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Around and around (and around) they went, looping a 1.3-mile course nearly 20 times in front of Buckingham Palace. It may not have been the kind of big-city competition that we’ve come to expect, but the London Marathon pulled off what has seemed nearly impossible in 2020: a road race.
Under strict COVID-19 health and safety protocols and without any spectators, Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, the world record holder (2:14:04), easily defended her London Marathon title, finishing in 2:18:58. Sara Hall, 37, was the runner-up in personal best of 2:22:01, in a sprint finish over the final meters of the race to overtake third-place finisher Ruth Chepng’etich, the reigning world marathon champion, who crossed the line four seconds later.
For the first half of the race, Kosgei and Chepng’etich, both 26 years old, ran together and under the pace for a world record for a women’s-only marathon, held by Mary Keitany (2:17:01). But Kosgei surged just after crossing 30K and decisively gapped the rest of the field.
“I just tried my best. The weather affected us today—there was some wind and rain all the way, which made our muscles colder,” Kosgei said. “No one could warm up so it was difficult to even finish.”
The small group of just 18 elite-only finishers competed under a chilly rain; the temperature at the start was around 48 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even so, the conditions didn’t seem to hinder Hall’s race. Over the second half, she steadily made her way from fifth place to third. Then she mustered the leg speed and strength to bypass a struggling Chepng’etich with the finish line in sight. Hall’s performance was her best at the 26.2-mile distance and also the first time an American has made the London Marathon podium since 2006, when Deena Kastor won in the still-standing American record (2:19:36).
“I was fighting that whole way, just catching people, and seeing the world champion there in the last lap, that definitely motivated me to give it my all,” Hall said, according to a post-race press release, later adding that she didn’t realize she is the first American woman in 14 years to finish London in the top three. “Oh man, I’m still in shock. Deena was my teammate when she set the American record here, so I feel so honored to be enjoying my career the most I ever have at 37. Hopefully, more to come.”
American Molly Seidel, in her second 26.2-mile race, finished sixth in 2:25:13, a personal best by more than two minutes. Her first marathon was in February at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where she placed second to qualify for the Tokyo Games, which have been postponed until 2021.
Prior to the London Marathon, Seidel said she welcomed the opportunity to get some additional experience at the distance and her goal at the London Marathon was to use it as a stepping stone for the Olympics.
“I’m using [the London Marathon] as a chance to learn about the marathon and progress,” Seidel said. “I just feel a deep sense of gratitude to be able to do this race and have a year of running healthy, which I haven’t been able to do for a long time. I have to pay my dues at the marathon distance.”
The London Marathon typically takes place in April with a field of 40,000 runners. Because of COVID-19, it was rescheduled for Sunday, with fewer than 100 professional athletes who have been repeatedly tested for the novel coronavirus and lived for a week at a biosecure hotel. Prior to the race, the runners and staff were also wearing sensors that alerted them if they came within six feet of another person, to further mitigate the chance of COVID-19 spread.
No spectators or mass-participation runners were allowed on the course, which was contained to the 1.3-mile loop in St. James’s park, however 45,000 runners signed up to run the race virtually.
“We hope we can be a beacon of light in the darkness, that in our way we can bring people together even while people have to run apart,” said Hugh Brasher, the London Marathon race director, during a pre-race press conference. “We all need something to inspire us, to give us hope for the future. And we are trying to give people something to inspire them for their mental and physical health.”