat (8th, 2:47:14).
LONDON - 22.04.2018
IMAGES: Ollie Trenchard
Each year the marathon faithful are spoilt by the work of David Bedford and Hugh Brasher. Bedford coordinates the elite field, whilst Brasher acts as race director, spending astronomical amounts of money to draw together the greats of marathon racing (Ed: Here's a great clip of Bedford and Eliud Kipchoge addressing Oxford - worth a look).
2018 was described by Brasher as ‘mouth-watering’, a claim backed in full by the reveal of a men’s field containing Eliud Kipchoge, Kenenisa Bekele and Mo Farah, a stunning trio with eight Olympic, and 12 World Championship titles under their belts. A masterful display of contractual negotiating placed Kipchoge’s near mythical marathoning talents against two of the track’s most destructive title winners, immediately sending message boards into a collective frenzy.
The women’s field hit a little closer to home, as Paula Radcliffe’s 2003 2:15:25 world record was declaratively targeted by pre-race favourite, three-time London Marathon champion Mary Keitany. The legitimacy of the attempt was cemented further by the race organisers willingness to employ male pacemakers for the first time since Radcliffe’s famous 2003 run. The current women-only world record holder at 2:17:01, much of the pre-race hype centered upon the duel between Keitany, 5000m World Record holder Tirunesh Dibaba (2:17:56) and 2017 marathon World Champion Rose Chelimo (2:22:51).
Whilst the London Marathon course has produced eight marathon world record performances, there is a notoriously deceptive 30 metre drop in course elevation across the first 5-kilometres. Many a world record attempt has been instantly ruined in what is often interpreted as mere excitability amongst the elite groups. In both men’s and women’s races, the approach to Woolwich was irresponsibly fast, with the men splitting 13:48 (1:56:26 pace, including a 4:22 opening mile) as the women’s race abandoned all mathematics in splitting 15:46 (2:13:04 pace). Such disregard for the art of pacemaking created an inherently fascinating ticking time-bomb of sorts, as spectators looked for the signs of the first big name to crumble.
The following 5-kilometre segments of the race for both men and women remained inside world-record pace, suggesting a race of attrition would soon identify those in tremendous shape, and those with admirable ambitions.
In both men’s and women’s races, the approach to Woolwich was irresponsibly fast, with the men splitting 13:48 (1:56:26 pace, including a 4:22 opening mile) as the women’s race abandoned all mathematics in splitting 15:46 (2:13:04 pace).
Shura Kitata entered London with respectable wins in Rome (2:07:28) and Frankfurt (2:05:50), yet it was his presence following 30-kilometres that intrigued many. Kipchoge allowed the pace to wane gradually, and with Kitata stuck to his side the theatrical appeal built steadily. Who was the young man who had tagged along with Kipchoge’s dispatching of Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and Abel Kirui?
Was Kipchoge feeling after-effects of history’s fastest opening halfway split (1:01:03), or was he biding his time on a warm day, steadying himself for a final assault?
The 38th-kilometre proved decisive, as Kipchoge found separation from the training partner of Lelisa Desisa and Tamirat Tola, notching his ninth consecutive marathon victory.
The women’s field was led through halfway by Mary Keitany, splitting 1:07:16 in a compelling display of aggression. With Tirunesh Dibaba suffering from early pace forays, falling off the lead group by 16-kilometres and eventually withdrawing at 35-kilometres, the turning point of the race came shortly after halfway.
The marathon provides an entertainment spectacle rarely witnessed on the track, with the event duration providing a prolonged window into the depths of an athletes resolve. The 24-kilometer mark identified a significant slip away from world record pace (3:12/km), as Keitany’s legs began to question her earlier decisions, slowing to 3:29-kilometre pace.
