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Shura Kitata (ETH) celebrates his victory in the Elite Men's Race on The Mall




Kitata believes defending crown will be tough

Yet when Kitata sprinted away from Kenya’s Vincent Kipchumba to win by just one second last year, it felt like a victory that might have changed the dynamic between the two rival nations in London after six Kenyan wins in a row.

Kipchoge, who’d won four of the previous five editions, had already faded out of contention when Kitata delivered his dazzling victory in unique circumstances, as the race was held in a bio-secure, crowd-free environment on a looped course around St James’s Park because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Beating the best of all time

And beating the greatest marathoner of all-time transformed Kitata’s life, the 25-year-old explained on Wednesday.

“I was very happy about the win, it had very great meaning for me because Eliud was such a very famous runner, a very strong runner, so to beat him meant a lot.

“It’s brought a lot of change in my physical and psychological preparations, and it brought a lot more public attention as well,” said the runner, who even ended up being told by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed: “Your country is proud of you.”

Problematic route to race

Yet the prospect of Kitata becoming only the fourth man to achieve back-to-back triumphs looks as if it will be seriously difficult this year, as he is, remarkably, only seventh-fastest in the field at 2:04:49. He outlined his more problematic route to this year’s event:

“I was preparing very well before the Olympics and, just two weeks before, I had a hamstring injury and that was big pressure,” explained Kitata, who ended up pulling out during the race in Sapporo.

That was just 56 days ago, but he offered a mixed picture about his readiness on Wednesday. “I’ve prepared well and I feel confident about being competitive on Sunday,” he said. “But the hamstring pain is not really easy and, when it’s very fast speed, there might be some problems.

“But I’m still looking forward to doing what I did last year.”

He will have a rematch with the two men who ended up on the podium with him last year, Kipchumba and his Ethiopian team-mate Sisay Lemma.

Yet the main Kenyan threat may come not from Kipchumba, but either Titus Ekiru, whose 2:02:57 to win the Milan Marathon in May makes him the world’s fastest this year, or Evans Chebet, the 33-year-old who was quickest in the world last year with his 2:03:00, recorded while winning the Valencia Marathon.

Rivalry between African nations

Flanking Kitata at Wednesday’s news conference, Chebet also referenced the east-African rivalry, noting: “The rivalry is there. I know the Ethiopians are used to staying behind a bit and then kicking in the last 200 or 300 metres.

“So it’s going to be a challenging race on Sunday and I’m going to need a lot of strength at the end to win.”

Still, he thinks that if the conditions are kind, he’ll have a chance of setting a new lifetime best, which would put him in contention to attack the existing course record of 2:02:37, set by Kipchoge in 2019, the last time the race was run on its traditional Greenwich to Westminster course.

On that occasion, Mosinet Geremew was second in 2:02:55, and the super-consistent Ethiopian is also back for another crack this year, alongside his compatriot, Birhanu Legese, the third-fastest man in history (2:02:48) behind Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele.

Motivated by Kipchoge’s spirit

Legese is sounding confident too. “If the weather is good, I plan to break the record,” he said.

And the returning spectators cheering them all on at roadside will help, he’s sure. “ When you see spectators, that encourages us a lot. Our speed increases and it makes a big difference to us; we have big respect for them.”

And though he won’t be there, the spirit of London’s greatest champion Kipchoge will live on, reckons Chebet.

“If Eliud is watching on Sunday, it will give me more motivation to run faster,” said the great man’s potential successor as a Kenyan men’s champion on the streets of London.

“Eliud gives us morale, but I have my own intrinsic motivation as well.”

Of course. Everyone wants to join one of the most famous rolls of honour in marathon running.