Wanjiru Crushes Olympic Marathon Record; Ritzenhein, Hall 9th, 10th

08/25/2008 - 04:41

August 24, 2008 By Parker Morse, Running USA wire (BEIJING) It seems unlikely, but before Sunday morning, no Kenyan had ever won the Olympic Marathon. Samuel "Sammy" Wanjiru changed that by taking gold in 2:06:32, in the process chopping almost three minutes off the oldest men's Olympic record in running, Carlos Lopes' 2:09:21 in Los Angeles 1984. (Only Bob Beamon's 1968 long jump mark was older.)

"In Kenya, we have many medals," said Wanjiru, "but I'm glad to have this one."

To do it, Wanjiru took the same approach as Kenenisa Bekele did in lowering Said Aouita's 5000 meter OR Saturday evening. (Aouita's record was one day older than Lopes', the 5000m final having come one day before the marathon in Los Angeles as in Beijing.) Faced with the strongest marathon field in Olympic history, Wanjiru and his teammates Martin Lel and Luke Kibet set a fast pace early in the race, burned off most of the field early on, and then outlasted Moroccan Jaoud Gharib in the closing kilometers. Gharib, a two-time world champion at the marathon, was the silver medalist in 2:07:16, also under the previous Olympic record, while Ethiopian Tsegay Kebede took bronze in 2:10:00.

While the finishing times were relatively unremarkable for a top-level spring or autumn marathon, they were startlingly fast for the summer conditions in Beijing. The reported temperature at the start was 24C (75F), and under blue skies and strong sun the temperature climbed to 30C (86F) at the finish.

"I had to push the pace because my body gets tired in the heat when I slow down," said Wanjiru.

Wanjiru, not yet 22, already has a long history of fast road races, so the brisk pace suited him. With three world records at the half-marathon, including the current mark of 58:33, Wanjiru debuted at 2:06:39 in Fukuoka in 2007, then placed second in 2:05:24 in London 2008 behind Lel.

The Kenyan trio served notice of their intentions early, passing 5K (3.1 miles) in 14:52 and 10K in 29:25, well below Olympic record pace. By halfway (reached in a swift 1:02:34), the pack was down to five, including favorite Lel, Wanjiru, Yonas Kifle of Eritrea, Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and Gharib.

The Kenyans kept the pace uneven, moving to the front when they wished to press the pace, then letting Kifle and Merga lead to conserve their own energy. Gharib looked the worst off of the group, but somehow managed to maintain contact, sticking with the lead pack even when Merga made a move at 30K which shook both Lel and Kifle. (Lel would finish fifth in 2:10:24; Kifle 36th in 2:20:23.)

Merga was unable to shake Wanjiru, and when Wanjiru made what turned out to be the race-winning move at 35K, Merga couldn't even hold off Gharib, who stuck close to the Kenyan throughout but was unable to close the gap. Kebede, who had come off the pack before halfway, passed his countryman in the stadium to take bronze.

The fierce early pace and the conditions encouraged caution from U.S. marathoners, who stayed off the pace early and picked up places in the second half of the race. Dathan Ritzenhein was 30th at 5K and worked up to 9th at the finish (2:11:59), and Trials champion Ryan Hall was even more conservative at 42nd and moved up to 10th (2:12:33). It was the first time two American marathoners had top 10 finishes at the same Olympics since Frank Shorter and Don Kardong were second and fourth in 1976. Brian Sell was 22nd in 2:16:07 after going through 5K in 71st.

"I tried to put myself in it early," said Ritzenhein. "I came through 5K in 14:59, 2:06 pace, and I knew if I kept that up, I couldn't finish. I kept picking people off until I was 10th, at about 25K. Then I started cramping up pretty badly."

"The conditions out there were tough," said Hall. "It wasn't quite as bad as I was expecting, though. I did the best I could with what I had. Sometimes you do all the work and it comes together, and sometimes it doesn't."

Defending gold medalist Stefano Baldini of Italy was off the lead from the beginning but managed to finish 12th.

Historically, Ritzenhein and Hall also produced the 4th and 6th fastest Olympic Marathon times by the U.S, and in the modern era, it was the second best U.S. men's team by place total with 41 points (9 + 10 + 22) behind the 1972 team of Frank Shorter, Kenny Moore and Jack Bacheler (1 + 4 + 9 = 14).

Olympic Games: Beijing
Streets of Beijing and finish at National Stadium / "Bird's Nest"
Sunday, August 24, 2008

Men's Marathon
1. Sammy Wanjiru (KEN), 2:06:32*, Gold
2. Jaouad Gharib (MAR), 2:07:16, Silver
3. Tsegay Kebede (ETH), 2:10:00, Bronze
4. Deriba Merga (ETH), 2:10:21
5. Martin Lel (KEN), 2:10:24
6. Viktor Röthlin (SUI), 2:10:35
7. Gashaw Asfaw (ETH), 2:10:52
8. Yared Asmerom (ERI), 2:11:11
9. Dathan Ritzenhein (USA), 2:11:59
10. Ryan Hall (USA), 2:12:33
22. Brian Sell (USA), 2:16:07
*Olympic record (previous record, 2:09:21, Carlos Lopes (POR), Los Angeles 1984)

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