Wangari Triumphs at Sydney Marathon

Marathons go more often to the patient than to the impetuous; something that is all too easy to forget.

Japan’s Hisanori Kitajima and Miriam Wangari of Kenya underlined that truism with victories at the Sydney Marathon on Sunday morning (20), taking the IAAF Gold Label Road Race with strong finishing performances after others looked more likely winners for most of the 42.195km journey.

Japanese runners emerged late in all aspects of the men’s race, lost among faster and seemingly more experienced entrants in the lead-up and then inconspicuous in the pack as the race unfolded.

Even approaching the 40km mark, it seemed that Kitajima and Hiroki Yamagishi were destined for the minor share of the spoils as defending champion Gebo Burka of Ethiopia and Kenya’s Nicholas Chelimo duelled for the win.

That notion was suddenly turned on its head when Kitajima made what turned out to be his winning move. He quickly left the two favourites in his wake as he dashed down towards the Sydney Harbour foreshore for the final kilometre around Circular Quay to the famous Sydney Opera House.

Chelimo tried to lift but only Yamagishi was able to respond. At some stages he looked to be cutting into his compatriot’s lead. But Kitajima had more than enough in reserve to be able to break into a broad smile as he crossed the line in 2:12:44, a smile he retained throughout post-race interviews and the presentation. His English was limited but that smile was eloquent.

Yamagishi was second in 2:12:47 and Chelimo took third place in 2:13:09. Burka jogged across the line in fourth place in 2:13:33.

Kitajima told race commentator Steve Moneghetti via an interpreter that he had stuck to his own plan and was very happy to win.

Ethiopia’s Biruktayit Eshetu was going for a third consecutive win and course record in the women’s race. For a long time it looked as if she would achieve that goal. With her 2:23:51 personal best in Houston earlier this year, she enjoyed a four-minute cushion over the next-fastest entrant.

Pre-race form was thrown out the window soon after Eshetu and Kenyans Miriam Wangari and Jane Kiptoo went past the 30km mark together. Five kilometres later the two Kenyans were still together, but Eshetu was a decisive 37 seconds behind.

At 40km, Wangari enjoyed a similar margin over Kiptoo and she went on to win in 2:34:37, more than a minute ahead of Kiptoo, runner-up for the second year in succession in 2:35:43, and almost five minutes ahead of Eshetu’s 2:39:28.

“I was just trying to hang on and see how far she could take me,” the 36-year-old Wangari said. Almost all the way to a win, as it turned out.

Kitajima and Yamagishi had run only two marathons between them coming into Sydney, finishing first and third in 2:12:28 and 2:13:54 respectively in Nobeoka on 8 February.

Such inexperience alone may have dictated a cautious approach as the favourites set the early pace. Burka, in particular, seemed to want to go faster, gesturing frequently to others in the pack to step up and take some of the leading as the pack went through 10km in 30:53.

That had slowed a little by the time half-way was reached in 1:05:54, with notable casualties including World Championships fourth-place finisher Ruggero Pertile and 23rd-place finisher Cuthbert Nyasango. Both fell back and then out of the race at about the 15km mark.

As Burka, Chelimo and others including Eritrea’s Kibrom Ghebrezgiabhier, worried themselves with the pace, the two Japanese waited patiently. At times the surges left them up to 50 metres adrift. Ultimately, a lot of energy was expended without any meaningful break being established.

Like former marathon great Toshihiko Seko, Kitajima was virtually anonymous in the pack until past half-way, his only mention from race commentators Moneghetti and Steve Ovett being when he regularly closed the gaps that the leaders just as regularly opened up.

But he was there when it counted and his decisive move just past 40km had the hallmarks of one who has a faster marathon in his future. Consistently in the 28:30-range for 10,000m track, including this year, Kitajima almost certainly has more in his marathon future than he has shown in his (brief) marathon past.

Eshetu won in Sydney last year in the fourth race of six marathons for the year. She has been far more circumspect in 2015, albeit still running in Paris 12 weeks after Houston. Sydney was her third marathon.

None of this seemed relevant as Eshetu breezed through the first 30km looking comfortable and in control, but she was not able to respond when the decisive questions were asked.

Both races were slower in the second half than the first, killing any chance of race records. Like New York, Sydney is a race of many twists and turns, mostly to minimise the number of hills. Those turns, along with numerous changes of surface over the last few kilometres, can take an insidious toll on the legs.

“It is not a fast course,” Wangari observed afterwards, though she was more than happy to have made it a winning one.

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