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Tower Bridge, London, 2012, photo by PhotoRun.net

Gritty Marathon Performance By Ethiopia's Gelana Captures Gold







LONDON--On a cool and rainy day, and in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, a record field of 116 women from 67 countries began the Olympic marathon. As tens of thousands of soaked but spirited fans lined the streets, these accomplished marathoners launched off on a 26 mile 385 yard journey in the hopes of capturing Olympic medals.

The marathon is all about unexpected developments and how the athletes react to them, and this Olympic marathon was no exception. A week before the start, England's Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder, was forced to sorrowfully announce that a combination of lingering injuries would not allow her to compete in front of her countrymen. On the American side, Desiree Davila, a fearless competitor who had been expected to bring her aggressive racing style to this competition, had been hobbled for many weeks by a nagging and tight hip flexor. But Davilla decided to toe the line and start the race. That's what Olympians do. It became immediately apparent that Davilla was severely compromised. After a game and painful attempt, Davilla was forced to withdraw at the conclusion of the opening 2.2 mile circuit.

Perhaps apprehensive as a result of the annoying rain and the narrow and twisting criterium course that weaved its way through London's inner city, the large lead pack set a patient early pace. With American's Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher controlling the race from the front, the first 5 miles were covered in 28:00 - a solid, but not overly ambitious, 2:26 marathon pace. Even as the rain became heavier, Flanagan - the focused executioner - and Goucher - with her graceful, erect stride - looked comfortable with the cadence.

At 7 miles - passed in 39:13 - the Americans were joined at the front by Italian Valeria Straneo who shared the early pacing chores. Meanwhile, the trio of Kenyan runners - Mary Keitany, Priscah Jeptoo, and Edna Kiplagat - was content to glide along comfortably in the lead pack of about 25 to 30 athletes.

A record 7 women in the starting field possessed marathon PR's under 2:20. So when the 10 mile split still forecast a more modest 2:26 finishing time, it had to buoy American hopes. A brief acceleration at that point did not represent a major move, but it did string out the lead back and inflict a little damage. Shortly after the halfway point, Russia's Lillya Shobukova, widely regarded as a pre-race favorite, and was reduced to a walk, holding her right hamstring. Her day was over.

With the lead pack now reduced to 19 just past the mid-point and with the narrow and winding London streets causing chaos at the poorly-manned fluid stations, it was an ideal time for a wily competitor to throw in a move. Kiplagat was happy to oblige. Upping the tempo significantly, Kiplagat ran the 16th mile in 5:11 - a surge that separated the contenders from the pretenders. As if to signal some sort of divine approval for this bold move, the rain stopped and the sun emerged - just as Kiplagat proceeded to tack on yet another up-tempo mile in 5:21.

In slightly over 10 minutes - just like that - the complexion of the race changed significantly. The lead back had been obliterated as it appeared that only 6 East Africans - the three Kenyans joined by an Ethiopian trio of Tiki Gelana, Mare Dibaba, and Aselefech Merqia - would be left up front to battle for the medals. Flanagan fought gamely to survive the surge and found herself trailing the Africans by 12 seconds - a sizeable, but not insurmountable, gap. Tatyana Arkhipova, the Russian, trailed Flanagan, as the third and final circuit of the 8 mile loop began.

Kiplagat's bold two mile spurt was, of course, calculated to test the mettle of her competitors. Once, in response to an inquiry made about the type of character trait that is required to be a great marathoner, former world record holder and coach Alberto Salazar offered that it takes "one who has the willingness and the capacity to suffer." In giving his answer, Salazar was likely envisioning the type of race scenario that was just about to unfold in this gripping Olympic marathon.

Starting into the final loop, it was Keitany's turn to push the pace in an effort to soften up the other medal contenders. Flanagan, who had been fighting gamely to re-connect with the Africans, was done. Her leg turn-over gone and alone in the road, she was destined to an arduous and lonely final lap to the finish. She would soon be passed by Arkhipova.

The Russian, inspired by sliding by the '08 Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000, gained renewed spirit and set her sites on the 6 leading Africans. Soon re-connected with the lead pack, Arkhipova instantly changed the racing dynamics. An accomplished track performer who has posted a steeplechase best of 9:09, Arkhipova now represented the kind of athlete who could pose a real threat to the African medal hopefuls if she could hang on to call upon her track speed as the finish approached.

Past 20 miles, the Russian went to work - pressing the pace and looking for weaknesses. But the Africans challenged her attempted control of the race, as pace shifts and mind-games were underway. Soon Dibaba and Kiplagat were out the back door. The contest was on in full as the final quartet of medal aspirants was still together at the 24 mile mark. The leaders, now in full flight, had covered the 24th mile in 5:16 and passed the 24 mile mark in 2:11:36. All that remained was a game of musical chairs for the medals: Galena, Jeptoo, Arkhipova, and Keitany - four superb athletes - battling for the three podium positions.

With the finish just a handful of minutes away, Keitany, her face reflecting the effort, was first to crack, wavering at the back of the lead pack. She soon let go, the final three slipped away - and so did Keitany's hopes for a medal of any color. With what proved to be perfect timing, Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana - with about a kilometer to go - made a move that neither Jeptoo nor Arkhipova could cover. Opening up what proved to be a decisive 25 meter lead, the 24 year old Galena rounded the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as the rain returned. On the final straightaway with 400 meters to go, Galena pressed on. She needed to. Jeptoo chased her all the way to the line but was unable to mount a serious threat to overtake the Ethiopian. Galena's winning time of 2:23:07 set a new Olympic record. Jeptoo, 5 seconds back in 2:23:12, took the silver medal. And Arkhipova, after clawing back from a large deficit at 18 miles, captured the bronze.

Flanagan and Goucher - the two remaining Americans - did performed honorably, but clearly had trained for and had expected much more. Flanagan - unable to respond to the Africans' move near the 30 kilometer mark - finished 10th in 2:25:51. Her friend and teammate Goucher was right behind her in 11th place with a time of 2:26:07. Their finishing times - while not the performances they had targeted - were tantalizingly close to their marathon personal bests. Today's race will prompt much post-Olympic speculation about American women distance running. The U.S. women have made important - but not yet medal-worthy - strides in the marathon. The addition of the type of speed-oriented, under-distance racing that prepared Galen Rupp to capture the Olympic silver medal in the men's 10,000 just might prove to be the missing ingredient.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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