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Plenty of inspiration for men’s marathon field

By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / August 12, 2012
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LONDON — When the men’s marathon starts Sunday morning on the Mall, reigning gold medalist Sammy Wanjiru will not be there. But the ­Kenyan’s presence will be felt by the 92 entrants chasing his title and his Olympic record. That number includes Kenyan favorites Wilson Kipsang and Abel Kirui, as well as American medal hopefuls Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman.

Asked about racing against the vaunted Kenyans, Hall said, “They’re raising the bar. We’re raising the bar, too. It’s just we’re doing it slower than they are. We’re playing catch up. I believe that they’re normal humans just like you and I.’’

Wanjiru, however, put that notion to the test four years ago.

At the 2008 Beijing Games, the 21-year-old became the first Olympic men’s marathon champion from Kenya and the youngest winner since 1932. He pushed the pace from the start and finished in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 32 seconds,apparently unaffected by humid temperatures that climbed into the mid-80s. It remains one of the most impressive, most dominating championship performances in the marathon of all time. And it always will be the signature moment of Wanjiru’s career.

On May 15, 2011, Wanjiru died from injuries suffered in a fall from a balcony at his home in Nyahururu, Kenya. Although police initially ruled it a suicide, his death remains unsolved.

The Kenyan team hopes to keep the men’s marathon title and honor Wanjiru. Given how the Kenyans have inched the fastest marathon times ever-closer to the two-hour mark in recent years, Wanjiru’s Olympic record could fall Sunday. on a course that loops past historic London landmarks.

Geoffrey Mutai ran a world-best 2:03:02 in the 2011 Boston Marathon and Patrick Makau set a world record of 2:03:38 in the 2011 Berlin Marathon. And neither runner made the ­Kenyan team for London. And that is the biggest indication of Kenya’s depth.

“Just being around the ­Kenyans, you just realize they train hard,” said Hall. “They work really hard. They have great attitudes in general, at least the guys that I’ve been around. I’ve learned a lot from them and picked up a lot from them and been inspired by them. Now, I compete next to them and don’t see myself any different than they are.”

Hall also ran the 2011 Boston Marathon and set his personal best (2:04:53) in the fastest marathon ever. In Beijing, he finished 10th overall in 2:12:33 and learned a lot from his Olympic debut. Having competed in the London Marathon, Hall feels comfortable running through the city’s streets.

“I know I can run well in London because I’ve done it already twice,” said Hall. “I’ve just got to go back and repeat what I’ve done and do it a little bit better than I’ve done it in the past.”

Hall will not only face competition from the Kenyans, but also the Ethiopians, who have won the Olympic men’s marathon title four times. Ayele Abshero and Dino Sefir likely will lead the way for the Ethiopian contingent.

Another intriguing athlete in the field is South Sudan marathoner Guor Marial, who is running as an independent Olympic athlete, one of four selected by the IOC to compete in London.

More than a decade ago, Marial fled a refugee camp in what is now South Sudan. He lives and trains at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz. He has completed two marathons and boasts a personal best of 2:12:55.

“I want to take this opportunity to raise awareness of the refugees all around the world,” said Marial. “It’s for the people of South Sudan especially and to show my appreciation for their support to help me come here. I go into the race open-minded. It’s always an unpredictable race, the marathon. It’s always a tactical race, so setting a time in my mind would not be necessary for me, especially as it’s my first time [at the Olympics]. I’m going to go there and see what happens.”

And he will not be alone with that philosophy.

Shira Springer can be reached at sspringer@globe.com.

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