A four-time world champion in her own right, Vivian Cheruiyot had been noted, but not discussed in depth pre-race. However, spotting herself 30-seconds at most 5-kilometre splits throughout the race, a more conservative pacing strategy loomed large as Keitany’s pace continued to wane. At 30-kilometres Cheruiyot was 1:16 in arrears, but by 35-kilometres it looked like she would pass Keitany with little hesitation.
Ultimately Cheruiyot obliterated her personal best, taking victory in 2:18:31 and a tidy six-figure paycheck.
BERLIN - 16.09.2018
IMAGES: Jason Suarez, Zach Hetrick, Pim Rinkes
As detailed in our post-race feature, Berlin changed the landscape of men’s marathoning permanently. Eliud Kipchoge obliterated Dennis Kimetto’s 2014 2:02:57 world record, venturing into territory previously believed unfathomable in race-legal conditions.
2:01:39 - a colossal move forward in the critical thinking that surrounds what is truly possible over the course of 42.195km.
A new line of questioning was raised following Berlin - what is left for Eliud Kipchoge to accomplish? When one becomes the quantitative master of distance through acquisition of the fastest time ever, debates turn to race-based achievements, as an elusive double-Olympic crown beckons. Should Kipchoge return to defend his Olympic marathon crown in Tokyo, victory would place his name alongside the godfather of East-African distance running, Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila (1960, 1964), the only man to win two Olympic marathon titles*.
*(East Germany’s Waldemar Cierpinski won in 1976 & 1980, but was alleged to be heavily involved with the state sponsored doping program, with the program’s existence confirmed in 2008 by the IOC, the uncovered document ‘State Plan 14:25’ identified Cierpinski by name as a program participant).
Briefly lost in the understandable Kipchoge-fuelled media activity - the fourth fastest women’s marathon ever - Gladys Cherono. (Ed - also lost in our imagery from the race. We briefed our photogs to concentrate on what we thought would be a special race from Kipchoge).
The 2017 and 2015 winner of the event, Cherono’s third win in 2018 proved her fastest, wiping over a minute off her personal best to break the 13-year old course record by 61 seconds in 2:18:11.
With eight women toeing the line with personal bests under 2:25:00, Cherono didn’t start as favourite, as much of the pre-race coverage focused on Tirunesh Dibaba. Looking to return to her 2017 Chicago winning ways (1st, 2:18:31), Dibaba was looking to put her DNF performance at the London marathon behind her in Berlin.
Dibaba had revised her London plan, citing a negative split would bring her far closer to a world record performance in Berlin.
Demonstrative of the standard of women’s marathoning globally, Dibaba’s plan was largely effective - until Cherono took off at 25-kilometres. The financial incentivisation of the road running world has made incidents of this nature somewhat regular, whilst a pre-race favourite may have a stellar race resume, the margins for error are miniscule. Whilst surrounded by similarly successful athletes, the closing stages of a major marathon often see multiple athletes within the all-time top 10 to 20 rankings stride for stride.
Dibaba’s openly stated intentions ultimately benefited the entire field, as the 2018 race marked the first time three women had broken 2:19:00 in the same race, with Ethiopian 24-year old Ruti Aga second (2:18:34) and Tirunesh Dibaba third (2:18:55).
CHICAGO - 07.10.2018
IMAGES: RYAN STERNER AND STEPHEN KERSH
The windy city played host to two distinctively local protagonists, as the world waited with great interest for Olympic triathlon champion Gwen Jorgensen’s first ‘serious’ attempt at the marathon.
Beside the Jorgensen focus, media outlets latched on with great fervour to the return of defending champion Galen Rupp. One of the United States’ most successful distance runners in recent memory, the two-time Olympic medalist returned to Chicago, the home of his first major marathon victory.
Chicago, whilst a popular venue for many of the United State’s best, was not a race sympathetic to the national cause, as race organisers assembled terrifyingly strong international fields.
Winners of Tokyo, Rotterdam, Dubai, Prague, Paris and the Boston marathon were in attendance, including 2017 World Champion Geoffrey Kirui, former Chicago champion and two-time World Champion Abel Kirui and 2:04:15 Ethiopian Birhanu Legese.
