Sammy Wanjiru accomplished most of what he set out to do on his first trip to America. The 23-year-old reigning Olympic marathon champion, after flirting with world record pace, won the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in 2:05:41, beating the course record by one second. It was also the fastest time ever run in the U.S.
It was clear from the start that the men were interested in taking advantage of the cool weather and fast course to make a run at Haile Gebrselassie’s world record of 2:03:59. A group of nine men—all from Kenya or Ethiopia—passed the 5K mark on pace for a 2:02:50, and their 10K split of 29:10 was the same time Gebrselassie hit on his world-record run.
That group included Wanjiru, who set a PR of 2:05:10 in his victory in London earlier this year; Vincent Kipruto, who won the Paris Marathon this year in 2:05:47; and Charles Munyeki, who was making his marathon debut but had broken an hour in the half marathon.
The group slowed the blistering pace a bit, but still passed the half marathon mark at 62 minutes on the nose, well within shouting distance of the record. Just past 15 miles, the pacer dropped back, and Wanjiru, Kipruto and Munyeki continued in the lead pack.
The three of them stayed together until just past mile 21, in Chinatown, when Wanjiru made a move and the other two couldn’t respond.
“Sometimes, you know, you try to go out front to test other people,” Wanjiru said after the race.
For the last four miles, it was just a question of whether Wanjiru would be able to break the course record. He did—despite the fact he slowed down the last few strides to wave to the crowd. That wave could have cost him $100,000—the prize bonus to for breaking the course record.
“I wouldn’t have been happy,” said Wanjiru, who didn’t realize he was that close.
Coming from behind to take second place was Abderrahim Goumri of Morocco, who finished in 2:06:04. He decided to let he leaders go early on when they ran sub-world record pace, expecting to catch them at the end. The tactic paid off, but he couldn’t reel in Wanjiru.
“I think this is the right pace for me,” he said of his decision not to go with the leaders. “It was a little bit cold and a little bit windy, and it was a little fast for me. I ran the best second half with a 63:10. So I showed I can run good races in the future with this tactic.”
It did mean, however, that Goumri had to settle for second place in a World Major Marathon for the fourth time in his career.
He joked, however, that he would still marry his fiancé, after saying earlier that he was waiting until he actually won a marathon.
“I think I have to get married,” he said with a laugh. “Now, no excuse.”
Vincent Kipruto, 22, of Kenya held on for third place in 2:06:08, while Charles Munyeki finished fourth in his marathon debut in 2:07:07. Three of the top four finishers were under 24 years old, perhaps belying the conventional wisdom that the marathon is an older person’s race.
The temperature at the start of the race was 33 degrees with an 8 mph wind—and it didn’t get much warmer.
“The temperature was very cold,” Kipruto said. “It affected me in the second half.”
Even Wanjiru said the temperature made a difference in his quest for the world record.
“I think I can definitely go faster,” Wanjiru said.
Race Director Carey Pinkowski wants to give Wanjiru that chance again in Chicago next year.
“Hopefully we’ll have a conversation and he’ll come back next year,” he said. “When you have athletes of the caliber of Sammy, it adds to the excitement.”
The top male U.S. finisher was Sergio Reyes of Palmdale, Calif., who finished eighth overall in 2:15:30. Patrick Rizzo, who grew up in Schaumburg, Ill., and now lives in Michigan while part of the Brooks-Hansons Distance Project, became was the second U.S. finisher by setting a PR of 2:15:48.
“Anytime you get a PR you’ve got to be happy,” Rizzo said. While the cold weather never allowed Rizzo to get into a good rhythm, he felt he couldn’t complain.
“The crowd was the biggest thing keeping me going,” he said. “I had to see 200 local friends cheering me on. You just can’t feel bad when you’ve got 200 people there supporting you.”
According to marathon officials, 34,792 runners started the race, while more than 1 milllion spectators lined the course.