Sifan Hassan, an Olympic track champion from the Netherlands who ran her first marathon, staged a stunning comeback on Sunday to win the London Marathon in one of the most dramatic and unexpected finishes in the history of the race.
In winning, Hassan, 30, showed both her amazing range as a runner – she was a triple medalist in three shorter distances on the track at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago and holds the world record of the mile – but also her inexperience as a marathon runner.
A Dutch-Ethiopian athlete best known for his success in the middle distance, Hassan lost his rhythm about an hour into the race, stopped at least once to stretch his sore left hip, and offered a drink to one of her rivals as they raced even after she missed a water stop herself – the result, she later said, of never having practiced for them .
Hassan did it all despite training for the race during Ramadan, a month of fasting that left her unable to run long runs as she couldn’t eat or drink during the day.
Yet at the finish line on Sunday, she found herself kneeling just yards from the ribbon she had just broken, draped in a pink towel and appearing to be talking to herself about what she had just accomplished.
“I can’t believe it,” she told no one in particular.
“I learned to be patient and to run my own race,” Hassan told a news conference. “Keep going as much as you can and maybe you’ll surprise yourself.”
His race was far from a classic marathon. She stopped about an hour later, clearly struggling, and slowed the pace as she stretched. However, she soon began to feel better and returned to hunting. Mile by mile, she closed the gap on the leading group which included experienced marathon runners like Olympic gold medalist Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya and defending London Marathon champion Yalemzerf Yehualaw of Ethiopia.
Crawling closer and closer to the front through the rainy streets of Westminster as the finish approached, Hassan fired first in view of the leaders then on their shoulders. Finally, as she rounded the final corner of the race and a grandstand packed with spectators outside Buckingham Palace let out a roar, she took off as if closing a 1,500 meter race.
His last two challengers, Alemu Megertu from Ethiopia and Jepchirchir, had nothing left to match him. And just like that, Hassan, in her first race, was a marathon champion. Crossing the line at the speed of a sprinter, she covered her face with her hands in disbelief.
Hassan finished in 2 hours 18 minutes 33 seconds. Megertu finished second, Jepchirchir third and Yehualaw fourth.
Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum won the men’s race, posting the second fastest time in history. Kiptum collapsed on the line after finishing in 2:01:25, just 16 seconds off the world record held by compatriot Eliud Kipchoge. Well clear of the rest of the elite field, Kiptum faded near the finish but still finished almost three minutes ahead of Kenyan runner-up Geoffrey Kamworor, who finished second in 2:04: 23.
“I’m so happy with the result,” said 23-year-old Kiptum. “I don’t know what to say right now, I’m just grateful.”
Hassan is no stranger to victories or demanding race proposals. She won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, and a bronze in the 1,500, six tough races in nine days, after which she admitted she wondered if she was “crazy”.
This experience may have still been fresh in Hassan’s mind when she woke up one morning and decided to run in London.
In a pre-race interview, she admitted that she entered the race on a whim and that training during Ramadan prevented her from optimizing her training. “Sometimes I wake up like, ‘Why the hell did I decide to run a marathon?” she said last week.
She had then admitted that not only did she not expect to win, but that she was not even sure of finishing. “I already have nerves, almost for a month,” she said. “And I’m so scared of a marathon.”
Her goal, mainly, had been to learn from her experience in London so she could benefit if she ever tried the distance again. The most important thing, she said, was to finish the race, “so next time I know what to do.”
Next time, when it happens, she will cross the starting line as a great marathon champion.