Wanjiru’s Final Blow Floors Kebede

Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru repeated as men's winner at the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Kenya's Sammy Wanjiru repeated as men's winner at the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon. Photo: PhotoRun.net

Kenyan outkicks Ethiopian rival to repeat as Chicago Marathon champion.

Written by: Daniel P. Smith

And then there were two.

With the $500,000 World Marathon Majors prize on the line, in addition to the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon title, a pair of 23-year-olds, Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru and Ethiopian Tsegaye Kebede, engaged in one of the most dramatic duels in marathon history on the streets of Chicago on Sunday morning.

The tandem traded the lead throughout the final two miles, Kebede frequently trying to break the resilient Wanjiru with steady and consistent surges. With 600 meters to go, it was Wanjiru, whose own accelerations had repeatedly been matched by Kebede, who attempted one final push, reverting to his track-running roots with an arm-pumping, ground-eating assault that Kebede’s slight frame and tired body couldn’t match.

“I don’t know where the power came from [for that final surge],” Wanjiru said, grateful that his ultimate attempt to break Kebede succeeded.

Wanjiru’s finishing time of 2:06:24 bested Kebede by 19 seconds, a gap showcasing the definitive and powerful finishing kick Wanjiru displayed. Ethiopian youngster Feyisa Lilesa captured third in 2:08:10 with Kenyan Wesley Korir in fourth at 2:08:44.

Wanjiru’s victory earned him the $75,000 championship prize and virtually assured him of the $500,000 World Marathon Majors title for 2009-2010. Kebede could run the New York City Marathon on November 7, the final event in the World Marathon Major series, to chase the 10-point gap created by Wanjiru’s Chicago victory, though such a feat would be unlikely given the punishing Chicago race and the four-week turnaround.

“Today was a big day. If I lost here, I was finished for the year,” said Wanjiru, who has battled back and knee problems throughout 2010.

Billed as the top field in the race’s 33-year history, the men’s elite field featured the reigning Chicago, London, and Boston champions in Wanjiru, Kebede, and Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, respectively–the first time that trio of reigning champions had assembled at a marathon starting line.

“This was an excellent opportunity to put [a number of] champions together on the same course, all of them at the front end of their careers,” Chicago Marathon executive race director Carey Pinkowski said. “I felt that if we got these guys early, got them training and with their mindset on Chicago, then we’d have a shot at a magnificent race.”

And Pinkowski’s hopes were realized.

The $500,000 World Marathon Majors carrot most certainly impacted race tactics, as Wanjiru and Kebede maintained tabs on one another throughout the race, content to let the pace linger in the 4:50s from the halfway point to mile 19.

Though a pack of nine was in place as the group approached mile 20, Kebede surged with Wanjiru and Lilesa in tow as the pace dropped into the 4:40s and the trio established a 30-second lead on its pursuers by the 35K mark. While Lilesa would drop back over the next 5K, Wanjiru and Kebede’s duel would continue over the final 2K.

“I tried and tried to push several times and my feeling was to win,” Kebede said of his assertive tactics to break the defending Chicago champion. “[But Wanjiru] got recovery and he would come again.”

Former University of Oregon standout Jason Hartmann was the top American, grabbing an eighth-place finish with his 2:11:06 personal best. Though 16th at the halfway point, Hartmann’s steady and conservative race plan, which included an even pace and regular hydration as the heat pushed into the upper 70s, fostered his 63-second improvement.

“I stayed within myself, I never pressed, and I let the race unfold in front of me,” Hartmann said. “This was another opportunity and a good step forward.”

38,132 runners crossed the Chicago Marathon starting line, the largest field in the race’s 33-year history.

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