By Rich Sands, @sands
(c) 2021 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
NOTE: This story was written remotely –Ed.
(07-Aug) — Peres Jepchirchir survived a war of attrition to capture the Olympic gold medal in the women’s marathon on a hot and humid morning in Sapporo, pulling away from Kenyan teammate Brigid Kosgei in the final two kilometers. American Molly Seidel was a surprise bronze medalist after boldly running with the lead pack for more than two hours.
Jepchirchir, a two-time world champion in the half-marathon, clocked 2:27:20 in the sweltering conditions, 16 seconds ahead of world record holder Kosgei, with Seidel –the runner-up at the 2020 USA Olympic Trials in her marathon debut– another 10 ticks behind.
The temperature was 26 degrees Celsius (78 Fahrenheit) when the race began at 6:00 am local time and climbed throughout the morning to a searing 30C/86F with 68% humidity. A field of 88 runners started, with 73 ultimately finishing. A day before the race the start time was moved up one hour earlier than planned in order to avoid the extreme heat of the day and possibly a pending storm. Ironically, the marathons and race walks were originally relocated to Sapporo, on the northeast island of Hokkaido, more than 800 kilometers (500 miles) away from Tokyo, in order to avoid the heat of the host city.
Given the conditions, the early pace was understandably cautious, with a massive pack passing 5-K in 18:03 and 10-K in 36:16. Japan’s Honami Maeda and Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter were among those up front, as well as the two Kenyans and their teammate, 2019 world champion Ruth Chepngetich, Seidel and American teammate Sally Kipyego.
The pace then began to quicken, with the next two 5-K segments passed in 17:31 and 17:40, respectively. At halfway (1:15:14) the pack was down to 11 women: Jepchirchir, Kosgei, Seidel, Chepngetich, Kipyego, Salpeter, Roza Dereje of Ethiopia, Mao Ichiyama of Japan, Helalia Johannes of Namibia, Melat Kejeta of Germany and Eunice Chumba of Bahrain.
After the leaders clocked 17:13 between 25-K and 30-K, Kipyego was first to lose contact. By 33-K there were just five remaining up front: Seidel, Kosgei, Jepchirchir, Chumba and Salpeter.
Seidel, running in her just her third marathon, continued to look remarkably relaxed at the front of this final quintet.
“It is very difficult right now, I think, for Molly Seidel to be leading,” two-time Olympian Kara Goucher marveled on the U.S. broadcast of the race. “She is in unknown territory. She hasn’t raced this far in these conditions in her life, and she is actually controlling what is happening in the Olympic marathon. This is all new territory for her. All of the women behind her have experience in controlling major marathons and being the one that makes the move and being the one everyone is looking at. This is new for her.”
Seidel finally started to look human in the 38th kilometer, when the Kenyan pair began to break away in a battle for the gold. A few minutes later, Salpeter slowed to a walk, leaving the American alone in third. (Salpeter would ultimately resume running, but finished well back in 66th place, in 2:48:31.) The Kenyans hit 40-K in 2:19:59, six seconds ahead of Seidel, who had a 31-second cushion ahead of Dereje, now in fourth.
Moments later, Jepchirchir, who set a world record for a women’s only half marathon (1:05:16) last year, made the final move of the race, steadily pulling away from Kosgei. The winning time (2:27:20) was the slowest since 1992, a sure sign of the oppressive heat. She became the second Kenyan woman to win the Olympic Marathon.
“It was so hot, it was not easy,” Jepchirchir said. “I’m just thankful I managed [to cope] with that weather.”
She ran her career best of 2:17:16 last December in Valencia, Spain. Still, that left her more than three minutes behind the Kosgei’s 2:14:04 world record from 2019. “I pushed on the pace [and when I opened the gap] it was like, ‘Wow, I’m going to make it. I’m going to win’,” Jepchirchir said of breaking away from Kosgei (2:27:36).
“I was happy because I was selected to represent my country for the first time,” Kosgei commented. “I want to say thanks to Kenya and thanks to my fans, my coach and my colleagues who train with me because we won gold and silver. I would also like to say thanks to my friend for winning gold.”
Seidel, an NCAA champion in cross country, indoor and outdoor track for Notre Dame, let out a roar as she crossed the line in 2:27:46. She became just the third American woman to win an Olympic Marathon medal after Joan Benoit’s gold in Los Angeles in 1984 and Deena Kastor’s bronze in Athens in 2004.
“I’m in shock. I’m in disbelief right now,” she told NBC reporter Steve Porino. “I’ve worked so hard for this. Everybody has supported me through this. This is not just me. This is my family, my coach, this is everyone who’s trained with me.”
She qualified for the U.S. team in her marathon debut at the U.S. trials in February 2020, then lowered her personal best to 2:25:13 seven months later at the London Marathon. Still, she didn’t think she had a realistic chance to win a medal. It was only at the insistence of her coach, Jon Green, that she even brought her Team USA podium uniform to the race.
“I just wanted to come out today, get up in it, stick my nose where it didn’t belong, and see what I could come away with,” she told Porino. “I guess that’s a medal.”
Dereje (2:28:38) maintained fourth place, followed by Volha Mazuronak of Belarus, Kejeta (2:29:16) and Chumba (2:29:36) as the only women to break 2:30. Ichiyama (2:30:13), Canada’s Malindi Elmore (2:30:59) and Australia’s Sinead Diver, who is 44 years old, (2:31:14) rounded out the top 10 while Kipyego (2:32:53) finished 17th.
Among the 15 women who were unable to finish were Chepngetich (who stopped at 30-K) and American Aliphine Tuliamuk, winner of the U.S. trials, who has been dealing with a hip injury, and dropped out after 20-K.