FRIENDS AND RIVALS: KENYAN GREATS GEAR UP FOR LONDON BATTLE
26 April 2019
To see Mary Keitany and Vivian Cheruiyot, surrounded by their families, enjoying a smile and a chat at the hotel headquarters of the Virgin Money London Marathon on Thursday was to recognise just what close friends these two great Kenyan athletes are.
Yet all that will change for a window of under two hours and 20 minutes on Sunday when the defending champion Cheruiyot and three-time winner Keitany line up as the headline acts in the finest women’s marathon field ever assembled.
“We are friends, but when it comes to the race we have to fight, we have to be rivals,” smiled Cheruiyot, as she pondered the latest engrossing edition of her duel with the woman she considers to be the best marathon runner of them all.
Keitany is a supreme champion at the discipline, a four-time winner in New York and, if all goes according to her plan here, a quadruple winner in London to match the all-time record of Norwegian Ingrid Kristiansen. In contrast, Cheruiyot, a great multi-bemedalled Olympic champion on the track, is still a novice in the road slogs but one who is progressing majestically.
It’s hard to escape the comparison between Eliud Kipchoge, king of the roads, and Mo Farah, the great track exponent still learning his marathon trade, who go head-to-head in the men’s race.
Yet those two don’t have such a close friendship off the track; in contrast, the 35-year-old Cheruiyot and 37-year-old Keitany, both married to former Kenyan runners, like to socialise when they’re not competing. “Our families spend time together,” explained Cheruiyot, whose five-year-old son Allan Kiprono Kiplagat was playing with Keitany’s children, six-year-old daughter Samantha and 10-year-old son Jared Kipchumba.
Keitany loves her visits to London – this will be her seventh marathon here – and says she’s very grateful to be back on a record-equalling quest.
“It means a lot to me and it’s not something I take for granted. It’s very special to me and my family,” she said. “If I win on Sunday, it would be special too. I have won New York four times and London three times, so I want to win on Sunday to match.”
Last year, with Olympic 5000m champion Cheruiyot then running just her third marathon, the main focus had been on whether Keitany, with the help of male pacemakers, might lower Paula Radcliffe’s world record. Instead, as temperatures soared, she faded to fifth as the marathon newcomer roared to victory.
In New York last November, though, Keitany earned ruthless revenge, clocking an astonishing 66:58 for the second half of the race to leave Cheruiyot trailing by almost three and a quarter minutes in the wake of one of the great marathon performances.
So who’s going to win round three between these two flyweights who are veritable athletic heavyweights? Cheruiyot, who goes by the nickname ‘Pocket Rocket’, says she’s in better shape than last year, as evidenced by her personal best half marathon recorded in Lisbon last month, while Keitany reports that she has fully recovered from her exertions in New York and feels in fine form.
Yet both are far too canny to persuade themselves this is a two-woman duel, especially when two of their compatriots, Berlin winner Gladys Cherono and Chicago champion Brigid Kosgei are both big city marathon victors and among the world’s all-time top nine.
“On Sunday, everybody is in good shape and strong,” says Cheruiyot. “But, normally, I say ‘I’m running as Vivian, I’m running my own race.’”
Whatever tactics Keitany employs – going out fast and hard like last year or conserving her energy for the second-half of the race – Cheruiyot says she will be ready.
“It depends what the others do. I’m going to calculate according to my shape and my body, but I’m not going to leave them the way they normally go. I’ll keep closer but if it’s going to be 68 minutes at halfway that is okay for me, I can stay with them all the way through. Last year was too fast.
“I don’t know the shape of Mary this time, but I know that I’m running better than last year. It’s going to be very exciting.”
Vivian Cheruiyot (Kenya)
Marathon PB: 2:18:31
Background: Cheruiyot was fourth on her marathon debut in London two years ago after a glittering career on the track that yielded four World Championship titles and Olympic medals of every colour. She went on to win the Frankfurt Marathon that October and returned to London last April, when she ran a perfectly judged race to beat Keitany in one of the quickest times of the year. The pair clashed again in New York where Keitany triumphed, leaving Cheruiyot several minutes behind. She is one of the most experienced athletes on the circuit, with an international career stretching back to 1999. She is hoping to run at her fifth Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
What she said:
“I ran a personal best for the half marathon in Lisbon so I know I am in better shape than last year. I’m learning a lot in the marathon now. When I did my first one in 2017, I was like, ‘Am I going to finish it?’ but now I’m getting used to it. This is my fifth marathon and now I’m really enjoying the training. When I decided to go to the marathon, I decided to go the whole way – I can’t go back to 10,000m and 5,000m.
“All of us in the race on Sunday are strong – Gladys [Cherono], Brigid [Kosgei], [Linet] Masai – but I’m running as Vivian, I’m running my own race. My aim is to win the race and to run my personal best. My shape is better than last year and if the weather is good I know I’m going to run my personal best. I’ll be happy if I do maybe 2:17, something like that, that’s what I’m aiming for.