A start-line brimming with talent was further bolstered by an announcement with a twist. Major marathons are decisively split between paced and non-paced, signifying races such as Berlin as time trial courses, whereas attending Boston is a race against the course features.
Chicago has flipped between paced and non-paced over recent years, benefitting tactically brilliant racers such as Abel Kirui. The addition of Mo Farah to the field was coupled with the confirmation that pacers would be employed, as Rupp and Farah had notified race directors of their desire to target national records.
The intrigue surrounding Rupp and Farah was born long ago, as both athletes developed reputations as well-funded laboratory projects of coach Alberto Salazar’s unlimited resources. Their Nike Oregon Project (NOP) was not one without controversy, as the scrutiny of United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and famed Lance Armstrong prosecutor Travis Tygart was firmly affixed on their coach Alberto Salazar for his experimentation with the amino acid L-carnitine (Ed: It’s not for us to comment on allegations, but to bring you up to speed - here’s Shalane Flanagan commenting on it in 2017).
Whilst neither athlete was ever charged by USADA, Farah developed a devastating record against Rupp. Leading 21-1 barring an indoor mile race in which Farah fell on the first lap, the pair grew apart during 2015-2017 prior to Farah’s departure, as it became clear that Farah spent extended periods of time training away from the NOP stable.
Chicago marked the first proper face-off between the pair over the marathon distance, with large portions of the pre-race press conference querying the relationship between the pair, with both athletes filling space with nervous laughter and confirmations of continued communication since Farah’s return to the UK to train under Gary Lough (husband and coach of Paula Radcliffe).
Whilst neither athlete was ever charged by USADA, Farah developed a devastating record against Rupp.
Leading 21-1 barring an indoor mile race in which Farah fell on the first lap, the pair grew apart during 2015-2017 prior to Farah’s departure, as it became clear that Farah spent extended periods of time training away from the NOP stable.
Farah showed signs of his former track greatness throughout the race, employing superior pace judgement, at times allowing small gaps to appear as the pace surged in front of him. The race began in earnest after 35-kilometres, as Rupp faltered under the steadily increasing pace and Farah launched his first assault on race leader Geoffrey Kirui - surging repeatedly to wind the pace down from 2:58/km to 2:50/km pace over the final 6-kilometres.
The injection of pace at such a late stage was partly due to the tentative first half of 1:03:06, yet Farah’s move pushed Kirui and Suguru Osako into no-man’s land, leaving 2:04:00 Dubai winner Mosinet Gerenew with a substantial problem - handling Mo Farah.
Gerenew fought doggedly to keep on Farah’s heels as the final hills of Chicago approached, however with 900 metres remaining, Farah’s head dipped, and the trademark exaggerated arm-carriage appeared, striding away to a 2:05:11 European record. Gerenew’s cadence slowed visibly, as a final glance ahead to Farah confirmed the worst, the 10th fastest marathoner in history was being pulled apart with surgical precision.
The women’s race saw Brigid Kosgei obliterate the field in 2:18:35, gaining separation after 30-kilometres, as consecutive 5-kilometre splits from 25-kilometres of 16:32 and 15:36 contributed to a stunning winning margin of 2:43. Kosgei joined an exclusive club of nine women to have broken 2:19:00, joyfully exclaiming post race that she ran with “no struggling, no nothing” quite enjoying the rainy conditions by all accounts. Kosgei acquired her first major win, after second place finishes in Chicago (2017) and London (2018).
Notably, Jorgensen’s day ended in tears, 11th placed in a personal best of 2:36:23, teammate Shalane Flanagan was empathic in post-race interviews, whilst noting that Jorgensen might reassess her opportunities over 10,000m.
