BEIJING — The 15th IAAF World Championships in Athletics got off to a shocking start here as a plucky teenager from Eritrea, Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, became the youngest-ever world marathon champion at the age of 19. Running in only his fourth marathon—two of which he had failed to finish—he won the first-ever gold medal at these championships for Eritrea, crossing the finish line in National Stadium in 2:12:28. The silver medal went to Ethiopian veteran Yemane Tsegay and bronze to Uganda’s Solomon Mutai.
Ghebreslassie, who finished second at last April’s Haspa Marathon Hamburg in a career best 2:07:47, came into these championships as a top-10 prospect, according to his manager Jos Hermens. But victory wasn’t in the cards.
“This was his second full marathon,” Hermens told Race Results Weekly after the race (he had run as a pacemaker in Chicago last October and had dropped out of Dubai last January). “To be honest, we didn’t expect him to win.”
Ghebreslassie benefited by conserving energy and staying behind in the first half of the race while other athletes surged, only to be brought back. Off of a slow early pace—just 16:06 at 5K—the surging began, first by Mongolia’s Ser-Od Bat-Ochir, then the Italian pair of Daniele Meucci, the reigning European champion, and his 41 year-old teammate, Ruggero Pertile. The Italians led the race through 20K (1:03:23) and 25K (1:19:16). Ghebreslassie was seven seconds back in 10th place running with the pre-race favorites Wilson Kipsang (reigning TCS New York City Marathon champion) and Dennis Kimetto (world record holder) of Kenya, Stephen Kiprotich of Uganda (the defending champion) and Lelisa Desisa (two-time Boston Marathon winner) of Ethiopia among others.
After 25K, the race’s biggest surge came from unheralded Tsepo Ramonene of Lesotho. He shot ahead of the field, and within a few kilometers had a lead of nearly 30 seconds, a lead that would stick all the way through 35K.
Behind Ramonene, the race had completely fallen apart as the sun got hotter and the winds stronger. Both Kimetto and Kipsang had dropped out. Desisa was with Kiprotich 23 seconds back, and the reigning Boston and World Championships winners were struggling.
“Today wasn’t my day,” Kiprotich told Race Results Weekly after eventually finishing sixth. “I tried and tried, but was not good enough.”
Ghebreslassie said he wasn’t worried and was sticking to his race plan.
“I decided to leave the group at 34K,” he told reporters, just one kilometer earlier than planned. “That is what I expected when I came (to Beijing).”
Step by step, Ghebreslassie was catching up to Ramonene, and with 1:53:15 on the race clock, he passed him with authority. Little did he know that his biggest battle was still to come. Tsegaye was closing on him, and at about 38-kilometers he passed him. But Ghebreslassie struck back, immediately retaking the lead. Tsegaye didn’t realize that the heat wasn’t bothering his Eritrean rival.
“I’m more experienced with this weather,” Ghebreslassie told reporters. “Today, the weather was very nice for me.”
Tsegaye, who said he did dedicated heat training, wasn’t as lucky.
“Yes, I have experience but sometimes race is difficult,” Tesgaye said. “After 35 kilometers, I had a stomach problem and I didn’t go with him.”
Under two minutes later, Ghebreslassie would take the lead for good. Coming into National Stadium alone with an Eritrean flag draped over his arm, he ran right through the finish line, not realizing that the athletes did not have to run a full lap of the stadium. Officials told him to stop.