Sumgong: From banged head to London glory
Jemima Sumgong bounced back from a bang on the head to win the women’s crown at the 2016 Virgin Money London Marathon on Sunday morning when she recovered from a dramatic fall to clinch victory by just five seconds from defending champion Tigist Tufa.
Last year it was Tufa who tore up the prediction book. This time it was the 31-year-old Sumgong from Kenya’s Nandy Hills who defied the pre-race predictions to win in 2:22:58.
Unheralded before the race, Sumgong was the insider’s tip for victory and she rewarded their faith when she shrugged off the tumble and held off Tufa throughout the final miles to hand Kenya its eighth women’s win in London.
The pair pulled clear of world champion Mare Dibaba with two miles to go before Sumgong triumphed in their ding-dong battle.
After placing sixth last year and fourth at the World Championships in Beijing, this was by far the biggest victory of her career.
“When I fell down I was still eager to win the race,” said Sumgong. “It did not make me stronger but it made me want to finish and I am very excited to win.
“It was very painful but I thought I must go for the win. It was hurting but I tried to win the race. I was ready for anything.”
Tufa’s win last year was a shock to many but the 29-year-old Ethiopian was within a few strides of becoming one of the very few to win two-in-two on the London course.
She crossed the line in 2:23:03, quicker than her winning time last year, while world half marathon record holder Florence Kiplagat came through for third in 2:23:39, overtaking Volha Mazuronak of Belarus to claim her second podium finish in London on her fifth appearance.
“I am happy with the time,” said Tufa. “The crowd helped me run, but the wind and the weather conditions made it slow.”
Kiplagat was runner-up here in 2014 and fifth last year, but she came to London focused on making Kenya’s Olympic team.
With New York champion Mary Keitany finishing ninth, a victim of that fall, and Priscah Jeptoo finishing eighth, she may well have done enough.
“It was much better this year than last time,” said Kiplagat. “My mind was in a better place. It was a cold course today and the last 5km was very painful for me, due to blisters on my right foot.
“I’m really proud that I came back to beat Mazuronak and get on the podium. I’m really looking forward to selection now.”
With the Olympics on many minds, it was fitting that an Olympian got the race underway. Sylvia Disley pushed the big red button at 09:15 when a field containing eight sub-2:21 performers set off into the chilly morning from Shooters Hill in Blackheath.
Four Kenyans and four Ethiopians followed two experienced pacemakers, Helah Kiprop and Angela Tanui, along the route devised 36 years ago by Disley’s late husband, John, the race co-founder whose life was commemorated by 30 seconds of applause before the start.
Sumgong, Kiplagat, Keitany and Jeptoo carried Kenya’s hopes, with Tufa, Dibaba, Aselefech Mergia and Feyse Tadese flying the flag for Ethiopia.
Keitany is the second fastest of all time, and many observers’ favourite.
But pre-race rumours suggested she had been suffering with a cold and the two-time champion was one of the many sporting hats, gloves and long sleeves to ward off the chilly northern winds, no doubt counting their blessings that the early morning showers had given way to clearing skies.
Kiprop and Tanui were charged with taking them to halfway in 69:15, on course for a sub-2:19 finish, and they went through 5km in 16:31, bang on schedule.
Kiplagat and Dibaba were prominent from the start, with Sumgong – the insiders’ tip – and the woolen-hatted Keitany next in line.
These were early days though, and the women seemed content to take their time, carefully avoiding the scattered puddles left over from the overnight rain. Tufa looked comfortable with her punchy style, but Jeptoo had already slipped behind, her desired return to form falling away in the early stages.
Keitany now took the gloves off and ran three quick miles to take them through 10km in 32:43 (16:12), and they were on sub-2:18 pace by the time they reached Cutty Sark in Greenwich with the old docks at Bermondsey and Tower Bridge ahead of them.
These seven were destined to stay together as the tempo dipped through 15km in 49:57 (17:14) and the pacers opened a 20-second gap. Ten miles went by in 53:44 and they crossed the Thames at Tower Bridge passing 20km in 67:03.
They hit halfway on the Highway in 70:44, some 90 seconds off predicted schedule with Dibaba looking for all the world like this was a Sunday morning jog.
Keitany finally discarded her hat as the pacemakers dropped out around 25km, which the leaders passed in 1:24:13, and the diminutive Kenyan led them down to the lower reaches of the Isle of Dogs and up towards the Docklands.
Now running at 2:23 pace they skipped through the 30km mark by Canary Wharf in 1:41:39 and entered the side-streets of east London.
Dibaba took control as they began the long westerly run to Westminster. The race seemed destined for another cat and mouse finish, just as it had been 12 months ago, when Tufa made her move along the Embankment.
But disaster struck as they approached Limehouse close to 22 miles when Mergia caught Sumgong’s heels, sending the Kenyan crashing into the back of Keitany.
All three hit the road, Sumgong banging the side of her head against the tarmac and taking a blow to her shoulder.
That was it for Keitany who rapidly fell some 50 metres back. Mergia also struggled to regain the pack, but Sumgong was quickly up with the leaders, rubbing the back of her head as she moved swiftly into the lead.
The crack on her head seemed to shake Sumgong into action and she immediately pushed the pace, putting in a 5:15 23rd mile, the quickest since mile five.
Kiplagat slipped back, while Tadese and Mergia were out of it, so the pack soon contained just one tall Kenyan and two Ethiopians, the defending champion over Sumgong’s right shoulder, and the world champion over her left.
This triangle blew through Blackfriars tunnel and up to the Embankment where Dibaba lost touch. Now it was down to two, Sumgong, incredibly, still pushing on ahead of Tufa, the shock winner from 2015 who was giving everything she had to hang on to her crown.
The pair passed 40km going shoulder to shoulder and grabbed their last drinks, rapidly re-fuelling for the final sprint.
Slowly Sumgong opened a gap. She’d put in three miles of 5:15, 5:13 and 5:16 and finally it was starting to show.
Tufa was five metres back, but not yet beaten. As they strode under Big Ben and on to Birdcage Walk, the gap grew to 10m, and then 20m, as Sumgong ran on towards The Mall with thin sun at last breaking through.
She turned into the finishing stretch and forged on to grab victory, punching the air as she breasted the tape before falling to her knees beyond the finish gantry, her head and shoulder bleeding from her heavy blow.
“The Ethiopian runner clipped my leg and I went down,” she explained later, strips holding head wound together. “I got up again as quickly as possible and got my pace back.
“The fall really affected me and I was unsure if I could continue. I have a cut on my head and on my shoulder, they are bleeding but I don’t feel any pain yet. I did feel it in my legs so I am so surprised I won.”
Behind the medallists, Mazuronak broke her personal best to finish fourth in 2:23:54, while Mergia held on for fifth ahead of the fast-fading Dibaba.
Jessica Augusto was the second European home, while Sonia Samuels and Alyson Dixon booked their tickets to Rio by finishing as the first two Britons in 13th and 14th place.
The pair ran together through the final miles, knowing they already have the 2:31:00 qualifying times under their belts.
It was Dixon who came out on top in 2:31:52, just eight seconds ahead of Samuels, with debutante Charlotte Purdue third Briton home in an impressive 2:32:48.
“Today I just did everything right,” said Dixon.
Sumgong could hardly agree with that, but after her thrilling victory she would surely go along with the Sunderland Stroller’s other assessment: “What a great experience. I’m feeling tired but what a day.”
Report by London Marathon