Ethiopian edges Mo Farah in tremendous half-marathon showdown at Bupa Great North Run on Sunday
In one of the greatest road races in history, Kenenisa Bekele won a scintillating shoot-out on the South Shields seafront. In a breathless finish at the end of 13.1 miles, the Ethiopian narrowly held off a desperate late attack from Mo Farah, with Haile Gebrselassie a gallant third.
Organisers Nova International had enjoyed a huge coup by luring the top three distance runners from recent history – Farah, Bekele and Gebrselassie – into a Bupa Great North Run head-to-head. Yet with Bekele’s recent form patchy and Gebrselassie now aged 40, few expected this unique generation game to boil down to such a phenomenally close and exciting climax.
Ultimately, this classic encounter lived up to all the expectations – and then some – as Bekele clocked 60:09 to beat the fast-finishing Farah by a second with Gebrselassie, who had led most of the way, a further half-minute behind in third.
The half-marathon does not have the same magic as the marathon, but for pure intrigue and excitement this race was on a par with famous 26-mile battles from the Eighties such as Rod Dixon’s 1983 New York City victory over Geoff Smith or Alberto Salazar’s 1982 Boston win over Dick Beardsley.
It also arrived at a time in the sport’s history where road running is questioning whether elite athletes actually matter. If any doubts remain, the action on the streets of Tyneside provided an emphatic answer.
This was, as they say, a race for the ages. In the early stages it seemed somehow sufficient to witness Farah, Bekele and Gebrselassie going toe-to-toe for a few miles until Gebrselassie perhaps got dropped and Farah inevitably sped away in the closing stages. The formbook, though, was poised to get turned on its head dramatically as the race unfolded in beautifully unpredictable fashion.
The weather gods did their best to thwart the proceedings, but the storms circulating in Scotland did not quite reach North East England in time for the Sunday morning start. Nevertheless, Gebrselassie wore a t-shirt and vest to guard against the slightly chilly, damp conditions, while Farah wore a skullcap for the first half of the race.
The early stages were cagey, but the first big move of the day happened when Bekele surprisingly lost contact with Gebrselassie and Farah as the leaders passed 10km in 28:58. At this point, it was fair to assume Bekele just was not in top shape. But after the next 5km was covered in 14:03, Bekele re-joined the leaders by 15km and later revealed he was playing tactical games with his rivals and was not in trouble at all.
Before the race, Gebrselassie joked that he was one of the best-paid pacemakers in history. It was a typically self-deprecating comment, whereas in reality the 40-year-old had been training hard for this race for the past few months and was determined to go down fighting.
As the leading trio approached the final mile, they were still inseparable. The most crucial section of the race, though, came on the sharp downhill section just before the course turns left on to the seafront at South Shields with one mile to go.
Here, Farah looked decidedly uncomfortable as he leaned back, putting the brakes on as he braced himself for the final surge on the final flat section. In comparison, Bekele leaned forward and coasted down the hill in a far more relaxed fashion. It allowed him to steal a small gap on the London 2012 double Olympic champion and ensured he entered the seafront with superior momentum.
Gebrselassie could not go with Bekele’s surge and Farah also looked beaten as the Briton, who won the world 5000m and 10,000m titles in Moscow last month, struggled to stay in touch.
The scene was set for a phenomenal final kilometre as Bekele maintained his momentum, glancing nervously over his shoulder every few strides, while Farah gradually cranked up his speed, his cadence noticeably changing as he lengthened his stride.
Previously relatively dry, the rain now began to come down harder as the crowds near the finish grew in size. Elaine Leslie, a top local women runner from Jarrow & Hebburn, looked shocked to be passed by the flying Bekele with half a mile to go before she realised what was happening and her bemused expression changed into a battle cry of support as she shouted “go, Mo!” to the chasing Briton.
Despite this, Bekele had a lead of 4-5 seconds with 800m to go and the race looked over. But racing through an avenue of umbrellas and cagoole-clad fans, Farah began to charge and brought the gap down to 2-3 seconds with 400m to go.
By now, Farah was in full flight. The double Olympic and world champion was flat-out in pursuit of the world 5000m and 10,000m record-holder. Such a huge effort got him on to the heels of Bekele, but it was not enough and within the final 20-30 metres the result was evident as the Briton finally gave up his brave fight and settled for second.
Such was the nature of the race, there were no losers. Farah was full of smiles, while Bekele showed he is far from a spent force as he begins to tackle a marathon career. Gebrselassie, meanwhile, cemented his legendary status by taking the race to his younger rivals and, naturally, shattering the world M40 best for half-marathon.
In fourth, Arata Fujiwara of Japan was two minutes further back, while the second Brit home was Jonny Mellor with 64:57.
“Since before the world championships I have been training hard and felt confident and my injury was better and better,” said Bekele, who must have gained massive satisfaction as he crossed the finish line with his finger in the air in a “No.1” salute.
A sporting Farah was full of praise for his rivals, saying: “It was a great race and a great finish. When Kenenisa went with a mile to go I thought the pace was ridiculous. But I can’t take away anything from him – he deserved it. I’m disappointed to finish second, but I didn’t just finish second. I finished second to a great athlete.”
Gebrselassie added: “The only chance I had was to push from the beginning. It was wonderful. It was a nice show.”
The women’s race was billed as a super-clash between Ethiopians Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, but they were given a lesson in road running by Priscah Jeptoo as the Kenyan coasted to victory in 65:45.
Jeptoo, the 2013 Virgin London Marathon winner and 2012 Olympic silver medallist, broke her East African rivals with a sustained period of pace just after halfway.
After passing 10km in 32:26, the 29-year-old ran the seventh mile in 4:42 – just as fast as some of the men’s mile splits – and followed with an eighth mile in 4:50. Dibaba was the first to break, with Defar also losing contact with the leader by the 15km mark.
Once clear, the Kenyan piled on the pressure with 5:09 for the ninth mile, a blistering 4:34 for the tenth, 4:55 for the 11th and 4:54 for the 12th as she rounded on to the sea front at South Shields to come home in 65:44.
Defar battled on to smash the Ethiopian record with 66:09 in second. Dibaba finished a weary third in 66:56, but still managed a smile at the finish as she congratulated her rivals.
Jilly Woodthorpe (nee Ingman) was the first Briton home in 74:29.
In the wheelchair races, David Weir was a convincing winner of the men’s event in 43:06, while Shelly Woods made it a one-two for the British Paralympians with the women’s victory in 54:28.
» The next issue of Athletics Weekly, out on September 19, will contain more in-depth reports from the Bupa Great North Run and CityGames