Last summer Haile Gebrselassie petitioned the Ethiopian government over Tsegaye Kebede's non-selection for the Olympic Games. The pleas of the country's greatest sportsman made no difference and Kebede was left at home. Yesterday the talent so apparent to Gebrselassie was plain for all to see as Kebede returned to London and left the world's best marathon field trailing in his wake to complete an emphatic triumph.
On a day made for the London Marathon, the sun shone and huge crowds – unencumbered by the extra numbers of police deployed in the wake of the Boston bombings – watched the 26-year-old, who as a boy gathered firewood to help pay for his education, produce a devastating finish to catch and pass Emmanuel Mutai, the course record holder.
Mutai, the last Kenyan in contention, saw a 49-second advantage on Kebede after 35km transformed into a 30-second deficit by the time he turned into the Mall. Ahead of him, the pocket-battleship clad in a blue vest – a runner with a boxer's stance as Paula Radcliffe put it – crossed the line in 2:06:04.
The Kenyans had their moment in the women's race with a one-two via Priscah Jeptoo and Edna Kiplagat, although the painful collision between Tiki Gelana and the Canadian wheelchair racer Josh Cassidy that ruined the Olympic champion's chances of claiming a unique double overshadowed the outcome. The sight of Gelana hitting the ground hard nine miles in will have made the organisers wince, let alone the runner herself – the potential for such a disastrous crash has long been flagged up by the wheelchair competitors – but otherwise it was a day to savour given the events in Boston a week ago.
A men's world record had topped the sporting wish-list for the race and the speed at which the field galloped through the first half of the race raised the prospect of Patrick Makau's two-year-old mark of 2:03:38 being lowered. The early pace was too much for Makau himself and the Kenyan was the first to be dropped by the leading group – following pacesetters under instruction to maintain a world-record pace. Makau was soon followed by the Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich, although the Ugandan did rally over the second half to come home sixth.
Kebede could do nothing more than watch when Kiprotich sprung his surprise sprint on Birdcage Walk during the Games. It is the difference a sporting year makes – in his last London Marathon Kebede finished third but it was not enough to earn Olympic selection. None of those chosen in his stead finished the Olympics, heightening Kebede's frustration. But this is a man versed in overcoming adversity by his experience of childhood. Kebede grew up in Gerar Ber, a few miles north of Addis Ababa, herding cattle and collecting wood to earn some 30 cents a day to boost the family's meagre income. It was his contribution towards the one meal a day he and his 12 siblings shared. He started running aged eight and hasn't stopped.
His raw ability was spotted in a race in Addis by Geteneh Tessema, known as the champion-maker, and since winning the Paris Marathon five years ago he has become a feature on the podium, winning in London in 2010 and last year in Chicago, the last success coming off the back of his Olympic rejection. Mutai had made the Olympics, but ran poorly in difficult conditions. Yesterday the bright sunshine and slight breeze were ideal for a brisk pace and it was Mutai of the Kenyan contingent who made the most of them for much of the race.
By 20 miles the ferocious tempo had reduced the lead pack to four, Mutai, Stanley Biwott, another Kenyan and two Ethiopians, Feyisa Lilesa and Ayele Abshero – with Kebede, troubled by a pain in his side, seemingly struggling to keep up. First, Biwott broke before being hauled in, but when Mutai went clear a ninth Kenyan win in 10 years seemed certain. Kebede, all 5ft 2in of him, is the only man to have interrupted the neighbours' dominance in that time and over the last mile he did it again, reeling Mutai in, appearing first as a distant speck behind the leader and his entourage of TV crews and motorbikes.
When the relentless Kebede, with his second wind in his sails, caught Mutai there was no response from the Kenyan. He knew he was beaten.
"It was too quick," said Kebede of the early pace. "I had a little pain in my side during the early part of the race but as time went on it got better. I could feel myself getting closer and closer to Mutai and that made me stronger. It was a great day to run the London Marathon and even better to win."
The women's race was the reverse of the men's, beginning slowly before quickening in the second half. With Gelana reduced to a distant spectator after little more than a third of the race, it left the field clear for the two Kenyans. Jeptoo had taken silver behind Gelana in the Olympics but here timed her run to perfection, dropping Kiplagat over the closing stages and winning by more than a minute in 2:20:15. The 28-year-old now has four wins from eight marathons, as well as three top-three finishes.
Susan Partridge produced the best home performance of the day – at least over the full marathon distance. Partridge, from Oban on Scotland's west coast, finished ninth in 2:30:46 to earn a place in the marathon at August's world championships. The first British man home was another Scot, Derek Hawkins. He came 13th in 2:16:51.
London Marathon results
1. Tsegaye Kebede (Eth) 2:06:04
2. Emmanuel Mutai (Ken) 2:06:33
3. Ayele Abshero (Eth) 2:06:57
4. Feyisa Lilesa (Eth) 2:07:46
5. Wilson Kipsang (Ken) 2:07:47
1. Priscah Jeptoo (Ken) 2:20:15
2. Edna Kiplagat (Ken) 2:21:32
3. Yukiko Akaba (Jap) 2:24:43
4. Atsede Baysa (Eth) 2:25:14 5.
5. Meselech Melkamu (Eth) 2:25:46
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