“If it’s going to be 68 [minutes] at half way that is okay for me, I can stay with them all the way through. Last year 67 was too fast. Running a PB in Lisbon really gives me confidence because mostly I did it alone. We have people pacing us here so my chances of running 2:17 are very high.”
Mary Keitany (Kenya)
Marathon PB: 2:17:01
Background: The four-time New York City Marathon champion returns to the British capital for the seventh time, attempting to become only the second woman to win the London title four times. Just a year after breaking Paula Radcliffe’s women-only world record, Keitany ran with male pacemakers 12 months ago in an attempt to lower the Briton’s 15-year-old ‘mixed race’ record of 2:15:25. She reached halfway in 67:16 but couldn’t maintain her pace and eventually placed fifth. That was good enough to win the Abbott World Marathon Majors Series XI title, her third Series victory in six years.
What she said:
“Everything has been going well in training and I am focused and ready. I ran very fast in the second half in New York, which was not easy because it’s uphill. I haven’t run a half marathon this year because I needed time to recover.
“On Sunday I’ll aim to reach halfway in 68:30 and I’m ready for that pace. But everyone here is in good form – that’s why we’re here – and we’re all here to win. For me, that’s the goal this year – it doesn’t matter about the time.
“It would be special for me to win for the fourth time. I have won New York four times and London three times, so I want to win on Sunday to match. I’m very grateful to be back in London. It means a lot to me. It’s my seventh time at the London Marathon and it’s not something I take for granted. It’s very special to me and my family.
“In marathons there are many challenges. If you fail today, make sure you learn something so you do not repeat the same mistake. It was not nice to lose like that [last year] but in the marathon, you have to learn from your mistakes.
“I’m 37 but I’m not stopping soon. I love athletics. I want to go to the Olympics next year. In my country there are many talented athletes but the Olympics is still something in my mind; it’s my last try.”
Gladys Cherono (Kenya)
Marathon PB: 2:18:11
Background: Cherono ran the quickest time of the year to win her third Berlin Marathon title last September and could threaten the top two if she can reproduce that form here. She clocked a course record of 2:18:11 to beat Ethiopians Ruti Aga and Tirunesh Dibaba in Berlin, and moved to number six on the world all-time list. A former African 5000m and 10,000m champion, she made her London Marathon debut last April and placed fourth after overtaking a tiring Keitany in the last few miles.
What she said:
“I was not ready to run the London Marathon last year. I was fit but I was unable to run my best. I know there are strong athletes here but this year I feel strong and I am hoping to do much better. I need to run my own race, to simply think about myself. I have trained very well and this has given me confidence I didn’t have last year.
“I know Mary Keitany has run the London Marathon many times and I want to do the same. At home in Kenya many people want to train with me, they tell me they want to run like me and they want to know all about what it is like to run in New York or Berlin, but mostly London.”
Brigid Kosgei (Kenya)
Marathon PB: 2:18:35
Background: Kosgei burst away from a group of six to win the Chicago Marathon title last October, taking nearly two minutes from her best to go one better than in 2017 and move to number nine on the women’s all-time list. Twice a Honolulu Marathon champion, she had been second in Chicago in 2017 behind Tirunesh Dibaba, and followed that up with another runner-up place in London last April when she was a couple of minutes behind Cheruiyot. We can expect her to be there, or thereabouts, this year too, for the 25-year-old has built up a formidable marathon record since she made her debut in 2015 with five first places and three runner-up spots from nine races. She’s also run two quick half marathons this year, breaking 66 minutes both times.
What she said:
“I know I am in good form. I feel very comfortable because I know I have prepared well and I’m ready now for Sunday. I was second last year and feel ready to win the title and to improve my personal best. My half marathon times this year are a good indication that I am in great shape for Sunday.
“I feel confident because I know how my training went before I won in Chicago and I am even better prepared for London. But I won’t think about winning until the pacemakers drop out. When they stop, then I’ll see where I am, and if somebody makes a move I’ll be there to cover it.
“I would love to beat Mary and Vivian but I will just run to break my personal best and then see what happens. I don’t want to compete with anyone in particular. I won’t be looking at them and watching them, I’ll just be running at my own pace and that will put me where I need to be on Sunday. I don’t fear anyone here. I know I’m in great shape.”
Other ones to watch:
· Roza Dereje (ETH) PB: 2:19:17
· Birhane Dibaba (ETH) PB: 2:19:51
· Haftamnesh Tesfay (ETH) PB: 2:20:13
· Yuka Ando (JPN) PB: 2:21:36
· Tadelech Bekele (ETH) PB: 2:21:40
· Linet Masai (KEN) PB: 2:23:46
· Mao Ichiyama (JPN) PB: 2:24:33
· Sinead Diver (AUS) PB: 2:25:19
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