Kenyan marathoners: We were fried out of the Beijing race

By evelyn watta
Aug 22, 2021
  • Kenyan runners Dennis Kimetto(far left), Wilson Kipsang(in the middle of the pack) and Mark Korir(second from right).

  • Mark Korir was the only Kenyan who finished the race.

  • Eritrean Ghirmay Ghebreslassie on his way to winning the marathon.(Photo by Getty Images for IAAF)

BEIJING - There was the smart and tactical runner in Wilson Kipsang, Dennis Kimetto the world’s fastest marathoner and Mark Korir who was tipped to surprise as he had the best mentors when they tackled the world championships course in Beijing.

At least Korir lived up to the pre-race expectations. He was the only Kenyan who finished the race won by Eritrean Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, the nation’s first gold at the championships.

Kimetto the World record holder and Kipsang were among the 26 runners who will leave Beijing with the unwished-for did not finish tags.

These are runners who were picked in May by Athletics Kenya. They had flourished and shone at world city marathons and were therefore great medal prospects.

Did the Kenyan trio fall for the pre-season hype as they had suggested all through their training that they were well prepared to race in the expected sapping Beijing August heat?

Their stated ambition was to regain the world title and maybe even set the right tone for team Kenya by sweeping medals.

This intent however panned out early on though, as the 68 runners crossed the 10km mark with Mongolian Ser-Od Bat-Ochir and Shumi Dechasa, recently switched Ethiopian now racing for Bahrain exchanging leads.

Dechasa guided the elite runners and the pack of 10k mass local runners behind in a slowed 31.51 as Ethiopian Yemane Tsegay stayed at a touching distance.

Korir,Kimetto and Kipsang were at that point in a crowded chasing pack of about 20.

Early struggle

Italians Daniele Meuci(1:03.23) and Pertile Ruggero then had a stint pacing the plodding racers at the 20km with Kipsang and Korir still in competition, as Kimetto slowing three seconds behind the leaders.

There was never a push forward by the Kenyans that could have helped them get through the race like Lesotho’s 24 year-old Tsepo Mathibelle’s chanced with a sudden gush of pace and was rewarded with his best marathon finish at 14th.

Mathibelle’s tempo had managed to break the chase pack, which demolished Kimetto and Kipsang just after the 30km as they staggered off looking ‘to save themselves’ from the crippling heats bordering 30 degrees.

Korir, the reigning Paris marathon champion laboured on as 19-year old Eritrean battled his way at the turn before entering the Bird Nest stadium.

“I am so proud of this victory. This is my first gold medal in my first marathon championships,” said Ghebreslassie who skipped university to become a marathoner against his parents wishes.

The surpise teen winner 

Tsegay one of the early pacers was rewarded with silver in a season best 2:13.07 as Solomon Mutai pleased to have salvaged bronze for his country in 2:13.29 after Stephen Kiprotich, the winner in Moscow faded to sixth in 2:14.42.

“A lot of people keep asking me about the fact that I am young but it doesn't matter to me. My parents wanted me to be a great student, but I wanted to be a great athlete,” the new teen marathon champion who made his marathon debut in Chicago last year where he had been entered to pace but finished in 2:09.08.

As he spelt out his brief career (three marathons) and the unwearied fight for the gold, his second after the world half marathon team gold last year, Korir teetered into the stadium, to the relief of the journalists wondering if this would go down in championships history as the worst showing by Kenyans, seven years after Samuel Wanjiru’s admirably historic Olympic win here in Beijing.

The 30-year-old walked past the interview area, sweat pouring from his body like water coming out of a shower-head.

He looked so dejected and humiliated. “That heat was terrible.The air was heavy. Tough race,” he stammered out as he walked past shaking his head, besides-himself having finished almost eight minutes behind the teenager at position 22 in a slowed 2:21.19.

Kenyans struggled in the Moscow heat in 2013 but at least all the top three finished the race with the first runner in top 10.

The heat, heavy air too much to bear

Kipsang and Kimetto had caught up with him at the changing room, energised after the ride back from the 30k point where they had dropped off the race. 

“I am used to running cooler conditions like 10...30 degrees was was too much. It destroyed us,” Kimetto,31, said after his second marathon failure. He also failed to finish the Boston marathon but redeemed himself last year with the 2:02.57 world record in Berlin in September.

“When I got to 30km I could not go further I said let me save myself.” “I have never run in such conditions.The sun, the heat was too much. The breathing was laboured, Kipsang picked up.

“At 30km I was burning and I couldn't even breathe. I tried to gasp for air nothing was going in I just left the course.I came for medals not to drop out. This is the first time I have failed to finish a marathon.”

The marathoners trained in Tambach, North Rift area a relatively hot area (sub 20s at this time of the year), and had the best times in the field. Possibly could it have been that the top timers are not cut for championships?

“Tambach is hot like this but not scorching. The heat is hard for me, I struggled in London when I won the bronze at the Olympics it was hot but not like this,” Kipsang who had tipped Kenyans to destroy the field responded shaking his head.

“It is all part of the race.Today you feel good tomorrow is another feeling. Our preparations were perfect, we were in perfect shape. Maybe our colleagues who won from Eritrea and Ethiopia were preparing in hot conditions,” he argued.

“Certainly championships are different from our other races. You can not say that top runners like us are not suited for world championships,” the former world marathon record holder replied to the impression that the Kenyans are more conditioned to race in city marathons than championships.

“I tell you even the other runners would have fallen in this heat. It all depends on how the body responds to the conditions on the race day. The Eritrean’s body responded and he won today my body locked.”

Beijing was a disappointing 42km ahead of next years Rio Olympics where similar conditions are expected during the marathon event.

Possibly a shift in training venues to equally hot areas of Southern or Northern Kenya to acclimatise? Kenyans who dominate most city races have only won four of the 15 world marathon titles last won by Abel Kirui in 2011.