London Marathon’s ‘electric’ return an important step towards normality

The most joyous and uplifting event in the British sporting calendar is back – and this year it will be bigger than ever. Come 9am on Sunday morning, 40,000 people will start a 26.2 mile journey from Blackheath to the Mall as the full-fat version of the London Marathon returns to the capital’s streets for the first time since 2019. Meanwhile another 40,000 will also run or walk the event “virtually” across the globe during a 24-hour window, making it the biggest mass participation event since lockdown. And with about half a million people expected on the streets to watch, organisers hope it will raise tens of millions for charity – and mark another important step on the journey towards normality.

“It is going to be electric,” says the Paralympian David Weir, who is chasing an astonishing ninth London Marathon victory. “I think there are going to be epic crowds because people haven’t been to a live event for ages, or haven’t seen their friends and family run the marathon for a while. And with people also doing a virtual marathon that’s potentially 80,000 people. It’s going to be epic this year.”

It is an adjective that could also be applied to the men’s and women’s races, too. While this year’s London Marathon does not boast household superstars such as the world record holder, Eliud Kipchoge, or Sir Mo Farah, both events are bursting with quality and high intrigue.

Take the men’s race. Only seven men in history have run 2hr 03min 00sec or faster in the marathon – and four of them are in London. The whispers at the London Marathon hotel during the week were that Birhanu Legese, whose personal best of 2:02:48 is the best in the field, has been flying in training and is the one to beat. But strong cases can also be made for Mosinet Geremew, Evans Chebet and Titus Ekiru, whose bests are all within 12sec of the Ethiopian.

But they are far from being the only contenders. For there are six men who have run under 2:04:00 here – the most ever at a single marathon. And that doesn’t include the defending champion, Shura Kitata, whose slight hamstring injury must count against him this year, or Vincent Kipchumba, who was second in the 2020 marathon which was run in a closed event in St James’s Park and not on the traditional course.

Brigid Kosgei wins the women’s race during the 2020 London Marathon, run on a closed circuit in St James’ Park
Brigid Kosgei wins the women’s race during the 2020 London Marathon, run on a closed circuit in St James’ Park. She is seeking a hat-trick of wins. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The women’s race would appear to centre around the world record holder, Brigid Kosgei, who is attempting to become only the second woman after Katrin Dorre-Heinig between 1992and 1994 to win three successive London marathons.

But while Kosgei is a massive favourite on paper, it is unlikely to be that simple. While her record of 2:14:04 is more than three minutes quicker than the best of anyone else in the race, she is running on tired legs after competing in the Tokyo Olympic marathon eight weeks ago.

If there is a surprise, Joyciline Jepkosgei could be best placed to provide it. The Kenyan has a personal best of 2:18:40, making her only fifth quickest in the field. But those quicker than her – Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, the Ethiopian Roza Dereje and Birhane Dibaba of Kenya – also ran in Tokyo.

British eyes will be on Charlotte Purdue, who believes she is in shape to run under 2:23:00, which would make her the second quickest Briton ever in the marathon, behind only Paula Radcliffe.

While there are unlikely to be world records set in the main races, it will be also worth watching the British elite runner Josh Griffiths and his father, Nick, who plan to challenge the world record for the fastest marathon by a father and son. The record is held by Tommy Hughes and his son Eoin after the Irish pair ran an aggregate time of 4:59:22 at the Frankfurt Marathon in 2019. But Griffiths Jr, whose personal best is 2:13:11 while his father’s is 2:47:17, believes they are in shape to eclipse that.

Of course the London Marathon will be a bit different this year, with measures in place to make it Covid safe. At the hotel where the elite racers are staying, athletes from red list countries have been kept in a separate bubble manned by a separate team to the other competitors. There will also be a different experience for club and charity runners, too, with participants starting in 40 waves over a 90 minute period to avoid large crowds gathering. Unlike in past years, there will be no pacers to guide people to personal bests.

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“It will be very different to the previous 40 years, but it will also be the same,” the event director, Hugh Brasher, says. “It will be the same because of that incredible feeling. That incredible emotion that every single one of those runners will feel every step of that journey. That incredible feeling of positivity that you get from people shouting your name, of people wanting you to be successful.

“After 889 very long days since the last London Marathon was held on the streets of London in April 2019, this will be the most meaningful day in our history.”