Possibly the most visibly jubilant finisher of the day was Suguru Osako of Japan - his third place 2:05:50 finish broke Yuta Shitara’s recent 2:06:11 national record revision, earning Osako 100-million Yen ($1.2m AUD) from the National Corporate Federation of Japan’s “Project Exceed”.
NEW YORK CITY - 04.11.2018
IMAGES: SCOTT RETTINO, ZACH HETRICK, JOHN JEFFERSON, KYLE MIYAMOTO, JODY BAILEY
A journey through five boroughs, the New York City Marathon presents a fascinating dilemma for the world’s best marathoners. Whilst the course records sit respectably at 2:22:31 (Margaret Okayo, 2003) and the mercurial 2:05:05 (Geoffrey Mutai, 2011), the course is not recognised as a feasible time trial with Berlin, London and Tokyo offering more controllable courses.
In the world of marathon field construction, one would’ve struggled to conceive the theatrical drama that unfolded in the second half of both men’s and women’s races. Entirely opposite tactical styles were applied by eventual winners Lelisa Desisa (2:05:59) and Mary Keitany (2:22:48).
Desisa’s distinctive moment came late in the race, about as late as one could decide to attempt to discard a gentlemen who currently represents a new frontier of marathoning. Beside Desisa, Geoffrey Kamworor had less than a mile remaining inside Central Park, making an effort to defend his 2017 crown.
Kamworor is the apprentice of the masterful Eliud Kipchoge, the apparent successor in Patrick Sang’s Kaptagat camp of world beaters, a three-time World Half Marathon champion in his own right.
Meanwhile Shura Kitata, a man who had stamped his authority on WMM series following a 2nd place finish in London (2:04:49), where he ever so briefly forced Kipchoge to gather himself, trailed seconds behind Desisa, making his own push for victory.
In the world of sports tropes, the discarding of gloves, hats or other clothing as a sign of intent is a crowd-pleaser, thus race commentators paused upon noticing Desisa had thrown his hat into the crowd and buried his head in concentration. Unleashing a furious burst, Desisa gained separation from Kamworor.
Kitata summoned a 4:31 26th mile (2:48/km pace), coming within two seconds of Desisa in 2:06:01, passing an exhausted Kamworor who managed 2:06:26 for third. Both Kitata and Kamworor’s performances would have won every prior NYC Marathon bar one.
Mary Keitany employed a slightly different tactic.
A pedestrian first half of 1:15:50 puzzled a few - in what women’s field does one decide to attempt to outkick the second fastest marathoner ever? Keitany soon appeared bored with the procession through New York City, embarking on a 1:06:58 negative split, giving marathon fans a clear lesson in what an athlete of her ability can do in a ‘tactical’ race.
Keitany was out to prove a point, dispatching the field by by 3:14, winning in 2:22:48. An outrageous display of dominance from 25-35-kilometres, as Keitany split 30:53, the first five-kilometres of which were romped through in 15:19.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the official US record for the half-marathon is held by Molly Huddle (1:07:25) who finished fourth in 2:26:44, a personal best. Kara Goucher did race to 66:57 on an aided-course, for reader perspective of how absurd Keitany’s closing half was.
Defending champion Shalane Flanagan was brave in finishing third (2:26:22), explaining the situation Keitany placed the field in once past halfway, “I don’t have the physical capability to have any answer for that.” Flanagan’s assessment was mirrored by Huddle and sixth placed Des Linden (2:27:51), Linden suggesting she didn’t have a selection of phrases free from expletives to describe Keitany’s closing power, given the Boston Marathon champion would have required a half-marathon personal best to finish as the top American, let alone challenge Keitany.
Keitany’s four NYC Marathon wins add to her bulging trophy cabinet, accompanied by two London Marathon victories - a World Record or Olympic gold medal the only accomplishments that remain for the Iten resident.
Editor's Note: You can catch all the best recaps from the world marathon majors right here on TEMPO in 2019. Subscribe to our mailing list to stay in the loop.