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Lelisa Desisa Prevails In Corniche Combat

10/06/2019
Doha, Qatar
October 5th, 2019


fb554f46-839f-4bf5-85f4-b263d68abd42Day Nine of these 2019 IAAF World Athletics Championships featured many anticipated finals.  Miles away from the festive crowds and bright lights of Khalifa International Stadium, 73 intrepid distance runners were preparing to compete in one of those finals:  the men’s marathon to be staged along Doha’s famous Corniche, one the most striking city backdrops in the Middle East.

The loop marathon course set out for both genders is really striking.  The start line is set 195 meters behind the finish line which is situated right in front of covered VIP seating accommodations.  After the opening 195 meters, the competitors navigate 6 repetitive loops of the 7 kilometers.  The 42.195 kilo Corniche course – a flat, freshly-paved roadway – would normally be a track conducive to fast times – except for the expected incredible heat.

But after a week of barely tolerable weather with temperatures approaching 110 degrees Fahrenheit with high humidity, the athletes competing in the men’s marathon received a break.  As if through divine intervention, race day arrived with the usual high temperatures, but with humidity levels of 45% - as opposed to the 85% humidity that plagued the women’s marathon.  Perhaps the men would race in weather conditions that were merely challenging, not impossible.  

There had been much pre-race speculation about which marathoners should be viewed as favorites.  While all entrants were expected to struggle in the heat, no one doubted that the East African and Middle Eastern athletes who live and train in sultry, steamy environments would be better suited to perform more near their potential in these oppressive weather conditions.  

Just before midnight, the men’s marathon got underway as the field launched out into the darkness.  Immediately, Paraguayan athlete Derlys Ayala went to the lead and broke away from the field. By 1 kilometer [15:06] the 29-year-old had a one minute lead.  Meanwhile the chase pack of nearly 50 was led by 2-time Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa.  With water bottles and sponges flying at every aid station, the chase horde kept the Paraguayan pacesetter in sight as the leader hit 10K in 30:40.  The top competitors joined Desisa at the front of the chase pack, including former Olympic and world marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich, defending champion Geoffrey Kirui, Scottish marathon record holder Callum Hawkins, and Ethiopian Geremew, fresh off his 2:02:55 runner-up finish in last spring’s London Marathon.  

The occasional front running breakout and several lead changes at the front of the chase pack ensued until just around the one hour mark when 37-year old Eritrea athlete Zersenay Tadese threw down the first decisive move of the race.  The 4-time world half marathon champion’s surge strung out the pack and Ayala’s lead was quickly reduced to 43 seconds.  During the 69th minute and just before the end of lap 3, Tadese and 5 others swooped past Ayala and into the lead.  Minutes later and just before reaching the half marathon mark Ayala, who reportedly ran a 2:10 marathon just two weeks prior to this championship race, called it a day and walked off the course.

Tadese’s bold move coalesced a pack of 6, a front-running group that represented those with serious medal ambitions.  At 25 kilos, the leaders were Tadese, the Ethiopians Desisa and teammate Geremew, Kenyan’s Kirui and Amos Kipruto, and South African Stephen Moroka.  One minute back and chasing the leaders was a 2nd group led by Great Britain’s Hawkins.  By 30K reached by Tadese’s gang of 6 in 1:33:13, Hawkins’ chase group had the cut margin to 13 seconds.  The real racing was underway.  At 35 kilos, Moroka was now in the lead as the front pack had dwindled to 5 with the Kirui sliding away to 9th.  The defending champion would eventually finish 14th  

Shortly after the bell rang at the start of the final 7 kilometer circuit, Tadese, the athlete whose bold move inspired serious racing nearly an hour before, lost contact with his lead group that had been whittled down to the South African Moroka, the Kenyan Kipruto, and the Ethiopians, Geremew, and Desisa.  At 37 kilos, Desisa, sensing the endgame was here, moved into the lead.  In the final 5 kilometers, the four leaders cautiously eyed one another, assessing the strength of their opponents and plotting their closing moves.  But there was another athlete on the move. Quietly, Hawkins passed the struggling Tadese and set sail for the lead quartet just seconds away.  The Scot was not yet done.

With less than 2 miles remaining, Hawkins not only caught the lead quartet, but he unhesitatingly moved through the pack to grab the lead.  At 40 kilometers passed in 2:04:24 with little more than a mile remaining, it was 4 Africans and the Scot poised to battle for the medals.  The South African was first to lose contact and shortly thereafter Hawkins, spent after his long heroic grind to the front, let go next.  Sensing weakness, the veteran Desisa made the decisive move that would drop Kipruto, prompting finish line cheers from the Ethiopian contingent which knew it would now have the first Ethiopian marathon gold medalist since 2001.  But who would it be – Desisa or Geremew?  One final turn of the screw by Desisa forced separation from his countryman as the 2013 world champion runner-up would at last cross the world championship finish line first [2:10:40] for the gold.  4 seconds later Geremew crossed  2nd followed by Kipruto [2:10:51] in 3rd.  Great Britain’s Hawkins [2:10:57] was dealt a cruel outcome, once again finishing 4th, just missing a medal as the Brit did with his 4th place finish in the 2017 world championships.  Moroka [2:11:03] hung on for 5th.   "It was hot, but I prepared perfectly for this race," said the new champion afterwards. "I am very tired. But after I took silver in Moscow, this time I kept my power better."  A crestfallen 4th place finisher, Hawkins shared his feelings.  Maybe I just gave too much in the middle stages. But I couldn’t do any more.”

As was the case in the women’s marathon, a good number of the top U.S. men marathoners elected to bypass these world championships either to compete later this fall in more lucrative marathons staged in more accommodating weather conditions or to engage in additional, focused preparation for the USA Olympic marathon trials at the end of February, or both.  The American trio of Ahmed Osman, Elkanah Kibet, and Andrew Epperson performed nobly.  Osman, who trains in Flagstaff, Arizona and ran a PR 2:14:40 to place 6th in the 2018 Chicago Marathon, was the first American across the line, finishing 23rd in 2:16:22.  “I was just consistently trying to move my way up.  I wanted to put myself in a good position which I did in the beginning,” said the San Diego native.  “But I got cramps and I was just maintaining my place all the way to the end. I was in great shape coming in. It was just the weather conditions, you know?  It’s not about the time.  It’s just about competing.”   Kibet finished 38th in 2:19:33 and Epperson crossed 46th in 2:23:11].  The American trio was among the 55 athletes of the initial starting field of 73 who finished this world championship final.

Dave Hunter is an award-winning journalist who is a U.S. Correspondent for Track & Field News.  He also writes a weekly column and serves as Senior Writer for www.RunBlogRun.com, and covers championship track & field competition domestically and in such global capitals as Moscow, Birmingham, Zurich, Brussels, Beijing,  Rio de Janeiro, Zagreb, and Ostrava.  Hunter frequently serves as the arena or stadium announcer for championship track & field gatherings, including the Ivy League, the Big East, the Mid-American Conference, the NAIA, the Big Ten, and the Millrose Games.  Hunter has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments..  He ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic Era.  To find out more about Dave, visit his website:   www.trackandfieldhunter.com  He can be reached at: dave@trackandfieldhunter.com

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