Ethiopian celebrates biggest win of his career at 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon
An elated Sisay Lemma knelt down and kissed the ground on The Mall after crowning his distinguished road running career with a long-awaited Marathon Major triumph that keeps the Virgin Money London Marathon elite men’s title in Ethiopia.
The 30-year-old, so long a consistent force over the distance, made up for his disappointment at having to pull out during the Olympics with a superb triumph on Sunday as the spectators returned to the streets of the world’s biggest race to cheer him home.
Lemma, who had been beaten into third place in a sprint finish in the 2020 event, run on a loop around St James’s Park, was in no mood to let that happen again and this time was determined to make his move a couple of miles from home before roaring away from one of the strongest fields ever assembled.
Vincent Kipchumba, the Kenyan who’d finished second – by just a second – to another Ethiopian Shura Kitata last year had to settle for the runner-up spot again, but found himself 27 seconds adrift at the finish as Lemma clocked 2:04:01 to take the crown.
As his joy was mixed with complete exhaustion, Lemma could hardly have looked more emotional as he savoured the biggest win of his career.
Just 56 days earlier, his Olympic dream had been shattered in Sapporo when the heat and humidity proved too much for him – but a fine, cool autumn day was just the ticket for Lemma today, as he confirmed after the race:
“Today was the biggest win of my career and a dream come true for me,” he said. “I came third last year here in London and to return 12 months later and to win this great race is an incredible and proud moment.”
It was the fifth-fastest time ever recorded in the London race and continued the extraordinary record of every men’s contest since 2002 being won by either an Ethiopian or Kenyan after half a dozen of the top marathon men from the two east African nations engaged in a wonderful battle.
The other podium place went to Lemma’s compatriot Mosinet Geremew, who maintained his proud record of never finishing outside the top five in a major marathon, clocking 2:04:41 for third.
It marked a huge breakthrough for Lemma, who’s no stranger to city marathon wins, having triumphed in Warsaw, Vienna, Frankfurt and Ljubljana in the past, but who has also had to endure near-misses in the biggest events, most notably Berlin, Chicago and Tokyo, as well as London.
It proved a great day for Yorkshire’s Philip Sesemann too, a former 1500m runner and a junior doctor at a Leeds hospital, who made a striking debut at the event – coming home as the leading Briton in seventh place in 2:12:58 on his 29th birthday.
“It was so special today to have family and friends on the course cheering me on,” he smiled after struggling badly in the later stages. “The last six miles was a death march. It was just really difficult to get the pain out of my head.
“My friends, family and colleagues have enabled me to reduce my hours, reduce my risk to Covid and for me to continue with my training. It’s my birthday today too, so it’s been a 10 out of 10 result for me!”
Back on the traditional Greenwich to Westminster route with wonderful support from the roadside, this was an exceptional 41st edition of the race, featuring five men who have all run under 2:04 for the distance – and it was clear even within five minutes of racing that we’d see a new champion crowned.
Defending champion Kitata, who admitted before the race that he was still feeling the effects of a hamstring problem that forced him to pull out of the Olympics, immediately accepted the early pace, on 2:03 schedule, was going to be too hot for him.
With his left knee strapped, the champion never looked comfortable and was already seven seconds down on the leading pack of six – Lemma, Kipchumba, Geremew, Kenya’s Titus Ekiru and Evans Chebet, and Ethiopian race favourite Birhanu Legese – after the first five kilometres.
Yet the 25-year-old, whose victory over the seemingly invincible Eliud Kipchoge in the 2020 race made him a nationally adored figure, demonstrated considerable spirit as he battled on in no man’s land behind the leading pack.
He could easily have given up, but he kept persevering to clock 2:07:51 and finish a distant but hugely creditable sixth.
By halfway, the leading six were on course to challenge Kenyan great Eliud Kipchoge’s course record of 2:02:37, but that target gradually slipped out of sight as Ekiru, the world’s fastest man this year, was the first to crack at about 17 miles, coming to a halt clutching his hamstring before restarting and then realising he couldn’t carry on.
Down to five, Lemma, who, ironically, had looked perhaps the weakest of the quintet at the back of the bunch, pushed hard down the Embankment and, surprisingly, it was Legese, the third-fastest man in history, and Chebet, the world’s quickest last year, who first found his insertion of pace too tough to cope with.
Kipchumba and Geremew were soon shaken off too, but the Kenyan was ultimately content with another second place, having set a new lifetime best of 2:04:28.
“Everything went to plan today, I am very happy with my time, very happy. To achieve my personal best is something I was aiming for today,” said Kipchumba.
But Geremew, second in 2019, was left evidently frustrated. “Today was not bad and not good,” he said. “I’m not happy with my time.”