Something strange and entirely wondrous began to happen to Josh Griffiths, a 23-year-old club runner from Cross Hands, halfway through his first race over 26.2 miles on Sunday. He started passing athletes in the men’s elite race at the London Marathon. First he found himself galloping past the best of the British crop. Then, improbably, he began overtaking marathoners of the calibre of Tesfaye Abera, who competed for Ethiopia in the Olympics and has a personal best of 2hr 4min 24sec, before finishing in 13th place.
But there was an even greater prize waiting at the finish. Griffiths’ time of 2:14:49 ensured he was the first home runner to finish and guaranteed him a place in the British team for the world athletics championships in London in August.
“I started about 10 metres behind the elite field but obviously that was never really in my mind to race those guys,” he said afterwards, weary and understandably stunned. “The aim for me today was to run the Welsh Commonwealth Games time for next year – 2:16. But once I got to halfway I started to catch the elite British guys up, people I have always looked up to. I kept working my way through but, until I crossed the line, I never quite believed what had happened.”
Griffiths, right, had prepared for the race by having rice and salmon for breakfast at 5am before, like many of the 40,000 competitors, getting the tube and train to the start in Blackheath. But unlike the elite British endurance athletes, Griffiths, who is studying for a masters degree in sports coaching from Cardiff Metropolitan University, has never been to a high-altitude camp. In fact, he does not even have a coach and does his own mileage plans.
“I’ve consistently done over 100 miles since October since I planned to do this race,” he said. “Everything since then has been geared towards this. I did a half marathon in 65:18 last month and that really told me I was ready. But to run this is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Griffiths, who lives between Carmarthen and Swansea, is due to graduate in July and is looking for a job. Luckily he has no plans for August. “I’ve been running since I was about 14 and competitively and seriously for about six or seven years now,” he added. “Every year gets better and better. But this is a big jump.”
But there was misery for Jo Pavey, whose hopes of qualifying for her sixth world championships at the age of 43 suffered a painful setback when she was forced to pull out of the race with cramps after 16 miles. Pavey said: “I’m bitterly disappointed. It was always a gamble running because I have had so much illness in the build-up. I still hope there is a chance to qualify for the world championships in a different event.”
The women’s elite race was won by the 35-year-old Kenyan Mary Keitany, who produced a bravura performance to cross the line in 2:17.01 – the second fastest time ever by a woman.
Keitany’s time was good enough to beat by 41 seconds Paula Radcliffe’s “women only” record set in 2005 and, just for good measure, she also set a world 30km record of 1:36:05 along the way. For much of the race it appeared that Radcliffe’s outright world record of 2:15:25, set in London in 2003, was under threat as Keitany powered through 5km in 15.31 – a time that would have placed her 14th in the 5,000m Olympic final in Rio – and reached halfway in 1:06.54.
Afterwards Keitany said her next target would be Radcliffe’s world record, adding: “It’s really in my sight.”
Daniel Wanjiru made it a Kenyan double in the men’s race by holding off the challenge of the legendary Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele to win in 2:05.48.
Afterwards Bekele appeared to blame his Nike VaporElite shoes for hamstring and blister injuries, which he felt had hindered his chances of victory. “I felt some hamstring problem and I couldn’t respond well. That is why I slowed down,” he said. “The shoes were blistering me, they were not comfortable. Maybe because of that also I feel the hamstring problem because I had to adjust and protect the blister area.”