Sisay Lemma Surges to Win the 2021 London Marathon, His First Major Victory

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Photo credit: Yui Mok - PA Images
Photo credit: Yui Mok - PA Images

At any World Marathon Major not featuring Eliud Kipchoge, the path is typically clear for someone else to stamp their name among the A-list stars of the sport. In the men’s race at the London Marathon on Sunday, Sisay Lemma was that athlete.

The 30-year-old Ethiopian powered away from a field of astonishing depth with a powerful surge in the closing miles, taking his first ever win at a marathon major in 2:04:01. Kenya’s Vincent Kipchumba took second in 2:04:28, and Ethiopia’s Mosinet Geremew third in 2:04:41.

Lemma had tasted success at marathons many times before–in Warsaw, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Ljubljana–but he’d also endured near-misses at the top tier, with third-place finishes in London, Berlin, and Tokyo. This time around, he wouldn’t be denied.

It was a race that, in many ways, ripped up the form book, with many experts predicting Titus Ekiru of Kenya or Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia, who had both run under 2:03 in the past, would lead the field home.

But Ekiru didn’t even make it to the finish, the Kenyan stepping off the course before 30K, while Legese had nothing left to match the surges up front in the crucial closing miles, the Ethiopian finishing fifth in 2:06:10.

On a cool, calm morning in London, one that seemed ideal for quick times, the elite men set off at a strong pace ahead of 40,000 others in the mass-participation race, with 40 different waves toeing the line in Blackheath over a 90-minute period.

Three pacemakers led six athletes to the 10K in a fast 29:13. At that point, the signs were already ominous for defending champion Shura Kitata of Ethiopia, who admitted ahead of the race that he was still struggling with a hamstring issue he’d managed since before the Olympics.

At halfway, the same group of six were still locked together, clocking 1:01:25 and looking on course to challenge Kipchoge’s course record of 2:02:37. Ekiru, who shocked many with his 2:02:57 to win the Milan Marathon earlier this year, was to the fore but the Kenyan drifted back after 25K, leaving five men up front as the leaders reached 30K in 1:27:19: Evans Chebet and Vincent Kipchumba of Kenya along with Ethiopians Legese, Geremew, and Lemma.

The pace slackened in the miles that followed. Unlike at the Berlin Marathon seven days earlier, this was a product less of the conditions and an overly ambitious first half, and more of a tactical chess match playing out among the leaders, each of them unwilling to act as a de facto pacemaker for the others.

Up until 30K, the 5K splits had ranged somewhere from 14:17 to 14:40, but they slowed to 14:59 to take them to 35K and then slowed again with a 15:09 up to 40K.

But by that point, the pace had picked up again in a big way, thanks to a vicious surge by Lemma with about three miles to go. It was one none of his rivals could live with, and the 30-year-old Ethiopian bounced along the road to the finish in front of Buckingham Palace, where he was crowned champion in 2:04:01. He had 27 seconds to spare over Kipchumba, the runner-up for the second straight year with his 2:04:28, a personal best by 41 seconds.

Photo credit: Alex Davidson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Alex Davidson - Getty Images

“Everything went to plan today,” Kipchumba said after the race. “I am very happy with my time.”

Geremew hung on well for third in 2:04:41, with Chebet fourth in 2:05:43.

“Today was not bad and not good,” Geremew, who ran 2:02:55 to finish second to Kipchoge in 2019, said after the race. “I’m not happy with my time.”

Lemma did not attend the post-race press conference as he had been a close contact of compatriot Kinde Atanaw, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. Atanaw had traveled to London on the private charter flight arranged by race organizers; all 40 people on board subsequently took a follow-up PCR test, all of which came back negative.

Lemma and two other athletes had been identified as close contacts of Atanaw but all tested negative in rapid molecular COVID-19 on the morning of the race and were subsequently cleared to compete.

“Our absolute priority has been the safety and wellbeing of every athlete, coach, manager and staff member,” Hugh Brasher, race director for the London Marathon, said on Saturday.

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