World Marathon Majors

Lessons from London 2020

What we learned about racing, racers, and the indomitable spirit of running from the London Marathon in the time of Covid-19.

What do you do, when the biggest peaceful participation activity in human history suddenly finds that it is potentially a lethal source of mass infection?  How can you serve a community that defines itself by huge crowds cheering for huge crowds, when it is unsafe and illegal to gather more than six people together? How do you survive financially when your event cannot happen? How do you keep alive the positive spirit of a year that was planned to be festive with 40th or 50th anniversary celebrations when for most of the world the year is a long blank?

The 40th London Marathon found answers that were creative and triumphant. They turned the elite races into a made-for-TV spectacular on a nineteen-lap closed circuit of St James’s Park. Only virus-proof cardboard silhouette spectators were admitted, with the Queen glimpsed in several locations. They generated income from sponsor billboards lining both sides of the course that were background to every image. They invited the world’s best runners, including both world record holders, and were rewarded with massive media coverage.

billboards lining the route of the London Marathon
The historic elite-only Virgin Money London Marathon taking place on a closed-loop circuit around St James’s Park in central London on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. Photo: Jon Super for Virgin Money London Marathon

They used that re-conceived elite race to pump up the biggest global virtual event yet, incentive for 43,000 runners in 109 countries to log their 26.2 miles in their own neighborhoods. A strict 24-hour window created focus, so that runners in every English town and village shared the day’s miserable weather with the elites in London. From Chipping Norton to Chile, friends and families came out (socially distanced) to cheer, many runners wore costumes, and the London Marathon’s proud annual charity contribution was expected to be almost undented. A dinosaur that ran in the city of Gloucester was reported to have raised many thousand pounds for a children’s charity.

Race director Hugh Brasher against all odds had perhaps his finest hour, and paid tribute to “the indomitable spirit” of the running community.

As for the races that unfolded in historic St James’s Park, it was a day when the virus was not the only reminder of our human vulnerability, or the inspiration value of what humans can accomplish. It is the personal stories that will remain.

Main story was Eliud Kipchoge, who at last was fallible.  If this was the end for the greatest marathoner of all time, or the beginning of the end, it was not sudden and tearful like Haile Gebrselassie’s in New York City in 2010, but rather an inevitable fading of the blazing brilliance of his talent. Kipchoge this day never seemed to be in command, as all other days he habitually is. When Shura Kitata stretched his long stride, and it was time in the race to respond, Kipchoge (like most of us who run marathons) had no response. Reasons? He spoke of ear blockage. I would offer the cold rain, plus a course of many corners.

“I wonder if the constant turning to the right has anything to do with Kipchoge’s cramping? The more natural turn is anti-clockwise, just thinking laterally,” emailed New Zealand coach Sam McLean to me as Kipchoge dropped back.

Eliud Kipchoge (C) of Kenya finishes first ahead of Hicham El Guerrouj (R) of Morocco and Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, in the men’s 5,000m final, 31 August 2003, during the 9th IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis outside of Paris. The 18-year-old Kipchoge ran a championship record of 12min 52.79sec to beat home Morocco’s 1,500m champion Hicham El Guerrouj while Ethiopia’s 10,000m titleholder Kenenisa Bekele took the bronze. Photo: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images

For the deepest reason, look back to the World Championships track 5000m in 2003.  Yes, 17 years ago. First, Eliud Kipchoge, 12:52.79, second Hicham El Gerrouj, third Kenenisa Bekele. The name of El Gerrouj now seems as if from ancient history. Yet Kipchoge and Bekele have been racing at this level every year for 20 years (both were junior champions), and were billed yet again as the best in the world for this race, until Bekele’s late withdrawal with an injury. Even the greatest hero is subject to mutability. It is our privilege to have witnessed them at their best.

Kipchoge will run on, and will for sure contribute to the sport, with his rare mix of achievement, talent, and high intelligence. But, probably, the best is over.  “Farewell, a long farewell, to all my greatness,” wrote Shakespeare in lament for such a moment of ending.  And if Kipchoge or Bekele comes back to win the Olympic Marathon next year, I will be delighted to eat Shakespeare’s Complete Works in apology and penance.

Kitata wins the 2020 London Marathon
Shura Kitata (ETH) crosses the finish line to win the Elite Men’s Race. Photo: Dan Vernon for Virgin Money London Marathon

Second story, Shura Kitata. As one tree falls, another grows to greatness. The timing is right for this success. At London in 2018, Kitata, then only 21, was a challenging second to Kipchoge, after sharpening his teeth by winning Rome and Frankfurt in 2017. He was second again, to his training friend Lelisa Desisa, in New York in 2018. Before the 2019 New York City Marathon, his coach Haji Adilo told me he was Ethiopia’s best hope, and predicted a course record. But Kitata ran a novice’s race, going out too fast, running alone, his pace undisciplined, and he lost his chance when the pack gobbled him up.

He had an extra personal reason for getting it right this time in London. Adilo, who is not only one of the world’s most outstanding coaches, but a beloved father figure to his athletes in Addis Ababa, could not make the trip because he has tested positive for Covid-19.

“I will bring back my medal for my coach, who is back in Ethiopia,” was the first thing Kitata said after he won that amazing sprint finish against Vincent Kipchumba.

Sara Hall after London Marathon
Sara Hall (USA) celebrates with Molly Seidel (USA) after finishing second in the Elite Women’s Race. Photo: Bob Martin for Virgin Money London Marathon

Third story, what a run by Sara Hall, powering up through the field to finish second behind world-record holder Bridget Kosgei. Like Kitata, Hall showed us all that you don’t give up after one failure. She reached a new level last September in Berlin, 5th place in 2:22:16, but was then gutted to miss out on the US Olympic team in the hilly, windy Atlanta trials. Well, not gutted – deeply disappointed, yes, but aware that she could still move on and up, guts in place. Her second in this London in 2:22:01 was a PR by 15 seconds, and a repeat of her astute negative splits in Berlin.

At 37, Hall is benefitting from a full and balanced life, with husband and coach Ryan and the four children the couple have adopted.

“It’s good to think about something other than yourself. Four kids need a lot of attention, and that gives focus and extra purpose to justify the commitment to running,” she said last year.

There were, as always, many other stories to relish: Molly Seidel confirming her Olympian quality with 6th place in a two-minute PR 2:25:13, or Irish-born Aussie Sinead Diver, 8th (2:27:29) at age 43, keeping pace with the memories of Joyce Smith and Priscilla Welch, earlier masters women stars at London.

But most of all this day was proof of the indomitable spirit of running, which makes me end with the virtual race’s oldest competitor, Northern Irishman Ken Jones, age 87, who ran his marathon near home in Strabane, in County Tyrone.

“I have no plans to retire,” said Jones. The same is true, it seems, of the sport of running.

Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.