26.2 Miles of Drama

Early Sunday afternoon in London, nearly 120 athletes from across the globe will be embarking on one of the most grueling runs of their lives.

Taking off down the Mall with Buckingham Palace in the background, the Olympic men’s marathon will then make a U-turn on London Bridge, leading into an 8-mile circuit that will be seen three times.

Four years ago, the primary concern of the runners wasn’t course difficulty or poor placement of water stations but terrible air quality that had the potential to create serious lung discomfort—or worse.

This time around, hills will play more of a role, but it is the forecast that has many athletes wondering about the race’s intensity.

Torrential rain during the women’s race a week ago kept the athletes bunched up for longer than expected until a late break led by a score of Ethiopian, Kenyan and Russian runners allowed for Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana to take home the gold in 2:23:07.

London will once again see its fair share of clouds on this final day of competition but there is only a slight chance of rain for the day with showers expected briefly in the afternoon.

One favorite that comes to mind this year is Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich of Kenya, who holds the world record with a frightening time of 2:03:42 and won the 2012 London Marathon with a very impressive 2:04:44.

Kiprotich set the world record in Frankfurt last year.

Another emerging runner likely to be skipping misting stations tomorrow to stay in the lead pack is Ethiopia’s Ayele Abshero.   Fresh off winning the 2012 Dubai Marathon in a course record 2:04:23 and at only 21 years of age, Abshero has the endurance and late-race speed that could be placing him atop the podium on Sunday.

Only four runners have completed a marathon in under two hours and five minutes in 2012—all of them either hail from Kenya or Ethiopia, long-time distance running powerhouses.

None of the men’s marathon medal winners from Beijing will be honoring the Legend of Pheidippides in London.

Ethiopian bronze medalist Tsegay Kebede failed to qualify with an extremely competitive field in his home country, while 40 year-old defending silver medalist Jaouad Gharib of Morocco was not selected for his country’s roster.

The most tragic absence is undoubtedly 2008 gold medalist and Olympic record holder Samuel Kamau Wanjiru of Kenya, who would win both the Chicago (2009, 2010) and London (2009) Marathons before passing away in 2011 after falling from the balcony of his apartment in Kenya.  Many questions still remain as to what caused the fall.

As with any Olympic event, there is always the potential for drama and medals won by underdogs.

A promising showing in Beijing and a fast Olympic Trials in Houston has many experts thinking the United States, led by 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi and Ryan Hall (taking a break from reading The Odyssey to compete), could make moves this year, especially if the conditions are less than ideal.

Eight years later, Meb is poised to reclaim his Olympic glory.

Teams from Uganda, Russia, France and Japan, among others, could factor in as well—all have runners who have gone under 2:10 at some point in their careers.

Given the improved caliber of runners and the guarantee of new medalists, London 2012 should  come to a close with an exciting, dramatic afternoon.

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