Kenyan holds off dramatic late challenge from Kenenisa Bekele to win in 2:05:49, as Josh Griffiths is surprise British No.1

With a couple of kilometres to go in the 2017 Virgin Money London Marathon, Daniel Wanjiru held a delicate advantage of half a dozen seconds over Kenenisa Bekele. Glancing over his shoulder nervously, the Kenyan had the world record-holder for 5000m and 10,000m breathing down his neck and his precarious position as race leader looked set to crumble. Surely he was worried?

“Not really,” Wanjiru said. “I was looking around a lot but it was to do with tactics. If Kenenisa closed on me more, I would have run harder.”

Wanjiru’s tactics proved perfect. As the resurgent Bekele moved into striking range, the 24-year-old leader kept his cool before lengthening his stride and quickening his cadence to pull further clear for an eventual winning margin of eight seconds as he crossed the line in 2:05:49, nine seconds ahead of the Ethiopian.

The thrilling finale was set up after Bekele had allowed a big gap to grow shortly after halfway. At one point he looked totally beaten but he fought back to put himself into contention and nearly pulled off a dramatic victory as he tried to overhaul Wanjiru.

Bekele started the race as the man to beat following his 2:03:03 win in Berlin last September. But in January he was forced to drop out the Dubai Marathon due to a calf injury after falling at the start and he did not look to be enjoying a good day in London as he dropped off the leading pack soon after they passed halfway in 61:41.

Usually, once someone drifts away in a marathon they continue going backwards, but Bekele is no ordinary athlete and the 34-year-old rallied and between 22 and 23 miles he moved past Kirui into second place and was closing fast on Wanjiru.

“I expected to catch him but it wasn’t easy for me to come back,” said Bekele. “When I reached halfway I was more than 400 metres back so to return from that wasn’t easy for me. When you are in front you have an advantage.”

Wanjiru, who is no relation to 2008 Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, has a fine pedigree during his young career, though. He has a half-marathon best of 59:20 and last year won the Amsterdam Marathon in 2:05:21.

But victory in London overshadows anything he has done before. “For sure this is my biggest win because it’s my first attempt in a major marathon,” he said. “I am hoping to do better and better over the marathon and next year I hope to run faster here in London.”

Behind the duelling duo, Bedan Karoki of Kenya was third in his marathon debut in 2:07:41, followed by Kenya’s Abel Kirui with 2:07:45, Tanzania’s Alphonce Simbu in 2:09:10 and Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie in 2:09:57, while Javier Guerra of Spain was the first non-African home in ninth in 2:10:55.

Josh Griffiths produced one of the great stories of the 2017 London Marathon when he finished leading Briton in the men’s race despite starting with the masses as opposed to the elite athletes.

Josh-Griffiths-London-Marathon-2017-by-Mark-Shearman

The Cardiff Met student was making his marathon debut and showed surprisingly aptitude for the 26.2-mile distance as he clocked 2:14:49 to finish 15 seconds ahead of Scottish mountain runner and his occasional training partner, Robbie Simpson.

Runners like Griffiths and Simpson had an eye on qualifying for next year’s Commonwealth Games in Australia, but they now find themselves set to be selected for Great Britain at the IAAF World Championships in London this summer.

“I never considered the British place until I crossed the line. It was always to qualify for the Commonwealth Games for Wales,” said Griffiths, after he crossed the line with both arms raised triumphantly in the air with his club name Swansea Harriers proudly emblazed on his chest.

“I’ve worked my way through the distances and with Commonwealth Games next year I thought I’d give it a shot and it went perfectly today.”

His run wasn’t a surprise to one of his former coaches, James Thie, though. Griffiths used to train with Thie’s group and the athlete’s strength and stamina meant his result was no surprise to the South Wales-based coach.

Describing Griffiths as “a bit of a lone wolf”, Thie explained he is the kind of runner who can go out and run 26 miles on his own without any difficulty. “Hopefully I helped lay a few of the foundations for his run here during his time with me.”

Andrew Davies was the next best Brit in 2:15:11 followed by Scott Overall in 2:16:54 then Jonny Mellor with 2:18:48 and Tom Anderson with 2:19:36.

Behind, Matt Bond, Ian Kimpton, Jonny Hay, Andrew Lemoncello and Chris Thompson finished in the 2:21-2:24 zone.

He may have lost the chance to qualify for the marathon at the IAAF World Championships, but Thompson had not lost his sense of humour as he limped through the finish area. “Sorry I’m late,” he smiled to the waiting media, before adding: “A few weeks ago I was in the best shape of my life but in the last five weeks I’ve hardly been able to train due to injury.”

Griffiths and Simpson are now poised to join Callum Hawkins in the GB team for the men’s marathon in London in August.

» See the April 27 issue of AW for full coverage from London