Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei takes Virgin Money London Marathon elite women’s title ahead of two-time winner Brigid Kosgei
Joyciline Jepkosgei confirmed her status as a rising star of marathon running on Sunday when she blew away the highest-quality field ever assembled over the final five miles of the elite women’s race to win the 2021 Virgin Money London Marathon crown.
Jepkosgei was a London pacemaker two years ago, helping her compatriot Brigid Kosgei to the first of her two London titles. This time she left the world record holder in her wake as she completed the full distance in style, crossing the line alone and unchallenged in a personal best of 2:17:43, just 42 seconds outside the women-only world record.
Kosgei had been chasing a three-in-a-row London hat-trick, a rare achievement that seemed within reach until 35K, where Jepkosgei took off at the head of a group of five and never looked back.
After her dominant performance 12 months ago, this time Kosgei was caught unawares and couldn’t make up the gap. She eventually finished fourth behind Ethiopian pair Degitu Azimeraw and Ashete Bekere, with Israeli record holder Lonah Salpeter behind her, all five breaking 2:19.
Kosgei had arrived in London with “a tired body” following the gruelling Tokyo Olympic marathon, where she took silver, while Jepkosgei came fresh and in-form, a fast victory at the Berlin half “the perfect build-up”.
And after the perfect build-up came the perfect finish, as the former world half marathon record holder turned on the power in the closing stages after the leading five had broken clear of a 12-strong pack in the second half.
It was the sixth consecutive victory by a Kenyan woman in London, the 14th in all since the event started 40 years ago. But for the delighted 27-year-old winner this was a personal triumph to savour as she added the London title to the New York crown she took on her marathon debut two years ago.
“I’m very excited to be the winner today, but for me it was about my goal of self-achievement, of improving my time,” she said. “It was a beautiful day for running and a great achievement for me.”
It was the 22-year-old Amsterdam marathon champion, Azimeraw, who chased her home, placing second in 2:17:58, almost a minute and a half inside her PB, while Bekere also ran a lifetime best in third with 2:18:18, a time that would have won all but three of the previous 40 editions of this race.
Event Director Hugh Brasher had predicted this would be “the most competitive marathon ever seen”, and so it proved as a field containing nine sub-2:20 women set off on an ideal day for distance running, three of the fastest 10 of all time and five of the top 15 among their number.
It was Liz McColgan, the winner of this race 25 years ago, who got them underway and a lead group of 12 immediately settled into their running, many no doubt enjoying being back on the traditional London course after last year’s rainy lap race around St James’s Park.
They cantered through the first 5K in 16:21, some distance behind three of the four pacemakers, who were primed to put them on schedule for Mary Keitany’s course and women-only world record of 2:17:01.
Kosgei and Jepkosgei were prominent from the start, alongside Lonah Salpeter and Ethiopia’s Roza Dereje as they passed 10K close to the Cutty Sark in 32:42 heading west towards Tower Bridge and the halfway mark.
The full dozen raced together over the Thames to north London and hit halfway in 68:51, outside Keitany’s mark but close enough, perhaps, to make up the difference with a swift homeward split.
Kosgei took them through 25K in 1:21:19 before the pack began to break up. Twelve soon became five as she, Jepkosgei and Salpeter dragged Azimeraw and Bekere clear of the rest.
At this point, the tall, shaded Salpeter looked comfortable and strong at the front with Jepkosgei alongside her. They snaked around Canary Wharf, passing 30K in 37:29, in touching distance of the record, and geared up for the hard westward miles into central London with all to run for.
Locked together, they skirted around Limehouse and onto The Highway, where Jepkosgei made her move, clipping through 35K in 1:53:57 and surging clear as the rest grabbed their drinks bottles.
It was a decisive break and left defending champion Kosgei adrift at the back with Salpeter. Bekere took up the chase, but was soon some 30 metres behind, Azimeraw on her heels.
The runners were expecting to face a stiff breeze in the final section, but nothing seemed to be slowing Jepkosgei as she blazed on past the Tower of London and under Blackfriars Bridge before striding down the familiar London run-in along Victoria Embankment to the Houses of Parliament and St James’s Park.
Slowing but still well clear of the rest, she now had time to enjoy the cheers of the London spectators – so badly missed in 2020 – as she passed Buckingham Palace and headed into The Mall before crossing the line with a broad grin and arms raised above her tired legs.
She clapped her hands aloft and fell to the ground.
“A one-minute improvement is huge, but I was feeling great when I was training and I really thought I could do well here,” she said after becoming the seventh-fastest female marathon runner in history.
“I’m so grateful for the spectators,” she added. “Every kilometre there were people cheering us all the way.”
Azimeraw did her best to make up the ground but had to settle for second, with Bekere filling the third podium place for Ethiopia.
“I can’t explain how I feel,” said Azimeraw. “When Jepkosgei broke away I tried to follow her, but it was too hard.”
Indeed it was, including for Bekere, who struggled in the closing stages with a leg problem: “I am happy with the results, but I will always try to do much better,” she said after improving from fourth in 2020. “It is such a big difference from last year, she added. “Last year was so boring but I enjoyed the spectators this year.”
Kosgei had set off with high hopes of a hat-trick, but her Olympian efforts eight weeks ago had taken too much out of her. She clocked 2:18:40, quicker than last year despite missing the podium by one place. It was the first time she had been outside the top two in any of her completed marathons.
“It was very tough out there today,” she said afterwards. “The competition was tough, and I also don’t feel like I have had enough time to rest and train since the Tokyo Olympics. I am struggling today with a knee problem so I am disappointed but will be back next year to win the title.”
Charlotte Purdue was the first Briton home in 10th, lowering her personal best by more than two minutes to 2:23:26.