Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot ran a perfectly judged race to take the title in the elite women’s race at the 38th Virgin Money London Marathon today and become the fourth fastest woman of all time over the gruelling marathon distance.
The 34-year-old Kenyan overhauled her compatriot and defending champion Mary Keitany in the closing miles to secure her first Abbott World Marathon Majors win in 2:18:31, putting a disappointing performance in London last year well behind her as she claimed the biggest win of her burgeoning road race career.
The Olympic 5000m champion finished more than a minute ahead of fellow Kenyan Brigid Kosgei, who clocked 2:20:13, with Ethiopia’s Tadelech Bekele third in 2:21:40, on a day when temperatures climbed to 23°C, hot enough to truly test the world’s best runners.
The big story in the build-up was three-times winner Keitany’s assault on Paula Radcliffe’s 15-year-old mixed-race world record of 2:15:25 with the aid of male pacemakers, and she set off on schedule after women’s running pioneer Kathrine Switzer got the race underway at 09:15 on a bright, sunny morning in south east London.
Ethiopia’s legendary track champion Tirunesh Dibaba was the only athlete who opted to go with her, as five male pacemakers led the field away from the Start Line on Blackheath.
Not since Radcliffe’s world record in 2003 have male pacers been used in the women’s race, but after Keitany’s record-breaking solo run in 2017 – when she set a new women only mark of 2:17:01 – the organisers agreed to allow men to pace the elite women.
The first few miles unfolded as expected with Keitany and Dibaba looking relaxed as they went through three miles in 15:13.
Already they’d opened up a gap of around 10 seconds on the chasing pair of Kenyans, Kosgei and Gladys Cherono, with a group containing Cheruiyot, former world champion Mare Dibaba, 2015 London champion Tigist Tufa, current world champion Rose Chelimo and Tadelech Bekele another 20 seconds behind.
The leading pair went through 10km in 31:46, 15 seconds inside Radcliffe’s time, a blistering pace under the rising and warming sun, and were 32 seconds up at 10 miles in Rotherhithe, matching each other stride for stride beside the painted blue line that marks the fastest racing line.
That changed at 15km where Dibaba began to show signs of fatigue, dropping several strides behind the tiny Kenyan.
For the next 5km, Keitany applied the pressure, turning her lead of a few strides into a gap of 15 seconds as she passed the 20km mark on Tower Bridge in 63:50, to the delight of the London crowds – the bridge a stunning sea of colour, with flags and balloons dancing in the breeze, as the fans cheered the Kenyan towards the halfway point.
Radcliffe went through halfway in 68:02 under perfect marathon conditions – 16°C at midday – and she had home crowd support, while Keitany reached that point in 67:16, ahead of her target but sensibly slower than her time last year, when she clocked a record 66:54 for 13.1 miles.
Kosgei, Cheruiyot and Cherono were more than a minute behind, out of sight back down the road but still holding their gap on the leader, with the Ethiopian duo of Mare Dibaba and Bekele trailing them by 46 seconds.
Now north of the river and heading towards Canary Wharf, Keitany began to look a little less relaxed, breathing more heavily and driving her arms to keep her pace high. The pacers also started to look a little less relaxed, talking among themselves and urging their charge to stay in touch.
By now Keitany was beginning to struggle, though, as the early pace and the rising temperature around the tall buildings of Canary Wharf began to take their toll and the world record started to slip through her splayed fingers.
The amazing crowds on the Isle of Dogs urged her on but by mile 19 Keitany had fallen 37 seconds behind Radcliffe’s time, Dibaba still chasing less than minute back. Instead of coming back to Keitany, the Ethiopian slowed to a walk around the 30km mark and dropped out of the race, saying afterwards, “I felt tired”.
Just after mile 21, Keitany also hit bust. After leading for 35km, the 36-year-old could sense the chasing trio of Cheruiyot, Kosgei and Bekele bearing down on her, but she had nothing left in the tank to hold them off.
Vivian Cheruiyot, though, was now on full gas, her conservative early pace paying dividends as the two-times 10,000m world champion found some of her famed track speed to cruise past Keitany without a second glance.
Last year’s Frankfurt Marathon champion has already proved she knows how to win over the classic distance and now she tucked in behind the pacemakers with Keitany faltering fast behind her.
It was perfect pacing by Cheruiyot, who had trailed the leader by one minute and 40 seconds at halfway. She put in a 5:19 23rd mile while behind her Kosgei and Bekele overtook Keitany to take the second and third on the road.
Kosgei, who has twice won the testing Honolulu Marathon, went through 40km in 2:12:30, more than a minute adrift of the leader, with Bekele in third almost three minutes back and Keitany now in fourth.
Running with her eyes down, and a look of concentration on her face, Cheruiyot got stronger and stronger as she turned past Big Ben and towards the welcome sight of Buckingham Palace.
She checked her watch – presumably to make sure she was on for a sub-2:20 time – and found another gear as she rounded the corner onto The Mall to take her first Majors win. Her time was a massive personal best and the sixth quickest ever.
“She ran the wisest race today,” commented Radcliffe from the BBC TV booth.
The new London Marathon champion agreed, saying afterwards: “I didn’t want to make the same mistake I made last year, so I didn’t go with the world record pace of Keitany and Dibaba. I was in the third group for a while and ran about 5km on my own.
“I love warm weather so the conditions were perfect for me today,” she continued. “To go from 2:23 to 2:18 is so nice.
“When I passed Mary, I thought, ‘Yes, today I am going to be a winner of the London Marathon’. I’m so happy.”
Kosgei was also happy with her performance, taking 10 seconds off the personal best she set at last year’s Chicago Marathon. Bekele prevented a Kenyan podium sweep in third, while Berlin Marathon winner Cherono overtook Keitany to take fourth in 2:24:10.
The women’s world record holder literally limped across the line in fifth, clocking 2:24:27.