Lilesa cruises home in sensational debut


ATHLETICS MARATHON:THE MARATHON starts at 20 miles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to win or simply trying to finish. It’s when the race turns from prologue to monologue. It’s when the going gets tough, and the tough get going. It’s the final approach to The Wall.

With this is mind, it seemed like a good idea to join yesterday’s Dublin Marathon at exactly 20 miles (on the bike that is, not running), right where it passed my parents’ house.

As it turned out, the race to win was already over – as Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia came striding up Clonskeagh Road as if out for an early morning jog. Behind him, his challengers were fading fast, with only Russia’s former two-time champion Aleksey Sokolov having the legs to lead the pursuit.

So for Lilesa, the last six miles were a race against the clock, or more specifically, the course record of two hours, nine minutes and seven seconds.

In the end, he missed out by a mere five seconds, clocking an official time of 2:09.12 (unofficial time 2:09.11). If he hadn’t slowed so noticeably over the two last miles the record was surely his, and thus he also missed out on a €5,000 bonus to go with his winning prize of €15,000.

Not that Lilesa looked too bothered; aged only 19, it was still a sensational marathon debut for the six-foot, impossibly lean Ethiopian, who bears a more than small resemblance to his country’s first great marathoner, Abebe Bikila.

He also had almost a minute and a half to spare on Sokolov, who chased hard to finish in 2:10.38, and got some consolation in that his course record from 2007 was still intact (plus the €10,000 prize for second).

Kenya’s Serem Noah took third in 2:11.14, while countryman Soloman Bushendich, who at one stage appeared the big threat to Lilesa, faded dramatically over the last few miles to finish 11th in 2:14.59.

Without trying to confuse matters, Aleksey Sokolov also finished fourth, in 2:12.35, and while he’s no relation to the second-placed one, he is coached by him.

In any case, it was a good day for the Sokolovs and the Russians as they took two of the top four places, while the Ukraine provided the winner of the women’s race in Kateryna Stetsenko, who ran 2:32.45 to also earn herself the same €15,000 winning prize.

Given the perfect marathon running conditions, the sort of Dublin autumnal day that Luke Kelly used to sing about, and the special occasion of it being the 30th staging of the event, it was a pity Lilesa didn’t break the course record, possibly even run a 2:08. His 2:09.12 is a world-class time nonetheless, and underlines Dublin’s reputation for providing a truly elite race – to go with this year’s record field of 12,500 runners.

Lilesa came to Dublin with a fine reputation, despite his youth, having finished 12th at the World Cross Country championships in Jordan last March, and last year finished second in the Great Ethiopian Run in Addis Ababa – which by all accounts is one of the most competitive road races in the world.

Incredibly light on his feet and smooth striding, he put himself to the front of the pack early on, but allowed Sokolov to press the pace in the opening miles through the Phoenix Park and Inchicore.

They passed halfway in 1:04.30, suggesting a sub 2:09 clocking was on, and once they got to the more testing part of the course, Lilesa then revealed his true class.

He made his decisive surge on the hill up Milltown Road, and while Bushendich initially gave chase, the Ethiopian was soon on his own, and far enough ahead to enjoy the final miles towards Donnybrook, down Merrion Road and into the finish area on Merrion Square. His 2:09.12 was still the second fastest marathon ever run in Dublin.

As with most African distance runners, Lilesa looked fresh enough to set off on a lap of honour, if he so desired.

Given his English was on a par with my Ethiopian, he didn’t actually get to say much, yet the freshness of his face and his broad smile revealed the ease with which he had won.

According to his agent, he still hopes to make his mark on the track, and with a 10,000 metres best of 27:46.97 from last year, his potential there also speaks for itself.

Sokolov still seemed content with his second place: “I ran the pace I wanted, but three miles before the finish, I had some cramps, and that slowed me down. But I never gave up the chance. In the marathon, the possibility of catching the leader always exists.”

The women’s course record of 2:27.22, which has stood since 2003, was never under threat, and besides, Stetsenko was only ever concerned about winning.

The 27-year-old had the company of Helalia Johannes of Namibia and Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia until the last two miles, before she finally shook off their challenge to win by 41 seconds; Johannes next best in 2:33.26, with Gelana third in 2:33:49.

“I had hoped to run under 2:30,” said Stetsenko. “But I wanted to stay back for the first half, stay in the group, and make my surge in the last 3km.

“So I’m very happy just to win. This is the biggest prize of my career.”