The greatest ever London Marathon field: Hungry pack will hunt down the world record
Planet's fastest endurance athletes set to spur each other towards historic time
Saturday 20 April 2013
The pacemakers for Sunday's London Marathon will set out from Blackheath at a rate of knots. They are under instruction to reach the halfway point, just over Tower Bridge, in 61 minutes, 45 seconds. That is world record pace – London has become a city greedy for sporting success and it wants more.
The organisers of the marathon have assembled what is considered the greatest field not only to take to the capital's streets but also ever to have gathered at the start line of a marathon. Attracting such an array of long-distance talent is not just about making a race of it, it is as much about the clock and somebody – anybody – coming in below that world record mark of two hours, three minutes and 38 seconds.
The fastest men ever are here, including Patrick Makau and Wilson Kipsang, the two quickest of them all. There are 10 who have run below two hours, six minutes.
The defending champion, the course record holder and the Olympic champion are all here, uniformly small, sinewy, lithe men and all of them, apart from Stephen Kiprotich, the Olympic winner, from Kenya or Ethiopia.
"Patrick Makau is saying to people the world record is going to go here," said Dave Bedford, who stepped aside as race director last year. "There is enough talk among the Kenyans in particular to say, 'Let's have a go at this, let's bring it down'."
There are five Kenyans in the elite field, four of whom have run under two hours, five minutes, and they are likely to move through the early stages as a unit. There are five Ethiopians too, with the tough Tsegaye Kebede and Ayele Abshero the two most likely to prevent a clean sweep by their southern neighbours.
The presence of so many quick men will create a pack mentality, and a pack that will go quicker and quicker (with Mo Farah an interested observer part of the way). There is a straightforward incentive for speed – the rewards on offer for lowering Makau's two-year-old record, set in Berlin, are large.
The winner's fee in the men's race is a modest £35,885 ($55,000) but it is the add-ons that count. Any runner crossing the finish line in the Mall in less than two hours, six minutes receives £48,935 ($75,000) – finish a minute quicker and it's worth £65,246 ($100,000). Winning and breaking the record brings another £81,558 ($125,000) – as it does in the women's race, prize-money being equal – making a potential purse of £182,690 for the first man home.
"Running with this group will push me to a good time because we'll be able to stay together for longer, and it's much easier to run a fast time in a group than on your own," said Kipsang, the defending champion.
His compatriot and London first-timer Geoffrey Mutai agreed. "When we get the chance to run against the greatest in the world, it's not only good for our careers but also good for us mentally, as it pushes us to do our very best," he said.
There has only been one men's world record completed over the London course during its 32-year history, US runner Khalid Khannouchi's 2:05:38 in 2002; organisers are desperate for another and the kudos that brings. For it to happen tomorrow it needs the perfect storm of marathon running – a strong field, tick; a strong field, fit and in form, tick; a will to go for it, tick; and good conditions. That is the box that cannot be inked in. The start of every day's media events this week has been marked with a weather forecast, delivered with a solemnity befitting the shipping forecast.
The latest suggests good news, as much as a London spring day can be securely forecast – sunny intervals with the temperature rising to 13C and, the final ingredient, low winds. Wind can be a killing factor, especially once the course takes the runners through the high rises of London's Docklands.
Wind was a factor in the fastest marathon time ever run. Two years ago Mutai – no relation to his namesake Emmanuel, the London course record holder – galloped around the Boston course in a breath-taking 2:03:02, but the route contained too many downhill stretches, and he was pursued by a fearsome tailwind, which meant it goes down in marathon history with an asterisk alongside. Makau's time, 36 seconds slower, remains the official benchmark.
Marathon running is a sport that is speeding up at pace, as improved training is aided by a better focus on nutrition and the use of developing technology. Farah will be blood-tested by his team before he sets out and the moment he steps off the course after 13 miles and the data then used to help plan next year's all-out assault.
"I have put the emphasis on speed and using technology in my training, as well as hill running to develop my muscles," Makau said.
Kipsang, a runner in his prime, is a strong favourite to win. He has amends to make in London. He was a strong favourite entering the Olympic marathon too, but blew an early break and finished third.
However, if the record is to fall then it is Mutai, a 31-year-old from the Rift Valley, who is fancied by many to be the man to do it. He has won in Berlin, New York and Boston over the last two years. This will be his London debut. Last year he sat in the race-leading car to get an idea of the course – a seat Farah rejected this year.
"He is my favourite," said Bedford. "His run in Boston was outstanding. His run in New York [in 2011], where he lowered their course record on a really, really difficult course, showed how good he is. He'll probably win."
Makau accepts that his mark will be lowered soon and from there one of the great sporting barriers will surely be breached. "It is only a matter of time before someone breaks two hours in the marathon," he said. "Five years ago, fewer people were consistently running 2:04, but now there are lots of runners hitting that time. Maybe the next generation of runners will manage to break two hours."
And tomorrow? "I believe anything is possible," said Kiprotich, the Ugandan who ran like "a cheetah" to claim Olympic gold. For one man the streets of London might just prove to be paved with gold.
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