Men’s World Championship Marathon 2019 – Review

On Sunday 5 October 2019, Qatar’s capital city played host to the second ever night-time marathon at the World Athletics Championships. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 men’s World Championship marathon?” and explore the important running lessons all runners can learn.

What happened in the race?

The men’s marathon was packed with quality athletes from across the world. Although cooler than the women’s race, the course and nighttime conditions were the same and would still severely test the athletes. The 29-year-old Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa stood as one of the favourites, finishing as runner-up in the 2019 Boston Marathon earlier in the year.

After less than 90 seconds, Derlys Ayala made a significant break. He continued to check his watch and pour water over himself as he extended his lead. Sweden’s Adhanom Abraha attempted to push on with him, but the majority of the field dealt with his move. Ayala had a projected finish time of 2 hours and 6 minutes in the early stages. His competitors remained calm. A few athletes ran a few metres in front of the main pack but this was only temporary. Ayala ran the first 5 kilometres in 15:06, one minute ahead of everyone else.

The Paraguayan looked smooth in his arm drive and leg turnover, and maintained his minute-lead through 10 kilometres. His time was an impressive 30:40, but Ayala’s face began to show a new story. His eyeline was more often than not projected downwards. But the lead remained over one minute at 15 kilometres. Callum Hawkins even surged at this stage, but it was only temporary.

Paul Lonyangata of Kenya then surged. The field began to string out a little. Adhanom Abraha then surged. Ayala started to slow by 17 kilometres. Zersenay Tadese, the former half marathon world record holder, reacted best. Ayala was being reeled in by the others. Six athletes, including Lelisa Desisa, breezed by Ayala before the halfway mark. Ayala soon dropped out, exhausted by his lone running. Tadese, Desisa, Mokoka, Geremew and Kipruto were now the lead group.

The defending champion, Geoffrey Kirui, then led the race at 25 kilometres. Four different groups formed along the long stretch of road. The lead kept changing. The pace surged and dropped. Kirui was dropped first. Then before 32 kilometres Tedese fell off the pace. Four athletes led, then Tadese returned to the lead pack. The South African Mokoka surged at 35 kilometres. Tadese and Desisa appeared to be dropped by the front three. They spread across the road. 

With 2 kilometres to go, Hawkins reached the lead pack. Mokoka instead began to fade. With 1 kilometre to go, the three East Africans surged and a significant gap developed between them and Hawkins. Kipruto was dropped. Desisa gritted his teeth. Geremew looked relaxed. Desisa then sprinted with  250 metres to go. He broke the tape to win the gold medal by four seconds, having never looked in control of the race.

Running lessons from the race

There were three running lessons from the men’s World Championship marathon; 1. Confidence can falsely lead runners to run too fast too soon; 2. Looks can be deceiving, and 3. Patience can significantly benefit marathoners.

Confidence can prove counterproductive

Although self-confidence is important to all athletes, too much can result in sub-par performances. The Paraguayan’s early front running dominated the first half of the race. It was clearly pre-planned. He had achieved a new personal best of 2:10:27 two weeks previous, and presumably wanted to see if he could produce another outstanding performance. But he dropped out of the race as soon as he was caught at halfway. The plan did not work.

Four nations had no athletes finish the race despite having at least one on the start line. Notable DNFs included multiple Paris Marathon champion Paul Lonyangata, 2019 London Marathon third place finisher, Mule Wasihun, and the 2018 Commonwealth Games marathon silver medalist, Solomon Mutai. Although less men dropped out than in the women’s race, Doha still tested the athletes to their maximum. Overconfidence meant there were no happy endings for some athletes.

Fatiguing appearances can be deceiving

An athlete’s running technique and facial expressions can tell a lot about how the athlete is feeling. However, sometimes it can be deceiving. Desisa looked more fatigued in the second half of the race compared to his rivals. His arm drive was far from efficient and he didn’t appear relaxed. But he triumphed, and even did a victory dance after the race. Kenya’s Korir’s excessive forward posture, and grimaces by other athletes couldn’t hide their discomfort. But it’s athletes who can push through the inevitable pain that make the most of their talents. Appearances are not everything. 

Patience in the marathon can offer rich rewards 

The most surprising performance of the evening was by Great Britain’s Callum Hawkins. Except for a brief stint at the front of the race he maintained relatively consistent five-kilometre splits. When others began to fade he was able to gain momentum as he passed them. Many of them had faster personal bests than him. He tested the best athletes in the world and except for the final surge with a kilometre to go, he had a great opportunity to win a global medal. Unfortunately for him it wasn’t to be but his racing strategy was certainly effective. 

Desisa, on the other hand, didn’t make a serious move until the final few hundred metres. Having the patience to wait until there can be no response from your competitors shows the experience and class of the Ethiopian. This performance would have been a satisfying one for the 29-year-old, who won silver in the marathon at the 2013 World Athletics Championships  in Moscow.

Conclusion

The 2019 men’s marathon at the World Championship was a cagey race. The lead pack surged throughout, which meant the racing was enthralling and unpredictable. With 18 athletes in the elite field (equivalent to 24.7%) unable to finish the race, the Doha humidity once again defined the race. Still, the race rewarded those who were patient and not over-confident; a marathon lesson that everyone can employ in any conditions.