London field stacked with elites
Field features world-record holder and five of 10 fastest marathoners in history
"The best field ever? Yeah, I think so. They're all in shape. They're all here. No major drop-outs. You can't get better than the best," Bedford said. "And with Mo [Farah] as wild card and Haile [Gebrselassie] setting the pace, it'll be a great race.
"At first I was disappointed when [Kenenisa] Bekele chose Paris, but now I think the whole Bekele/Mo debut thing would have dominated if they were both here. And the guys who are probably going to win this one would have got overlooked."
Those "guys" are a who's-who of today's marathon superstars. Almost all the world's best are in London, these astonishing men from the high plains of Kenya and Ethiopia, who in five years have made 2:03-2:04 the going rate for a big-race marathon win.
On the starting line Sunday will be five of the 10 fastest marathon runners in history -- eight who have run under 2:05 and four who have run sub-2:04. Until 2011, that line had been crossed only by Gebrselassie, "The Master," with his 2008 world record of 2:03:59.
It was Olympic and world champion Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) who gave Gebrselassie his nickname, and this cross-section of top elites are all enthusiastic about running with the already legendary Gebrselassie, who will turn 41 next week.
Defending champion Tsegaye Kebede (Ethiopia) even suggested that his hero, "my country's greatest runner," might not be content with pace-making duties.
"He has run a fast half-marathon, and 10K. Haile will do something on Sunday," Kebede said.
No one was willing to predict a winning time. But no one was complaining about the planned world-record pace to 30km that is Gebrselassie's task for the day.
Two-time New York City Marathon champion (2011, 2013) Geoffrey Mutai (Kenya), who also ran a sensational wind-aided 2:03:02 at the Boston Marathon in 2011, was unconcerned about world record talk.
"I was injured and did not finish in London last year," Mutai said. "So I have focused on this race. For a fast pace, you must be strong and in shape. I am ready."
Debutant Ibrahim Jeilan (Ethiopia) was the most outspoken, with the confidence of having placed first and second, respectively, in the 10,000 meters at the last two world championships.
"This is my first marathon. But I don't worry about who is here, or what they're going to do. I expect something good," said Jeilan, with a fierceness befitting his new pirate-style beard.
Kebede reminisced about his dramatic come-from-behind win at London last year (he also won in 2010), though he made it sound more a matter of opportunism than calculated tactics.
"They were far from me. I was not thinking to win. Then around 40km, they are with me, and look so tired. I was disappointed to be only second [to Geoffrey Mutai] at New York. I hope to win here again," Kebede said.
He did not know at the time that he was complicating this year's race by inspiring a youthful fan to transform almost overnight into a world-shaking marathoner. Tsegaye Mekonnen (Ethiopia) is just 18 years old, but ran 2:04:32 at Dubai on January 24.
"I watched Tsegaye [Kebede] winning London on TV, and I was inspired by him. In Dubai, I was preparing myself for London," Mekonnen said.
One of the best things about the sport of running at this top level is that the rapport between the top elites in the days before the race seems more collegial and supportive than rivalrous, even between Ethiopia and Kenya.
Kiprotich and London course record-holder (2:04:40) Emmanuel Mutai (Kenya) admit to being close friends and regular training partners, but would not be drawn into conversation about which of them is going to do better on Sunday. And Geoffrey Mutai trains in the same Kenyan group as world record holder Wilson Kipsang.
The planned world-record pace remains a concern after last year, when a field almost as strong as this one went through the first mile in 4:38 and halfway in 61:34, but by 30km had fallen apart and left Kebede to work his cunning magic from almost one minute behind.
In a similar scenario, the predicted 10 mph wind from the northwest might be a factor when the course heads due west along the Thames Embankment for its last six miles. Women's world record holder Paula Radcliffe dismissed that notion, though.
"The hard part of this course is in the middle, with all the twists and turns in the Docklands, and sharp little hills up out of road tunnels. Once you get to the last six miles it's easy," Radcliffe said.
Still, visions remain of Emmanuel Mutai looking limp and wind-battered when Kebede pattered past him at 25 miles last year. And it's hard to relate to the last six miles of a marathon being easy, but you don't argue with the woman who ran 2:15:25 here in 2003.
