It was a day made for marathon running, a beautiful Sunday morning blessed with sunny skies, low humidity, and temperatures ranging from 45ºF at the start to 51ºF at the finish.
For Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe, the weather gods, it seemed, had commanded a royal welcome. King and queen of distances up to 13.1 miles, both were now entering the world of the marathon.
And what an entry it would be.
Shortly before 9:00 a.m., when the professional women’s race would start, the ingredients required for a delicious marathon dish were still raw.
By noon the dish had been cooked and served, and the taste … oh, the taste. The men’s world record had been broken and yet—and yet—the world record wasn’t the story that made the front pages of the national press.
A men’s race that would come to be regarded as the greatest ever seen had everything. Well, not quite everything. It didn’t have Radcliffe running in it, and it was she who would make the biggest headlines.
We are at the London Marathon, April 14, 2002. Gebrselassie reveals in his race-week press conference that he wants the pacers to take him through halfway in 62:30, 21 seconds inside world-record schedule.
Gebrselassie has set 15 track world records and has won two Olympic and four World 10,000-meter titles. Six months ago he won the World Half-Marathon in his first attempt.
Dave Bedford, the race London director, has described the signing of Gebrselassie as “the biggest in the history of athletics,” reported to have cost £250,000 ($360,000).
“Gebrselassie Targets World Record” the papers announce. When Haile speaks, the media listens. Khalid Khannouchi, though, is not the media. He has owned the world record for 30 months, since his 2:05:42 run in Chicago in October 1999. He thinks Gebrselassie may be too ambitious.
Khannouchi had arrived in the United States in 1993 and taken various temporary jobs—dishwasher, waiter—while establishing himself as a runner. Fitting the training around work, sometimes he would be out running on the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan at midnight.
Gaining U.S. citizenship in 2000, he set an American record of 2:07:01 to win the 2001 Chicago Marathon, restoring his reputation after a period of injury and failing to finish at the World Championships in Edmonton, Canada, two months earlier.
Still, though, Khannouchi is unsure. “Others wanted to go at 63 or 63:15,” he would write later. “So two sets of pacers were set up.
“Geb would be in the fast group with anyone who dared to go at that pace. Most of the elite group would go out with the slower group. I was in the middle, not sure what would happen. If Geb went out at 62:30 would I run alone behind him or try to go at his pace?”
The race starts at 9:45 a.m., 45 minutes after the women have departed, and Khannouchi soon realizes that he has no decision to make.
One group forms behind the pacers, and it is not until 17 miles that the real racing begins, when Gebrselassie and the Moroccan, Abdelkader el Mouaziz, twice a London winner in the last three years, start trading the lead.
At 20 miles Gebrselassie surges to split the pack, and only Khannouchi, Paul Tergat, and Tesfaye Jifar stay with him.
Tergat knows Gebrselassie’s powers as a runner better than anybody. But for the Ethiopian, the Kenyan would have won two Olympic and two World 10,000-meter gold medals. Instead, he has four silvers.
Tergat gave up the track two years previously. Although runner-up in his two marathons so far, in London and Chicago, he has not yet broken 2:08. Now Gebrselassie is back stalking him.
The best view of a stalker is the one from behind so Tergat stays a few steps back as Gebrselassie and Khannouchi do battle at the front. Along the Embankment, with Big Ben in sight, in the 25th mile, Khannouchi surges and drops Gebrselassie.
Tergat chases hard, but is beaten with three-quarters of a mile to run. Khannouchi, his mind on winning, not the clock, looks round twice but still crosses the line at the Mall in 2:05:38, four seconds inside his own world record.
Ten seconds later Tergat finishes, Gebrselassie following in 2:06:35. Don’t you just love the man’s humor? “I am very happy, I knocked 42 minutes off my personal best,” said Gebrselassie, who had run 2:48 at age 15.
For Khannouchi, now the first man for 33 years to break the world record twice, respect. He had broken it on a course where many said it couldn’t be done: Too many twists and turns. Even Bedford had admitted that it probably wasn’t a world record course.
Khannouchi wrote on his website: “I felt like I was the underdog….I was no longer the object of attention that I was in the past…I must admit that at times my feelings were hurt by the lack of attention…I needed to show the world that I was still a great marathon runner.”
Four years later, in a weighty tome researched by journalist William Cockerill and entitled The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time, the London 2002 men’s race was written up as the greatest of the greatest. Yet, to the British newspapers, it wasn’t even the greatest that morning.
To the non-specialist writers that the London Marathon attracts, Radcliffe was the plucky Brit who always got beaten in a sprint finish on the track. Now a winner, she was the story, front page and back.
It was convenient to ignore that she had won the World Cross Country Championships for the last two years, as well as the World Half-Marathon.
Radcliffe ran the fastest debut by a woman and the quickest women-only race, missing Catherine Ndereba’s world record by only nine seconds. She ran the second half alone in 67:51 to clock 2:18:56.
On the front page of The Times, the paper’s chief sportswriter likened Radcliffe to a butterfly, a new species to be known as Paula Gloriosa. Did he not notice Khannouchi? His loss to have missed Khalid Morning Glory Pellecia.
David Powell is a former Olympic writer for The Times of London.