Before the race, Lucy Karimi looked at the start list and compared personal bests to her own and didn’t think she had a shot.
Download photos from the race here.
“I did not think that I could be a winner,” Karimi said. “Everybody that was in there was so strong.”
It turned out to be a vast underestimation of her abilities.
Engaged in a shoulder-to-shoulder duel with fellow Kenyan Purity Rionoripo over the last 17 kilometers of the race, Karimi summoned an inner fortitude she did not know was there, covering a move in the final kilometer with an even better timed and more-devastating kick of her own to score a victory in the women’s race at the 22nd Volkswagen Prague Marathon.
Karimi’s winning time of 2:24:46, 14 seconds in front of Rionoripo, shaved more than two minutes off her personal best, earned her the most significant road victory of her career, and enabled her to pocket €25,000 ($28,511 USD) in purse and time bonus money.
“I can say that the results of the race are because of the training before,” Cherono said. “When you have good training for one month, two months you are confident that you can be competitive. When it comes time, you can apply it in races.”
While Karimi might not have been confident in her chances to top the podium, Lawrence Cherono was in the men’s race. With his belief powered by the knowledge of strong training beforehand, Cherono pushed the tempo late in the race, first dropping Solomon Yego and then defending-champion Felix Kandie en route to a 50-second victory in 2:07:24. Cherono, 27, also earned €25,000 ($28,511 USD) in purse and time bonus money.
The day’s other spectacular performance was turned in by three-time Czech Olympic cross-country skier Eva Vrabcova, who finished sixth overall in 2:30:10, earning the Czech qualification standard for the Rio Olympics with nearly five minutes to spare, and shattering the Czech event record of 2:31:08 set in 2000. This summer, Vrabcova, who earned €2095 ($2389 USD), will become the 35th athlete and third Czech woman to compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience, especially because the visitors were supporting me and the crowds were helping me throughout the finish line,” Vrabcova said through a translator. “This was a very strong experience and I believe that I will never forget it ’til the end of my days.”
With temperatures warm at the start (15°C/55°F) and rising steadily over the subsequent three hours on a sunbaked course offering very little in the way of shade and narrow streets that provide a convection affect everybody rightfully anticipated the heat playing a major factor in the race. What they didn’t bank on was also a need to battle wind, especially along the exposed roads running parallel with the banks of the Vltava River.
The elements caught up with Czech runners Jiri Homolac and Jan Kreisinger at 25K, forcing the two men to abort their attempts at Olympic qualification at 25K, and then impacted the front of the race at 35K, when the eight-runner lead pack was cut down to three, Cherono, Kandie and Yego. The adverse conditions had a quicker impact on the women’s race as Ethiopia’s Biruktayit Eshetu, the pre-race favorite, was forced to drop out, and a five-runner lead pack dwindled to three — Karimi, Rionoripo and Ethiopian Marta Lema — at the 25K mark. The two dropped Lema about six kilometers later.
Where Karimi sold herself short was trusting in her training and her past results.
During the Honolulu Marathon under warm, humid conditions in December, she was able to chase down a fit Joyce Chepkirui and cut into her lead, a sure sign she could handle the conditions. Then at the Prague Half Marathon last month, she clocked a three-minute PB of 68:43 on only long and tempo runs – she was unable to do speed work due to surface conditions brought on by the rainy season in Ngong – evidence of superior endurance.
“She has never really run fast in her life,” Karimi’s manager Davor Savija said. “Her body has been saying go, but her mind was saying no.”
It appeared Karimi’s lack of confidence might cost her as Rionoripo put forth a surge around the 41K mark to end nearly 10 kilometers of shoulder-to-shoulder running, opening a 10-meter lead that appeared like it might be decisive.
But at just that moment, Rionoripo began to vomit some of her fluids and slowed down. Sensing this, Karimi found another gear, covered the move that put her behind, and countered with her own surge that put her competitor away for good. As Karimi pushed toward the finish line, you could see her gritting her teeth, digging deep to secure her victory.
“She was so strong and at first I thought I was going to have to work to secure position two,” Karimi said. “But at 40 kilometers, she took water and then started vomiting. I thought, ‘Respond if you want to win.’ When I saw the 700 meters to go sign, I pushed hard to the finish.”
In the men’s race, Cherono and Kandie pushed the pace of the turn off the Liben Bridge and the two were able to drop Yego. The two remaining leaders ran shoulder to shoulder for almost two more kilometers with Kandie looking like he was better maintaining his running form.
But when Cherono turned the screws a little tighter and surged up a slight incline around 39K, Kandie completely fell apart. Over the ensuing 400 meters, the gap between the two men ballooned to 18 seconds, leaving nothing between Cherono and a triumphant run back through Old Town Square.
“Throughout the race, I tried to stay at the front to keep my mind focused,” Cherono, whose previous PR was 2:09:39, said. “When it got down to just me and Felix, I knew that he was strong and I wanted to keep the pace fast to see if he could resist it. After a while of keeping the pace high, he began to look tiresome and it dropped him. My tactics I had right in putting the pace at high speed.”
Although this was just her first marathon, Vrabcova ran with the wiliness that belied her inexperience. With a pacer dedicated to help her achieve her time goal, she also managed to attract other men of like ability to form a legitimate pace group. Surrounded by these male runners, Vrabcova was able to cut through the wind along the river and reserve energy for the second half of the race, when she began picking off members of the elite field one by one.
At the half marathon mark, Vrabcova crept into the Top 10, hitting the mark in 1:14:17. Over the ensuing 10 kilometers, she moved one spot closer to the front with each 5K. By the 35K mark, she was running solidly in sixth place but still two minutes outside of the top five.
“I would have to thank my pace makers who helped me keep the pace and helped me against the wind,” Vrabcova said. “It was quite tough during the race.”
It was an effort that exceeded even her own expectations. In the post-race press conference, she said that beforehand she bet her physiotherapist that she would not run the Czech qualifying mark of 2:35. Now, she owes him a dog.
“I’m not absolutely sure where to buy a dog, so if you have any suggestions can you please give me them,” Vrabcova joked while her own dog, Bella, sat by her side. “Do you know any places I can get a dog?”
While Vrabcova succeeded in her achieving her Olympic goal, the country will have no male marathoners in Rio. Homolac and Kreisinger dropping out also paved the way for Petr Pechek to reclaim the Czech national championship he won in 2014.
Pechek, who finished 14th in 2:22:14, said he did pass them on the course but did find out until he finished that the two had dropped from the race. Vrabcova, however, thanked Homolac and Kreisinger for remaining on the side of the road to cheer her on as she passed them at 25K.
While the marathoners took center stage, some of their family and children participated in the family mini-marathon, a festive race that saw 5000 runners, 2000 of them children, participate. The event was part of RunCzech’s celebration in the lead up to Global Running Day on June 1, where the goal is to get one million children to become active through running.