9:06 AM CDT, October 14, 2013
The pace was fast, faster than planned, too fast even for the men paid to drive it for at least 20 miles. The last of the rabbits was gone after 15 miles, leaving the runners trying to win Sunday’s Bank of America Chicago Marathon to carry it for themselves.
Eight men pushed on at the front, going still faster in optimal weather conditions, putting a possible world record in play even as the lead pack thinned to four and then, at 23 miles, to just Kenyans Dennis Kimetto and Emmanuel Mutai.
After a 23rd mile covered in a stunning 4 minutes, 32 seconds, the leaders’ time translated to a finish that would have been a second faster than the world record another Kenyan, Wilson Kipsang, had set in Berlin two weeks ago.
Kimetto would say he was unaware of all that, entirely unaware of records or the clock until he crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 3 minutes, 45 seconds. For him, it was all about the stirring battle with Mutai, who hung on until the start of the 25th mile before winding up seven seconds behind.
Kimetto’s time would be the fourth fastest ever on a record-eligible course. He missed the world record by 22 seconds but crushed the course record of 2:04:38 set by Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede last year.
As fast as he ran Sunday, it pales in comparison to the pace at which Kimetto, 29, has gone from a non-running subsistence farmer in Eldoret, Kenya, to one of the world’s best marathoners, good enough to earn $100,000 for winning Chicago and a $75,000 bonus for the course record.
On the exhaustive track and road running data base, tilastopaja.net, Kimetto’s competitive record is blank until 2011, when it shows a lone race. Speaking through a Swahili interpreter, Kimetto said he had been growing maize and tending a few cows until he began running about four years ago.
Kimetto said he had been running about four miles a day when a chance encounter with Geoffrey Mutai, a Boston and New York marathon winner, led to an invitation to the demanding Mutai’s training group in a remote area, Kapng'tuny, some 40 miles from Eldoret.
Kimetto's agent, Gerard Van de Veen, said Geoffrey Mutai had noticed Kimetto running in the streets and was struck by how easy his stride looked.
In 2012, Kimetto broke the world record for 25 kilometers by 32 seconds and then was second in the Berlin Marathon in 2:04:06, a marathon debut record. This year, he had won February’s Tokyo Marathon in 2:06:50.
"It's amazing," Van de Veen said.
Kimetto said he had been diagnosed with malaria in July and had a back problem in August but had trained well the past six weeks.
Although he tested his rivals a few times Sunday with brief surges, the most striking piece of Kimetto’s strategy was its consistency. He ran the first half of the race in 61:52, the second half in 61:53.
He finally took command at the final fluids station, when a tired Emmanuel Mutai had trouble grabbing his bottle and dropped a few meters behind. Mutai, 29, said the problems with the bottle were not decisive as he tried vainly to close the gap before finishing second for the sixth time in a major marathon, including London twice, New York twice and the World Championships.
“Dennis was stronger than me,” Mutai said.
Mutai’s time was fifth fastest ever on a record-eligible course. (Boston, where the two fastest marathon times were run in 2011, is among courses that do not meet record standards because they are point-to-point, allowing a tailwind to have a profound effect.)
Two more Kenyans, Sammy Kitwara (2:05:16) and Micah Kogo (2:06:56), both ran personal bests to finish third and fourth, respectively, giving their country its first sweep of Chicago’s top four places since 2008. Kenya’s Moses Mosop, the 2011 champion, was eighth in 2:11:19.
Kenyan men have won 10 of the past 11 Chicago marathons, missing only last year, when Kitwara was fourth behind three Ethiopians.
Battling hamstring cramps over the final eight miles, top U.S. finisher Dathan Ritzenhein could be pleased with his place (fifth) if not his time (2:09:45). No U.S. man has finished higher in Chicago since Abdi Abdirahman’s fourth in 2006.
“I’m definitely a little disappointed,” Ritzenhein said. “I hoped to run about three minutes faster.”
Matt Tegenkamp wound up satisfied with a marathon debut that left him 10th in 2:12:48. The ex-Wisconsin runner, a two-time track Olympian, said his legs gave out with four miles to go.
Kimetto had plenty left in his legs. After all, the way he tells it, they hadn’t been used to race for the first 26 years of his life.
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