At the start of the week it looked like there might be the kind of one-off opportunity knocking for Britain's long-suffering marathon men that the Czech tennis player Jan Kodes exploited at Wimbledon in 1973.
Back then, the little-known Kodes snatched the opportunity to win the men's title at the All England club, with 13 of the world's top 16 – Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and Co – absent because of a dispute between the recently formed Association of Tennis Professionals and the International Lawn Tennis Federation. Thirty-seven years on, as the clock ticked down to the 2010 London Marathon and the European skies were closed to traffic, Dan Robinson and Andrew Lemoncello were the only members of the 18-strong elite men's field safely on British soil in readiness for tomorrow's big race.
Robinson, a Commonwealth marathon bronze medallist, is from Horsley in Gloucestershire. Lemoncello, an Olympic steeplechaser who will be making his marathon debut tomorrow, is from St Andrews and has been training on the Fife coast for the past fortnight, though he now happens to be based at Flagstaff in Arizona. Perhaps the fallout from the Icelandic volcano was part of a cunning plan to restore the glory days of home success at the sharp end of the annual running jamboree in the English capital. The last British win in the men's race was achieved by Eamonn Martin in 1993. The last British one-two dates back to 1985, when Steve Jones overhauled Charlie Spedding after having to make an emergency stop with four miles to go. That year, in fact, there was a British one-two-three, with Allister Hutton, a Scot, following home Jones, a Welshman, and Spedding, an Englishman.
Sadly, the prospect of a repeat tomorrow has receded from the bounds of probability. The East African speed merchants had all made it to England by yesterday – among them Sammy Wanjiru, the Olympic marathon champion and 2009 London winner; Abel Kirui, the reigning world marathon champion; and Duncan Kibet, the second-fastest marathon man of all time, courtesy of the 2hr 4min 27sec he clocked in Rotterdam last year. The three Kenyans were at the race headquarters in the shadow of Tower Bridge yesterday morning, talking about the possibility of breaking Haile Gebrselassie's world record – a staggering 2:03:59 – and about the emergency airlift that cost the London Marathon organisers a cool £110,000 to transport them from Nairobi (via Djibouti, Luxor and Madrid) by private jet.
Sitting in a quiet corner, Robinson laughed as he outlined his journey to London. "Two hours on the train," he said. "Stroud to Paddington. Change at Swindon." He chuckled again at the thought that he might have been in with a chance of pinching the first home win in the men's race for 17 years. "That would have been great," he said, "but it was never a realistic prospect. The organisers were always going to get a lot of the overseas athletes here."
Rather than victory, Robinson's target is the clock. His plan is to set off conservatively and finish strongly enough to improve the personal best set in Amsterdam last November, 2:12:14 – and possibly to sneak into the top 10, which he did with his ninth-placed finish in 2007. In effect, the fastest Briton in the field will be running a different race to Wanjiru, Kirui, and Kibet, but in relative terms Robinson is as much of a marathon success story as the high-speed East African trio.
The Kenyans are all products of the great distance-running hotbed of the Rift Valley. Robinson lives and trains in the sleepy south Cotswold countryside immortalised by Laurie Lee in Cider With Rosie. A part-time PE teacher and father of two (his wife, Jess, gave birth to Max three weeks ago, a brother for 19-month-old Jasper), he runs for Stroud and District Athletics Club and lives in the Nailsworth Valley – like the Slad Valley, Lee's celebrated home patch, one of the Five Valleys of Stroud.
"Yeah, it does feel like a different world," Robinson pondered. "The Five Valleys are rather different to the Rift Valley. I'm under no illusions where my time puts me. Two hours 12 minutes is a solid time for a Briton but it's not a world-class time. These guys are running 2:04, 2:05. That's phenomenal running."
Much has been made of the decline of British men's distance running since the days of Jones and Spedding, but amid the gloom the emergence of Dan, the Gloucestershire marathon man, has been an inspirational shaft of light. He only took up running at the age of 24, hitting the treadmill at his local gym to lose weight after four years of university life. At 35, he is a veteran of two Olympic marathons (he finished 23rd in Athens in 2004 and 24th in Beijing in 2008) and the Commonwealth bronze he won in Melbourne in 2006 makes him Britain's only major championship medal-winning marathon man in the past 16 years.
"I guess you could call it a relative success," Robinson mused. "But when Eamonn Martin won here in 1993 he ran 2:10:50. I'd love to run 2:10:50 on Sunday but I'd still be a mile behind the winner. We're a long way from Brits on the podium in London – British men, that is. On the women's side, Mara Yamauchi's got a great chance. On the men's side, we're a fair way off."
1. Sammy Wanjiru (Kenya)
The first Kenyan to win the Olympic marathon, courtesy of a blistering run in Beijing. Won in London last year and starts favourite.
2. Tsegay Kebede (Ethiopia)
Finished strongly to take the bronze medal in the Beijing Olympic marathon and was runner-up to Wanjiru in London last year.
3. Duncan Kibet (Kenya)
The second fastest marathon man of all time, having clocked 2:04:27. Turns 32 tomorrow.
1. Irina Mikitenko (Germany)
Won in London in 2008 and 2009 and now seeking to become the second woman to take three in a row, after her fellow German Katrin Dorre.
2. Mara Yamauchi (Britain)
Second to Mikitenko last year. The big question is how much her marathon journey to London has taken out of her.
3. Bai Xue (China)
Making her London debut. The youngest ever winner of the World Championship marathon, aged 20, in Berlin last August.