Here is a look at this year's field, broken down by their home country.
• Tsegaye Kebede is the defending champion, won Paris as a 21-year-old in 2007, took bronze at the Olympics in 2008 and won bronze at the 2009 world championships. He has won London twice, Fukuoka twice, and both Chicago and Paris once-in other words, he's a winner. A tiny man with waggling elbows and a huge heart that frequently brings him back into contention late in the race. PR: 2:04:38, Chicago, 2012.
• Ayele Abshero finished third in London last year, making amends for a DNF in the 2012 London Olympics. He broke through by winning Dubai in 2012, but has been inconsistent since. He's still only 23, so there's time. PR: 2:04:23, Dubai 2012.
• Tsegaye Mekonnen is only 18, yet made a sensational debut at Dubai this year. Still, he is an unknown quantity, with no other notable accomplishments other than finishing fifth in the world junior 5000 meters in 2012, but has unlimited potential. PR: 2:04:32, Dubai, 2014.
• Feyisa Lelisa was the bronze medal winner at the 2011 world championships and finished fourth in London in 2013. He has no marathon wins other than Dublin in 2009 (2:09:12) and Xiamen in 2010 (2:08:47). He DNF at the 2013 world championships and at Frankfurt, so he is largely unknown, though clearly a big talent usually able to stay with a fast pace. PR: 2:04:52, Chicago, 2012.
• Ibrahim Jeilan must be featured frequently in Mo Farah's nightmares, after stealing the 2011 world 10,000 meter title from the straining Brit in the last strides. Jelian was a dangerously close second in 2013 when Farah reversed the placings. He is fast, confident, and backed by a Japanese corporation and coach. First marathon.
• Haile Gebrselassie is the pace setter to 30K. PR: 2:03:59, Berlin 2008.
• Emmanuel Mutai is the London record-holder with 2:04:40. He was second twice at New York, and once at Chicago. Always up there, doesn't often win. PR: 2:03:52, Chicago, 2013.
• Geoffrey Mutai ran the fastest marathon in history, but is not the world record holder because the wind aided his time in Boston in 2011. Often a winner at an astutely judged pace, as at Boston, Berlin and twice at New York. Watch him closely at 20 miles or whenever the wind is behind. PR: 2:03:02, Boston, 2011 or 2:04:15, Berlin 2012, according to your principles.
• Stanley Biwott has one great win, at Paris in 2012, and is otherwise a valued member of the pack. With a half-marathon PR of 59:44 he may be better at that distance. PR: 2:05:12, Paris, 2012.
• Martin Mathathi won bronze in the world championship 10,000 in 2007, and world cross-country bronze in 2006. He popped a big marathon win at Fukuoka in 2013, his first marathon finish. He may have found his true event, but there's little record yet. PR: 2:07:16, Fukuoka, 2013.
• Stephen Kiprotich was the shocking Olympic champion in 2012, and it was almost as much of a shock when he added the world championship in 2013. His disappointing New York in 2013 was probably too soon after the heat of Moscow. He is an enigma who seems able to win big ones, but doesn't yet have top-flight times. PR: 2:07:20, Enschede, 2011.
• Samuel Tsegaye was ninth at London in 2012, and a DNF in the 2012 Olympics. PR: 2:07:28, Amsterdam, 2011.
• Marilson dos Santos is getting up there in years at age 37. His winning days are probably over, but he has won New York twice, and owns a consistent record of placing in the top 10 almost every time (13 out of 16 marathons). PR: 2:06:34, London, 2011.
• Ryan Vail was the top American in last year's New York City Marathon, and a good run in Fukuoka in 2012 moved him up the U.S. ranks. This is his first try in London. PR: 2:11:45, Fukuoka, 2012.
• Mo Farah almost got the 10,000/5,000 double at the 2011 worlds but was thwarted only by Jeilan, and then did the double at the London Olympics and the 2013 world championships. This is his debut marathon, but his coach is Alberto Salazar, who knows something about the distance. Will Mo's seemingly frail track-runner's body absorb the pressure of sub-5:00 miles on road?
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