Will Male Pacers Help Women Break World Record At London Marathon?

David Monti- Race Results Weekly

It was just over 15 years ago here when Britain's Paula Radcliffe set the still-standing absolute world record for the marathon, clocking 2:15:25. In that edition of the Virgin Money London Marathon, organizers used an unusual format: an all-women's elite race assisted by male pacemakers. Seven men, all Kenyans, ran with a field of two dozen women, and helped set the pace from gun to tape.

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During that 2003 race, Radcliffe ran two meters or more behind her pacers, Samson Loywapet and Christopher Kandie, and sometimes ran next to them. After the race she said that their presence had little impact on her strategy or performance.

"I don't think it made much difference," she said at the time.

Organizers switched to female pacemakers the next year, and kept that format for the last 14 editions of the race. But this year, event director Hugh Brasher is going back to the 2003 format of having male pacers in the women's race, again with the same goal: challenge the absolute world record. 

At last year's race here, Kenya's Mary Keitany set the world record for a women's-only competition, clocking 2:17:01. She had some early assistance from a female pacemaker, compatriot Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui, who was able to take Keitany through halfway in 1:06:54, well under Radcliffe's actual halfway split of 1:08:02 from her 2003 record run. But Keitany had only the spectators to help her in the second half, and eventually slowed down.

"After the pacemaker dropped out, I just went alone to the finish line," Keitany told reporters after last year's race.

But this year, Keitany could be escorted all the way to the finish line on The Mall by male pacer (or two), a considerable advantage over last year's set-up. The 36-year-old, who may not get another shot at running for the world record while she is still in her prime, said today that she was grateful to have this chance.

"First of all I want to say thank you for the race director of London for this position to have male pacemakers to assist the women to see how far they can do it," she said. She added: "I want to say I have trained well. I am ready for the race on Sunday."

Keitany, who races sparingly, showed excellent form in her only other race so far this year, the RAK Half-Marathon in the United Arab Emirates on 9 February. In that contest, she ran a blistering 1:04:55, finishing second and missing the world record by five seconds. That effort boosted her confidence.

"I can just say the half marathon this year was part of my preparation for the marathon," Keitany explained, adding, "It was good for me to do that half, to see myself at that half."

Whether Keitany will chase the record alone is an open question. The other key women in the race—Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot and Gladys Cherono, Bahrain's Rose Chelimo, and Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba and Tigist Tufa—were mute when asked today if they planned to try to stay with Keitany. Dibaba, who finished second last year in an Ethiopian national record of 2:17:56, said she was also well-prepared, and like Keitany, played down the significance of the male pacers.

"I know that the organizers have put on good pacemakers," she said through a translator. "What is more important is my own condition. If I've prepared well, I'll race well."

Organizers here have not released any information about the men who will pace the women, nor how far they will go. In addition, it has not been announced what the first half pace will be.  Keitany didn't seem worried.

"I'm still to know which pace which to go through," Keitany said placidly at today's press conference. She continued: "We are still getting to know which pace we are going through and who are the pacemakers. I know one guy, but I don't know the others."

Although the weather will likely be unseasonably warm here on Sunday (between 16 and 19C during the elite women's race according to the BBC), Keitany doesn't think that it would be too hot for her. Indeed, she said she was enjoying the sunshine because it rained during much of her training in Kenya.

"I think about the weather on Sunday, for me it will be OK, like 17," she said. "It will be nice, and it will be good for me."

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