McColgan queen; of the long winding road

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The Independent Online
Athletics

It was two and a half years ago that a US medical specialist told Liz McColgan she would never run again. Her immediate response - "stuff you" - was graphically reinforced yesterday as she marked her long-awaited victory in the London Marathon by sticking two arms in the air.

In the hottest London Marathon on record, she finished in 2hr 27min 54sec, over two minutes clear of her nearest challengers, Joyce Chechomboi of Kenya, who recorded 2:30:09, and last year's champion, Malgorzata Sobanska, who was eight seconds further back in third place.

It has been a long road back for the 31-year-old Dundee runner, who has survived two knee operations and a self-imposed training regime so punishing that, as she acknowledged herself this week, she was running herself into the ground.

In the aftermath of what was the first London victory by a British woman since Veronique Marot in 1989, McColgan paid tribute to the former world marathon champion who convinced her to moderate her masochistic mileage, Grete Waitz. Since she took up the Norwegian's offer of help after finishing an unhappy fifth in last year's London race, McColgan has become a far more relaxed athlete.

"Apart from my first coach, Harry Bennett, Grete is the only other person I would say has been able to coach me," she said. "She has the same strengths and weaknesses as a runner that I have, and she's been through it all. I have such confidence in her."

McColgan's achievement in winning the London event at her third attempt was perfectly timed to give her confidence for this summer's Atlanta Olympics.

"My rivals are going to have to do something extra special if they are going to prevent me from coming back from Atlanta with gold," she said. "When I was lying in my hospital bed I had this dream of winning a marathon gold. It has been a four-year dream but I am so confident of doing it."

She always talked a good race, even before her golden year of 1991, when she won the world 10,000 metres title and her debut marathon in New York. But as injury and illness dragged her down in the intervening years, the predictions lost some of their vehemence. Now her deeds match her words again.

The unexpectedly warm conditions also provided her with useful preparation for Atlanta. The air temperature at noon was 72F - the highest in the event's 16-year history, and on the roads, in direct sunlight, the temperature must have risen towards the 80s.

It was not only the heat which was unexpected for the elite women. In the first mile, they saw Anita Haakenstad of Norway, Firaya Sultanova of Russia and Jane Salumae of Estonia - none of whom was considered to have medal chances - pull away in a break which was not fully recovered until after the 20-mile mark. The Norwegian runner, seeking a time under 2hr 30min to earn an Olympic place, made a desperately brave lone effort, breaking her half-marathon best of 73 minutes in the process. She eventually finished an exhausted fifth in 2:31:07

McColgan's memorable wins have always involved front running, and she acknowledged that she had found it difficult psychologically to let the leaders get out of sight. But she stuck with Waitz's injunction to run a cautious race, sticking with the favourites in the chasing bunch even to the point where Waitz herself - watching anxiously from the photographer's van up with her fellow countrywoman Haakenstad, began to get anxious.

"I was thinking, `Where are they? Where are they? My God, they are so far behind'," Waitz said with a grin.

The answer was that they were coming, and it was McColgan, gritting her teeth and puffing her cheeks, who was giving chase, accompanied by Angelina Kanana of Kenya.

From being 2min 06sec behind the leader at 14 miles, McColgan closed the gap relentlessly, overtaking the third and second runners and then detaching Kanana just before the 20 miles mark in Narrow Street.

After pouring water from a drinks station all over her trademark topknot, McColgan came forward like a boxer leaving the corner and passed Haakenstad without so much as a sideways glance. She did not look back until after she had crossed the finishing line.

The top finishers

Men

1 D Ceron (Mexico) 2hr 10min

2 V Rousseau (Belgium) 2:10.26

3 P Evans (GB) 2:10.40

4 J Kabiga (Kenya) 2:10.43

5 A Serrano (Spain) 2:10.55

6 D Castro (Portugal) 2:11.12

7 E Hellebuyck (Belgium) 2:11.53

8 B Masya (Kenya) 2:12.43

9 G Staines (GB) 2:12.54

10 T Bekele (Norway) 2:14.37

Selected: 18 M Hudspith (GB) 2:19.25; 23 R Mulligan (Irl) 2:21.52; Did not finish E Martin (GB).

Women

1 L McColgan (GB) 2hr 27min 54sec

2 J Chepchumba (Kenya) 2:30.09

3 M Sobanska (Poland) 2:30.17

4 A Kanana (Kenya) 2:30.25

5 A Haakenstad (Norway) 2:31.07

6 A Ivanova (Russia) 2:32.09

7 R Kokowska (Poland) 2:32.46

8 F Sultanova (Russia) 2:32.50

9 J Salumae (Estonia) 2:33.18

10 Y Mazovka (Russia) 2:33.58

Selected: 14 S Eastall (GB) 2:38.59; 15 D Sanderson (GB) 2:39.46; 17 C Smith (Irl) 2:43.49.

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