By Philip Hersh, Tribune reporter
5:35 PM CDT, October 7, 2012
The number taunted Tsegaye Kebede. He had been one of the world's best marathoners since winning a 2008 Olympic bronze medal, had wins and second places in some of the world's top races, yet the 25-year-old Ethiopian always wondered when he would realize a dream of having the clock read 2:04-something when he finished.
Sunday seemed a perfect day for Kebede to do that. He likes cold weather, and it was 41 degrees when the race began and only 5 degrees warmer when the leaders finished. He knew the men's field in the 35th anniversary Bank of America Chicago Marathon had so many fast runners the competition and the designated pace-setters figured to give him a chance for a hot feat.
But the pace lagged for the first half of the race. So when the last "rabbit" dropped out at 16 miles, when the average per mile was 4 minutes, 48 seconds, Kebede figured it was time to take matters into his own feet.
Kebede, running in front, reeled off five straight miles under from 4:33 to 4:38, then adding a 4:36 in the 24th mile. That not only shredded what had been an 11-runner pack but put himself and the one runner who could hang on, countryman Feyisa Lilesa, in position to get the magic number.
"At (22 miles), I was sure the pace was around 2:04," Kebede said. "I pushed from there to the finish."
When he got there, after inexorably pulling away from Lilesa in the last 2 miles, Kebede had time to spare as he became the first Ethiopian man to win Chicago. So he waved hello to fans with Ethiopian flags and hit the finish line in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 38 seconds, breaking the course record Kenya's Moses Mosop had set last year by 59 seconds.
Lilesa took second in 2:04:52, and marathon debutant Tilahun Regassa made it an Ethopian sweep with a time (2:05:27) that also bettered Mosop's record.
Atsede Baysa added to Ethiopia's banner day by holding off Rita Jeptoo of East African rival Kenya to win the women's race by one second with a time of 2:22:03. It matched the smallest women's winning margin in Chicago history.
Lucy Kabuu of Kenya was third, 38 seconds back. Three-time defending champion Liliya Shobukhova of Russia took fourth, 18 seconds behind Kabuu.
Kebede, whose previous personal best was 2:05:18, earned $100,000 for the win and another $50,000 for the course record. Chicago runner-up in 2010, he has finished below third just once in 12 marathons after his debut in 2007.
"I don't think Tsegaye has gotten the recognition he deserves," Chicago race director Carey Pinkowski said. "Right now, he is the greatest marathon runner in the world."
"He is a consistent, amazing marathoner," said Dathan Ritzenhein, the top U.S. runner who finished ninth. "To be able to really put it down like that at the end, that's what makes a great champion."
Kebede ran the first half of Sunday's race in 1:02:55, the second in 1:01:43.
"These guys (the Ethiopians) came prepared to race, and they were working as a team," said Kenyan Wesley Korir, fifth in a personal-best 2:06:13. "They did a great job."
Korir, second a year ago, stayed with the leaders for 21 miles. He had not expected the race to pick up until after the 18th mile.
"For the pace to start getting hot that early, at 16 miles, mentally, it screws you up, because you think, `Man, I've still got 10 miles to go and these guys are going 4:30,' " Korir said.
For Tsegaye Kebede, it was about time.
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