Ethiopian Sets Olympic Record in Women’s Marathon

August 5th, 2012 Print Print Email Email

LONDON — On the narrow streets of Sunday’s women’s Olympic marathon, Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia reached for her water bottle and collided with another runner just beyond the halfway point. She fell to the ground and scraped her right elbow. She got up and was bumped again.

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“I said, ‘Oh wow, I’m not going to finish,’ ” Gelana said. “I just concentrated on running. All of a sudden I made it.” She did not see the runner who knocked her down inadvertently as runners scrambled to get their liquids and avoid dehydration. But Gelana climbed to her feet, remained poised and set an Olympic record to win in 2 hours 23 minutes 7 seconds.

On a cool, rainy day, she surged to victory over the final one and a half miles, running the second half of the 26.2 mile race more than three minutes faster than the first. Gelana covered the first half in 1:13:13 and the final half in 1:09:54. And then she had her elbow treated with a patch.

Priscah Jeptoo of Kenya took second in 2:23:12 on a twisty, loop course that passed many of the familiar London landmarks and sometimes puddled with rain. Tatyana Petrova Arkhipova of Russia made a charge over the final miles and finished third in a personal best of 2:23:29. She had finished fourth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2008 Beijing Games.

The biggest surprise was that the prerace favorite, Mary Keitany of Kenya, who won the London Marathon in April, could not hold the pace as it quickened. Her back cramped, according to Jeptoo; Keitany finished fourth in 2:23:56. A Kenyan woman still has not won an Olympic marathon since the event was first held in 1984.

Sunday was even more frustrating for the Americans. Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher went to the lead early but faded, both also sustaining cramps in their legs and back. Flanagan finished 10th in 2:25:51, and Goucher was 11th in 2:26:07. Desiree Davila, who had been battling a hip injury, dropped out after 2.2 miles.

Liliya Shobukhova of Russia, the second-fastest woman’s marathoner in history, also dropped out about midway. Paula Radcliffe of Britain, the world-record holder at 2:15:25, did not enter the Olympic marathon, her brittle feet no longer allowing her to recapture her former greatness.

“Once again, the only thing certain about the marathon is 26.2 miles,” said Mary Wittenberg, director of the New York City Marathon. “It can bring even the best to their knees.”

Ethiopia has now won the Olympic women’s marathon twice. Fatuma Roba took first at the 1996 Atlanta Games. At the London Games, Ethiopia has won both women’s distance events, with Turunesh Dibaba taking a gold medal in the 10,000, while its East African rival, Kenya, has twice had to settle for the consolation of silver.

Gelana, Dibaba and Roba are all from the same village, Bekoji, located above 9,000 feet in Ethiopia’s southern highlands where many residents live as subsistence farmers. Bekoji is also the hometown of the multiple Olympic champions Kenenisa Bekele and Derartu Tulu, a kind of world running capital.

“It is a running lifestyle in Bekoji, and I am part of that,” Gelana, 24, said.

Gelana had won the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon in 2:18:58, an Ethiopian record, running with a stirring consistency, covering the first half in 69:30 and the second half in 69:28. On Sunday, she showed her versatility with a so-called negative split, covering the second half much faster than the first.

“I was in control of my competitors,” Gelana said. “I was always running at their pace.”

Twenty-three runners reached the halfway point at or near 1:13:13. Then the pace sped up. And finally only four runners were left contending for the three medals: Gelana, Jeptoo, Petrova Arkhipova and Keitany.

At the New York City Marathon last fall, Keitany ran both courageously and recklessly, setting off at world record pace, only to fade to third. She ran a much more controlled race at the London Marathon in April, then cruised home over the final half in 67:44 to set an Ethiopian marathon record of 2:18:37. But she was not at her best Sunday.

After falling, Gelana had remained cautious at ensuing water stops, fearing that if she went down again she would not complete the race. Then with about one and half miles remaining, she made a surge toward the gold medal. Keitany could not answer with her back muscles having seized, according to Jeptoo, who had tried to help her teammate by bringing Keitany liquids during the race.

“Mary didn’t react,” Jeptoo said. “I knew she was having a problem. I tried to win any medal that would come.”

For her it would be silver as Gelana and Ethiopia collected another gold. At the start, Gelana had not expected to win. Her doubt grew after she splattered to the pavement. But she has loved running in the rain since she was a child. And Sunday, she remained composed and crossed the line into Olympic history.

Later, she held up her patched elbow for reporters, but said she had not felt any pain during the tense excitement of the race.

“It didn’t stop me from running,” Gelana said.

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