Ethiopian, who used to collect firewood for a living, just misses out on course record because of rain but his relentless pace still proves too hot for Kenyan rivals
As Tsegaye Kebede turned past Buckingham Palace on to The Mall yesterday, he was a marathon man apart on a day when 35,000 souls pounded the streets of Britain's capital city in the 26 miles 385 yards of the London Marathon.
A featherweight 5ft 2in figure, the 23-year-old Ethiopian was already travelling at considerable pace, having averaged roughly 4min 45sec per mile for more than two hours and delivered a knock out blow to the opposition with a 4min 33sec mile that pulled him clear of Kenyan Emmanuel Mutai with six miles remaining. With the finish line in sight, and the course record on the line, Kebede raised his tempo to a sprint.
He crossed the line in 2hr 05min 19sec, one minute and four seconds ahead of Mutai, the runner-up, but nine seconds shy of the course record figures set 12 months previously by Sammy Wanjiru, the Olympic marathon champion from Kenya. Those nine seconds cost Kebede £16,250 in bonus money but the streets of London were still paved with what amounted to gold for the diminutive East African.
He pocketed £36,000 for his victory in the 30th London Marathon – riches of which he could not have dreamed back when he assisted his father in collecting firewood for 20 birr a day, a princely £1.20, to help his family and 12 siblings to survive in rural Gerar Ber, 26 miles north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
"I would buy bread and some tea and would have only one meal a day," Kebede said, reflecting on the time before he struck it rich as a road runner. "After that, I had nothing left in my pocket. I had to wake up the following morning to go back to work in order to survive. If I didn't, there would be no food. Sometimes, when I think back on how I used to survive with my family, it brings a tear to my eye. It is almost like a dream that I used to live like that. I thank God every day that I now have the opportunity to help my family out of poverty."
It was only three years ago that Kebede became a marathon man, winning the race held annually in Addis in honour of Abebe Bikila, the Ethiopian who launched the African distance-running revolution with his bare-footed victory in the Olympic marathon in Rome in 1960. It was a race, and lucrative career, that might never have been for Kebede.
A week beforehand, he survived a potentially fatal bus crash, when the brakes failed and the vehicle toppled over a cliff on the outskirts of Addis. "We all screamed for help but we were all crushed," Kebede said. "All the time I was praying, 'God, I came to Addis to change the life of my family. Are you going to end my life here? Please save my life.' My prayers were answered. I thought I would die for those few minutes but I was given another life."
That new lease of life took Kebede to an Olympic bronze in Beijing in 2008. It probably would have taken him to London's first sub 2hr 05min marathon yesterday had the road from Blackheath to The Mall not been soaked by rain. "You cannot go as fast when there is water on the road," he said. "If there had been no rain I would have run 2hr 04min."
On the domestic front, there was an encouraging marathon debut by the former steeplechaser Andrew Lemoncello. The Scot was the first Briton home in eighth, although his time, 2hr 13min 40sec, was modest by international standards. "Disappointing," was his verdict. "I just really struggled. It was hard running on my own from 11 miles."
Andi Jones of Salford Harriers finished 10th in 2hr 16min 38sec but Dan Robinson, Britain's leading marathon man of recent times, pulled a calf muscle after passing halfway in 65min 58sec and dropped out. Not that the Commonwealth bronze medallist was only elite entrant to fail to last the course. Wanjiru, who lined up favourite, developed a knee injury and bailed out after 15 miles.
Marathon roll of honour
1 Tsegaye Kebede (Eth) 2hr 05min 19sec
2 Emmanuel Mutai (Ken) 2:06:23
Men's wheelchair race
1 Josh Cassidy (Canada) 1:35:21
2 Marcel Hug (Swit) 1:36:07