Rothlin turns on heat to cap stunning return

Switzerland's Viktor Rothlin broke after 25km (nearly 16 miles) to set up the most unlikely triumph in the men's marathon on a hot, humid day here at the European Championships yesterday.

Rothlin, just 18 months after he could have died from a double pulmonary embolism, quickly built up a lead that he continued to increase, coming home in two hours, 15 minutes, 31 seconds to give Switzerland their first medal of the championships and improve on his own silver from four years ago.

Spain's former 10,000m European champion Jose Manuel Martinez was second in 2:17.50 and Russian Dmitriy Safronov third in 2:18.16.

That winning margin of 2:18 was the widest since in this event for 52 years. "Barcelona felt like my first marathon for me and, at the start of the race, I didn't know if it would be my last," said Rothlin.

"I love to run in the heat and, compared to Osaka [and the 2007 World Championships where he won bronze], it was cold. I'm happy to say I'm back."

Italy's Stefano Baldini, the 2004 Olympic champion, returned to competition after almost two years to defend his European title but dropped out at about halfway, having been up with the leading group for much of the time to that point.

Britain's Lee Merrien finished eighth, despite having to stop running with cramp for a brief period.

He clocked a time of 2:20.14, finishing just under five minutes behind Rothlin.

"I am really, really pleased with that. It was beyond my expectations," Merrien said. "It was a bit touch and go over the last couple of kilometres as I had to stop just after 40km with cramp in my hamstring.

"Luckily, I stopped for about 10 seconds and got going again. I lost one place because of it, but I'm over the moon with that eighth."

Team-mates David Webb, Dan Robinson, Ben Moreau and Martin Williams were 16th, 19th, 24th and 28th respectively.

The women's marathon had been run the previous day, with Lithuania's Zivile Balciunaite shrugging off the cloying Mediterranean heat to claim gold.

The unfancied 31-year-old improved on her fourth-place finish in 2006, completing the course through the perpendicular streets of the Catalan capital in a season's best time of 2:31.14.

Russia's Nailya Yulamanova was second in 2:32.15, ahead of the Italian Anna Incerti in 2:32.48.

With temperatures hovering around 27C and the hot sun intermittently bursting through the clouds, Balciunaite was one of a pack of 11 runners leading the 43-strong field at the 25km mark before she then pulled steadily away from her rivals.

"This was my day," she said . "I love this weather. My friends, my coach, everyone told me, this is your day. In Beijing and Göteborg, it was too cold, but this I loved."

Balciunaite had spent a month before Barcelona preparing at altitude in St Moritz. "I've no idea what distance I ran. My coach wrote all that down. But it was over 200km a week, that is for sure. I trained twice a day. No holidays," she said.

That rigorous regime had her in top shape and clearly helped prepare her to take the victory here. "I had no doubts I was going to win," Balciunaite added. "I felt so strong."

And she was even prouder to be the first Lithuanian woman to win a European gold. "I can't put it into words," she said.