Coming into the Olympic Marathon, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda was sitting anonymously in 48th place on the 2012 world list. Ahead of him were 22 Kenyans, 19 Ethiopians, and a decidedly uphill battle on the landmark-filled streets of London.
The 23-year-old Kiprotich apparently forgot to look at that, or any other, list. At mile 23, the upstart caught two-time World Champion Abel Kirui and 2012 and pre-race favorite Wilson Kipsang by surprise, sling-shotting past them on a turn and running smartly away. Coming down the homestretch, he grabbed a Ugandan flag and unfurled it overhead before crossing the finish line in 2:08:01.
“I can say I am very happy to win a medal for my country,” said the startling victor, the first gold medalist in a running event for Uganda since John Akii-Bua in the 400-meter hurdles in 1972, the first medal of any kind in any sport since 1996, and the first distance-running medal in the nation’s history.
Following Kiprotich across the finish line of The Mall, with Buckingham Palace as a backdrop, were Kirui in 2:08:27 and Kipsang, who won the 2012 Virgin London Marathon in this same spot last spring, in 2:09:37.
Running a brilliant race for the U.S. was Meb Keflezighi, who finished fourth in 2:11:06. The 2004 Olympic silver medalist, now 37, bided his time on a humid day with race temperatures in the 70s. In 19th place at 20K, Keflezighi had worked his way up to 10th by 30K and sixth by 40K before passing Japan’s Kentaro Nakamoto and Brazil’s Marilson dos Santos in the final two kilometers.
“Coming here I told my wife, ‘I have a feeling I’m going to finish fourth,’” said Keflezighi, winner of the 2009 ING New York City Marathon. “Did I want to finish fourth? No. It’s not where you want to be sometimes, but fourth place at my last Olympics, I’ll take it anytime.”
He was the only American to finish the race. Ryan Hall, succumbing to a tight right hamstring, dropped out just after 10 miles, and Abdi Abdirahman walked off the course a few minutes later after trying to carry on for several miles after hearing a pop in his right knee.
“Those last couple of miles,” said Hall, “I’m weighing in my head, ‘do I sit out here and could I have run 26 miles and finish in three hours or something.’ But my stride was getting worse and worse. This wasn’t something I could work through.”
Hall tweeted: “A huge bummer of a day today. Hamstring wouldn’t let me go. But a huge congrats to @runmeb. You continue to inspire me.”
Fearing that the early pace was too slow, Kipsang took the lead at about 12K. By the halfway point, which he went through in 1:03:15, his lead was 16 seconds over a group of six that included Kiprotich, Kirui, dos Santos, Stephen Mokoko of South Africa, and Ethiopians Ayele Abshero and Getu Feleke. Kirui, Kiprotich and Abshero were giving chase by 25K, and by 30K it was down to the Ugandan and two Kenyans. Abshero—along with the rest of the Ethiopian team—would fail to finish.
Of the three, Kiprotich seemed the least likely to prevail, running behind the Kenyan pair and several times appearing to reach back toward his left hamstring.
“I thought I was going to sprint with Kipsang in the final kilometers,” said Kirui.
But if Kiprotich wanted to play cat to the two Kenyan mice, a loop course with up to 90 turns gave him ample opportunity to pounce. At mile 23, he did just that, making a move that neither Kenyan could match.
“The pace was too fast and I knew I could not run away from them, so I just had to keep up with them,” Kiprotich said of the early going. “I tried to settle and then I had to break away because I wanted to win this medal.”
Because Uganda lacks facilities, Kiprotich spends much of his time in Kenya, training with that country’s athletes including 2010-2011 World Marathon Majors champion Emmanuel Mutai, who would finish a disappointed 17th in 2:14:49. His training partners also included former 5000-meter World Champion Eliud Kipchoge. Little known coming into the race, Kiprotich finished ninth in the 2011 IAAF World Championships Marathon, and his only marathon victory had come in the 2011 Enschede Marathon in the Netherlands, in a personal best 2:07:20.
“Now I am known,” he said.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg