Defending Champions Kipsany & Gebremichael keep the Marathon Crown

02 May 2016

29 year old Joel Kipsang yesterday became only the second person ever to complete a hat trick of Belfast Marathon victories. Like his win from a year ago, he showed the opposition a clean pair of heels at the 23 mile mark, to enjoy an easy one minute victory margin at the finish in a time of 2 hrs 17 mins 39 secs. This was the fastest time since 2012, and highly respectable considering the very strong winds on exposed sections of the course.

Despite the wind it was clear from the start that the quality of African entries would ensure that the tempo would be maintained at a high level. At the 7 mile mark, which was reached in 36 mins all the main contenders were in attendance. Kipsang was accompanied by fellow Kenyans Dan Tanui and Eric Koech who are under the wing of local coach Ciaran Collins.

Also in attendance was Zeleke Bekele of Ethiopia, late entrant Chris Ziblocki of the US and last year's 5th placer Mustafa Channi of Morocco. The fast pace continued through 10 miles in 51 mins 40 secs with the halfway point passed in 68 mins 37 secs. At that stage Ziblocki was a minute in arrears with Channi further back. 

The really difficult work then commenced as the leaders encountered an increasingly strong wind. At the 20 mile mark only Kipsang, Tanui and Koech were left in contention as the much favoured Bekele buckled under the pressure and eventually dropped out. This trio played a cat and mouse game in Corporation Street with no-one wishing to lead and take the brunt of the wind.  

However, with 3 miles remaining the seasoned Kipsang took full advantage of his local knowledge and made a decisive break in almost the same place as a year ago. He had the luxury of acknowledging the large crowds on the Ormeau and Ravenhill Roads before turning into the finish at Ormeau Park for a much deserved victory.

The battle for the runner up spot went to the wire with Koech getting the verdict in 2.18.43 only 3 secs ahead of Tanui.  Ziblocki was a long way back in 4th place in 2 hrs 27 mins. Channi was a little frustrated by a second consecutive 5th place in 2.27.26 with Jarleth McKenna taking 6th in 2.31.19. 

The softly spoken 29 year-old Kipsang's third victory emulates his wins last year and in 2013.  He placed second in the 2014 race to Kenya's Freddie Sittuk.  The Belfast Marathon's first treble was achieved by John Mutai in the years 2007- 2009. 

After his latest victory Joel announced he will be returning next year. Like everyone else, he considered this year's race to be very difficult because of the strong wind.  At the half-way mark he was far from confident that he would win. The position only became clear at the 23 miles mark when no-one covered his break.

Kipsang lives in the famous Rift Valley area of Kenya which has produced many world-class distance runners.  He is married with a 15 months old son.  The winning prize of £3000 each year in Belfast went a long way towards the cost of constructing his bungalow near Eldorat which was completed last year. Joel, who trains in excess of 100 miles a week, is considering racing in Dublin in the autumn.

Runner-up Koech was very happy with his performance considering it was his first race outside Kenya.  He finished seventh in the Nairobi Marathon last October in 2 hrs 16 mins.  His performances are exceptional for a 34 year-old who only took up running 6 years ago.  He seriously regrets not taking an interest in the sport much earlier.  Eric said he was determined to come back next year as he was at a significant disadvantage this time round since the winner knew the course well.

Both Koech and 3rd place finisher Tanui who was 2nd in last year's Belfast Half Marathon are part of Ciaran Collin's Project Africa scheme which is designed to assist Africans who would not normally receive invites to compete abroad. He said the initiative was operating successfully particularly regarding results in the Belfast and Dublin Marathons.  

Fourth placer Christopher Ziblocki had just travelled over from England the previous day where he had completed a 12--hour hospital shift. The American is studying medicine at Chichester and will eventually return to the US to practise. He found Belfast very difficult particularly after he ran a recent marathon in Switzerland in 2 hrs 21 mins.

In addition to the 2,800 marathon entries there were also some 1,900 relay teams. This included teams representing the East Antrim Marathon Series which has been organising monthly marathons each month since 2013. Spokesman Peter Montgomery explained that the events which average about 100 runners each month has raised many thousands for various charities.

Former Liverpool Manager Brendan Rogers was competing in a Relay team raising funds for NI Hospice.


In the ladies field, Berhan Gebremichael provided yet another example of the class of Ethiopian marathon runners when she successfully defended her Belfast title in a time of 2 hours 48 mins 26 secs.  This is her fourth successive marathon win and ensures that she retains her unbeaten record over the distance. 

There was however, no overwhelming victory such as the 10 mins winning margin last year. At the finish Berhan was coming under serious pressure from local marathon sensation Laura Graham.

Prior to the race Berhan's agent Malcolm Anderson, was confident that his athlete who is based in Addis Ababa, would enjoy another relatively easy victory especially after her impressive win in Spain last December in a PB of 2.36.31.  He explained that Berhan is capable of running under 2 hrs 30 min probably in China, hopefully before the end of the year.

The problem in Belfast was that Berhan was forced to race virtually the entire distance on her own.  She went through the 7 miles mark in the City Centre in a highly respectable 42 mins with a group of good male Italian runners just ahead of her. She then passed the 10 miles mark in one hour with the half way mark reached in a very useful 1 hr 19 mins.

Behind her was Radka Churanova of the Czech Republic with former lrish Olympian Catriona Jennings further back. At this stage Mourne Runner's Graham was not in serious contention as she passed half way in 1 hr 23 mins.  

If Berhan thought that the completion of the nightmarish Antrim Road hill was the end of her troubles, she was mistaken.  She could not close the gap on the good male runners ahead. To make matters worse, she faced an exceptionally strong wind on the M2 Foreshore and the Duncrue Industrial Estate.  She did however, manage to hold her form in the closing stages to finish the second half of the race some ten mins slower than the first half.

After finishing an exhausted Berhan confessed that she found the conditions much more difficult than last year.  She was however, very happy with yet another win and said she may come back next year depending on how she runs in China.

The talking point of the race revolved around 30 year-old mother of four Graham who astounded everyone including herself, by finishing second only 30 secs back in an amazing time of 2 hrs 48 mins 56 secs. This was a mere 53 secs slower than her huge PB in the London Marathon 8 days ago.

A bemused but smiling Graham appeared to have just completed a leisurely training run.  She commented to the media,

"I am not wise. I am going on holidays tomorrow with the family.  I felt really good in today's race and enjoyed every minute of it. I only decided to race here 2 days ago.  I had high expectations of London but I went out too hard".

Marathon experts shook their heads in disbelief at such a performance so soon after London. Her husband commented that while Laura does have a coach she ultimately makes her own decisions. Understandably there is a general view that it is not a good idea to race twice in 8 days over the gruelling marathon distance. With better preparation new Marathon star Graham can only get much faster.

The bronze medal went to 38 year-old Churanova in 2.51.37, which is her fastest time in 10 years.  Helen Csonge was fifth in 2.57.19, while North Belfast's Roisin Hughes was the second local finisher in 3.02.08.