It was a race that had been billed as the ultimate clash between three marathon greats, but only one of them made it to the finish line at the BMW Berlin Marathon on Sunday (24) as Eliud Kipchoge won the IAAF Gold Label road race in a world-leading 2:03:32.
Of the other pre-race favourites, defending champion Kenenisa Bekele had drifted off the pace shortly after the half-way mark before dropping out some 10 kilometres later, while former world record-holder Wilson Kipsang stopped suddenly at 30 kilometres.
Instead, marathon debutant Guye Adola somewhat surprisingly was Kipchoge’s only company for the final 12 kilometres of the race and they were locked in an intriguing duel right through to the closing stages. Kipchoge eventually won the battle of wills, but Adola was rewarded with the fastest marathon debut in history, finishing second in 2:03:46.
Led by a quartet of pacemakers, the three headline acts were joined by Adola and Kenya’s 2011 world silver medallist Vincent Kipruto for much of the first half of the men's race, passing five kilometres in 14:28 and 10 kilometres in 29:04.
A spell of heavy rain at about eight kilometres didn’t completely ruin the chances of a world record, but it certainly made their task more difficult. The rain soon abated, but the conditions remained damp and drizzly for much of the race.
Half way was reached in 1:01:29, exactly on schedule to break Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57. Two pacemakers remained at the front of the pack with Kipchoge tucked close behind them in the middle of the pack. Bekele, however, was unable to stick with the pace for much longer and started to drift off the lead pack after 22 kilometres, losing about 10 seconds on the leaders in the space of one kilometre.
By 25 kilometres, reached in 1:12:50, Bekele was 21 seconds off the back of the lead pack. Kipruto was the next to struggle and fell behind as the leaders approached 30 kilometres.
But the biggest turning point came at 30 kilometres as Kipsang, and the final pacemaker, dropped out. The lead pack of four had suddenly been halved with Kipchoge and Adola the only two contenders left in the race.
From that point onwards, the pace gradually slipped further and further off the required schedule for a world record, but that soon became irrelevant. Suddenly, Kipchoge’s main aim was to simply defend his honour of being the world’s best marathon runner and ensuring he won the race. Adola, meanwhile, seemed intent on causing an upset.
The 26-year-old Ethiopian was running shoulder to shoulder – quite literally – with Kipchoge. At times, their close proximity clearly annoyed Kipchoge and on more than one occasion he had words with his opponent.
Adola, however, was working to his own race plan and went on to open up a gap of a few metres on Kipchoge at about the 37-kilometre point. His lead never extended beyond two or three seconds, though, and Kipchoge was able to reel him in as they approached 40 kilometres.
With the clock reading 1:57:08 at 40 kilometres, it was clear that today wouldn’t be a day for world records. Kipchoge, now back at the front, started to make his final move while Adola was showing his first real signs of fatigue.
Kipchoge passed through the Brandenburg Gate and crossed the finish line in 2:03:32, his eighth victory from the nine marathons he has contested to date (not including his unratifiable run at the experimental event in Monza). It was also his second victory in Berlin, following his win in 2015, and the second-fastest time of his career after his 2:03:05 clocking in London last year.