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A Kenyan Sweep At The Great North Run

Martin Mathathi broke a six-year-old course record.

Martin Mathathi broke a six-year-old course record.

Written by: David Monti
(c) 2011 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Martin Mathathi wins the 2011 Bupa Great North Run half-marathon in a course record 58:56. Photo: Universal Sports

SOUTH SHIELDS, ENGLAND — For the first time in ten years, and only the third time in the 31-year history of the race, athletes from Kenya took both the men’s and women’s titles with dominant performances at the Bupa Great North Run, the world’s largest half marathon with 54,000 entrants.  Martin Mathathi (58:56) and Lucy Kabuu (1:07:06) both clocked career best times, and Mathathi handily broke Zersenay Tadese’s 2005 course record of 59:05.

In the early-start all-women’s race, a deep international field took a thrashing from the tiny 27 year-old Kabuu, whose full name is Lucy Wangui Kabuu.  Today’s race was her first outside of Kenya since 2008, the year she finished seventh at the Beijing Olympics in the 10,000m, running a career best 30:39.96.  She had been on maternity leave since giving birth to daughter, Angel, in May, 2010.

“It was nice to see Lucy again,” commented Britain’s Jo Pavey who also competed here today.  “We both ran in the Commonwealth Games in 2006.  We both had babies around the same time.”

But Pavey, who used today’s race to check her fitness in advance of the ING New York City Marathon on Nov. 6, didn’t get to see much of Kabuu on the course today.  All of the key women–Ethiopia’s Birhane Adere; Portugal’s Jessica Augusto and Marisa Barros; Britain’s Hellen Clitheroe, Pavey, and Mara Yamauchi; and Kenya’s Kabuu, Irene Jerotich and Irene Mogaka–stayed together through the first two miles (10:31), but Kabuu decided to up the tempo, early.  She ran the third mile in 5:05, hit the 5K mark in 16:09, and passed through four miles in 20:54.  That left only Kabuu and Adere still in contention for victory.  Pavey wasn’t surprised.

“Once she comes up for a race, you know there’s going to be some fast times,” Pavey said.

Adere quickly faded back (the two-time Great North champion would finish 12th), leaving Kabuu with nothing but open road ahead.  She covered the sixth mile in 4:49, hit the 10-K in 31:52, and covered the seventh mile in 4:54.  She soon had a one minute lead on the field, but repeatedly turned around to see if anyone was catching up.

“I was fearing the other runners,” Kabuu later explained.

There was nothing to fear.  Kabuu, whose high arm carriage is reminiscent of Vivian Cheruiyot’s, ripped through 15K in 47:27, and ten miles in 50:58.  That was fast, but she was still 57 seconds behind Paula Radcliffe’s course record split of 50:01 from back in 2003.  Kabuu later admitted that she knew little about the course and was just running on feel.

“I saw it yesterday at night,” she said, meaning that she had watched a video of last year’s race back at her hotel before racing this morning.

Kabuu strode confidently to the finish to break the pale blue tape in 1:07:06, slicing about two and one-half minutes off of her personal best.  Her mark was the second-fastest in the world this year behind only Mary Keitany’s 1:05:50 world record set last February at Ras Al Khaimah.

Well behind Kabuu, Jessica Augusto comfortably won the battle for second over compatriot Marisa Barros, 1:09:27 to 1:10:29.  Like Pavey, who finished fourth in 1:10:49, Augusto is training for the ING New York City Marathon.  Clitheroe took the fifth position in her half-marathon debut in 1:10:57, despite running the one-mile race at the Great North City Games less than 24 hours ago in nearby Gateshead.  She was pleased with her result.

“I really had no expectations coming into today,” said Clitheroe, the reigning European 3,000m indoor champion.  “I just thought I’d enjoy it, especially having run yesterday in the mile.”  She continued: “I felt like doing cartwheels the last mile.”

Yamauchi, who was competing for the first time since last November’s marathon in New York, didn’t feel her best and dropped out at about eight miles.   She did not speak to the press.

There was a bit more drama in the men’s contest, at least for a while.  A five-man pack including Kenyans Mathathi, Emmanuel Mutai (the Virgin London Marathon champion), Jonathan Maiyo, and Micah Kogo, and Moroccan Jaouad Gharib passed through 5 kilometers in a brisk 13:57.  Soon Gharib, another New York City Marathon-bound athlete, fell of the pace, and Mutai also slipped back, later complaining of a sore back.

“The race for me was quite difficult,” Mutai told reporters.

Maiyo saw a chance to steal the race, and shot ahead, stringing out the field.  He put perhaps ten meters on Mathathi, but the Japan-based Kenyan who runs for the Suzuki corporate team wasn’t worried.

“Before the World Championships (where he finished fifth in the 10,000m) I had done a lot of speed work,” Mathathi said.  “I had the confidence that I would catch him.”

After Maiyo hit the 10K in 27:50, Mathathi began to close the gap, and before the 13K point was reached (8 miles), Maiyo had been dropped.  From that point, the 2007 World Championships 10,000m bronze medalist would race only the clock.  He got to 15K in 41:38, on pace to run 58:33.  Although he couldn’t maintain that pace all the way to the finish, he nonetheless clocked what was briefly the second-fastest half-marathon in the world this year (Mathew Kisorio ran 58:46 at Philadelphia just hours later).

“I feel honored to break the course record,” Mathathi said.

Maiyo held on for second in 59:27, and Mutai was able to pass Kogo to take third in a personal best 59:52.  Mutai’s manager Michel Boeting said that it was a good run for his client considering that he was in the midst of training for the marathon in New York.  Kogo was timed in 1:00:03, and France’s Abdellatif Meftah got fifth in 1:01:02.  Gharib finished sixth in 1:01:31 and seemed to be limping slightly at the finish.

While the elite athletes enjoyed cool and cloudy conditions, with just a tiny sprinkle of rain near the beginning of the elite women’s race, the back-of-the-pack runners endured several intense bursts of rain.  But soon the clouds cleared away, revealing a clear and breathtaking view of the rugged coastline and the North Sea just past the finish line.  A rainbow even appeared a bit later.