Sunday 4 October 2020 was a race day like never before. The great London Marathon, founded in 1981, staged a Covid-friendly version without the usual heaving crowds. The elite-only field raced 19.6 laps of a 2.15km loop around St James Park. Every person within the event grounds had passed a Covid-19 test. This racing format brought about new tactics and a forced rethink of standard marathon planning for each of the talented runners in both the men’s and women’s races. In addition to London’s finest wind and rain, no travelling athlete had their coach or support crew with them. The 40th London Marathon threw down a brand-new set of challenges.
In the women’s race, Brigid Kosgei asserted her unbreakable dominance over the marathon distance with a 2:18:58 win. She now has back-to-back victories at both London and Chicago marathons. Three minutes after Kosgei’s win, America’s Sara Hall had everyone on their seats with a gutsy behind-charge to pass Ruth Chepngetich in the finish chute. Hall and Chepngetich finished in 2:22:01 and 2:22:05 respectively.
Eliud Kipchoge, who has never come further back in a marathon field than second, and that had only happened once, gracefully accepted 8th place after some ear pressure threw him off his game at around the 30km mark. This after a straight win of 10 consecutive marathons and his successful sub-2-hour marathon event. The men’s lead pack of 5 became 3 with one lap to go, and then an all out sprint finish between Ethiopian, Shura Kitata, and Kenyan, Vincent Kipchumba, played out in eerie silence, as it would have had a crowd whipped up in a proper frenzy on any other occasion. Kitata took it in 2:05:41.
South African supporters followed eagerly, as two favourites battled it out with the best in the world.
Port Elizabeth’s Alex Riddle sums up the great Saffer performances:
“For those who watched the London Marathon, I want to give some context to the great performances by two South Africans. Conditions didn’t look too bad on TV but the wind was blowing fairly strong, it was cold and there was plenty of rain about. Any athlete will tell you that one of their worst nightmares is running in wet shoes. We saw two great races and a few awesome tussles, but how did the runners perform compared to their personal bests? Not a single personal best from one of the top ten male runners and on average 2 min 44 slower than their best.
Melikhaya Frans was on an absolute storming run, punching in a weight division far higher than he is accustomed to and although he faltered the final 5km, Frans still improved his best time by just over a minute in his first international marathon to 2:13:50. Therein lies another point, having coached or managed dozens of runners who raced overseas it is rare to improve on your best first time out and it is harder for a novice traveling without his coach and being in the race bubble which means it is hard to relax. On the women’s side the top ten were on average 2 min 21 secs slower than their personal bests even though 4 women improved marginally. One of those who improved was Gerda Steyn who narrowly missed the SA record improving from 2:27:48 to 2:26:51. I raise my hat to these two runners and congratulate their coaches Mike Mbambani and Nick Bester on preparing your athletes for the biggest marathon of the year.”
We salute these fine athletes and congratulate them on flying the South African flag as consummate professionals. We know that there is more to come from both, and we can’t wait to see it all unfold.
Words: Kim Stephens