Road Running

Irish invade, Kenyans reign supreme: six final thoughts on the Berlin Marathon

Once again, the fastest marathon in the world lived up to its renown, producing the 11th quickest performances of all time in both men’s and women’s races, courtesy of a pair of champions worthy of topping any marathon rostrum. Yet again, the morning of the race dawned cool, calm and sunny, and though we may not have got the world record attempt many hoped for – blame a dodgy pair of shoes for that – we were still presented with a race to remember from both an Irish and international perspective. Before departing the German capital, here are five random reflections on this year’s event.

Rebel with a cause: Lizzie Lee smashed her personal best to run 2:32:51. Image: Keith McLure

Rebel with a cause: Lizzie Lee smashed her personal best to run 2:32:51. Image: Keith McLure

Marathon Mission accomplished

With the sun beating down on the finish line, everything felt bright in Irish distance running once again, light years away from the dark ages seven years ago when we had only one competitor in the men’s Olympic marathon, who turned out to be a doper. To this, much could be owed to the Marathon Mission initiative, which gave Irish athletes a fighting chance to do the things they needed to reach the Olympic standard. In Berlin, five of them did so — Lizzie Lee (2:32:51), Kevin Seaward (2:14:52), Sergiu Ciobanu (2:15:14), Mick Clohisey (2:15:14) and Paul Pollock (2:15:38). There were also spirited efforts from Gary Thornton (2:17:19), Sean Hehir (2:17:48) and several others who, despite falling short, will surely recover and reload for another assault in the spring. Pollock will have to, as, most likely, will Clohisey.

A little financial help is always good, but what also sparked the renaissance was Athletics Ireland not meddling with the 2:17/2:42 Olympic standards, which in turn set off light bulbs in the heads of Irish distance runners everywhere who realised it was now within their realm. As a result, we are likely to have a full complement of marathoners in Rio next year. Perhaps the strength in depth of the Irish was summed up by a text from an agent of many leading Kenyans which came through on Sunday evening: “You guys will need trials!”

Eliud Kipchoge is unbeatable right now

It wasn’t just that he defeated the field on Sunday; he destroyed them. The fact Kipchoge’s insoles were flapping around for most of the race, more out of his shoes than in, made his achievement all the more impressive. Afterwards, many wondered just how he was able to keep his concentration in such circumstances – particularly when his feet began to blister and bleed during the second half – but as he said himself, he was “mentally very strong”.

Kipchoge, though, was also physically strong. When he dropped the hammer after 32km, his rivals became bankrupt in an instant, able to offer nothing in the way of a challenge. By the time Kipchoge hit the finish in 2:04:00, second placer Eliud Kiptanui had yet to run through the Brandenburg Gate some 400 metres from the finish.

Kipchoge has now won his last three marathon majors – Chicago, London and Berlin – and in the form he’s in, it’s hard to see him being beaten at the distance any time soon. Though the 30-year-old has been at the top of the sport for 12 years now, he has many miles left to run. Dennis Kimetto and Wilson Kipsang may have faster times to their names, but if Kipchoge gets the right race – and the right shoes – then there’s every chance he’ll soon better their super-fast times and etch his name into immortality.

Gladys Cherono: the star you’ve never heard of

A star is born: Gladys Cherono takes victory at the Berlin Marathon. Image: PhotoRun

A star is born: Gladys Cherono takes victory at the Berlin Marathon

The television coverage – at least on the German TV feed in the Berlin Marathon media center – showed so little of the elite women’s race that you could be forgiven for not knowing it was happening. The exception, of course, was for German athlete Anna Hahner, who ran 2:30:19 and had many times the amount of air time as Kenya’s Gladys Cherono, who actually won the race in 2:19:25.

Cherono eased away from second-placed Aberu Kebede after the 35km mark and never looked troubled from there on out. In what was just her second marathon, the current IAAF World Half Marathon champion proved she is a natural at the distance, and though at 32 she’s no spring chicken, Cherono is still very much a novice over 26.2 miles. She trains with multiple marathon champion Mary Keitany, but the way Cherono is going, it may be well Keitany who is looking up to her accomplishments in the years to come. A marathon star was born in Berlin, and we should all remember the name.

Athletes really, really enjoy running Berlin

Talking to runners, both elite and recreational, after the race on Sunday, there was a recurring theme. Specifically, there was universal praise for just about everything to do with the marathon experience in Berlin. “As always, the crowds, the course, everything in the background, was great,” said women’s runner-up Aberu Kebede, and she wasn’t alone.

A sub-three hour marathoner I spoke with – a man who’s run so many marathons he’s lost count – said it was by far the most fun he’s had running 26.2 miles, adding that the Berlin Marathon was the choice for those in the know about the sport. Athlete after athlete recounted tales of how much they were boosted by the incredible wall of sound from supporters out on course, the perfect conditions and flat, smooth roads which allowed them the optimum chance to record a fast time. Middle-of-the-pack runners noted how Berlin wasn’t as congested as other marathon majors such as London, or as windy as Chicago, or as hilly as Boston, and so on.

It will take some time before Berlin can truly call itself the world’s best marathon, but with each word of glowing praise spreading through the running community, the race will continue its steep ascent towards the summit.

Want to be the best? Train with the best

Team spirit: training partners Eliud Kipchoge and Emmanuel Mutai  shared the lead at the Berlin Marathon. Image: PhotoRun

Team spirit: training partners Eliud Kipchoge and Emmanuel Mutai shared the lead at the Berlin Marathon. Image: PhotoRun

One of the common threads between race winners Eliud Kipchoge and Gladys Cherono is that they train with other marathon super-freaks, the select few runners in the world capable of beating them on any given day. It’s nothing new in elite distance running, particularly when it comes to Kenyans, but both race winners happen to train with athletes faster than them over 26.2 miles.

Kipchoge explained on Friday how much of a privilege it is to train under Patrick Sang – who he calls “one of the best coaches in the world” – with several of the best marathoners in the world, among them Emmanuel Mutai, who has run 2:03:13. Cherono, meanwhile, trains with 2:18 woman Mary Keitany under the guidance of Italian coach Gabriele Nicola, logging upwards of 180km a week. “She is a big help to me, a big inspiration,” said Cherono about her training partner.

If there’s a simple way runners of all abilities can mimic the champions, then it’s by training with athletes just as good – if not better – than themselves.

Geoffrey Mutai is on the decline

It’s hard to see a way back for Geoffrey Mutai, at least to the towering heights of 2011, when the Kenyan was an unstoppable force in the marathon world and ran his personal best of 2:03:02 in Boston.

After coming down with a calf injury in the wake of his victory in New York in 2013, Mutai has been a shadow of his former self ever since. Last year he could only manage sixth in both the London and New York Marathons, but having spoken confidently about how he’s finally got a grip on his injury problems, hopes were high that he could return to his former glory in Berlin.

On Sunday, though, he could only manage fifth place in a disappointing 2:09:29, which means he was over a mile behind when race winner Eliud Kipchoge crossed the finish line. At 30, Kipchoge shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Mutai, meanwhile, will turn 34 next week and unfortunately, it seems his best days are now behind him.

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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, Irish Examiner and the Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Runner's World.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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