ROMA (22-Mar) -- Benjamin Kiptoo Koulum and Firehiwot Dado wore bib numbers 36 and F12, respectively, at today's 15th Maratona di Roma, sure signs that they were not expected to contend for victory. In fact, Kiptoo, a Kenyan who prepared for this race in the same camp where Martin Lel is currently training for the Flora London Marathon, was actually a designated pacemaker. Dado, an Ethiopian who has only run one marathon, was the last elite woman organizers accepted into the race.
But here today they beat the odds --and their respective fields-- to turn in upset victories. Moreover, Kiptoo, who had won both the Brescia and Beijing Marathons last year in respectable but modest times, overcame stiff winds, chilly temperatures, and a rough and winding course to post the fastest-ever marathon in Italy: 2:07:17. Dado, who has the same coach as last year's Boston Marathon champion Dire Tune, chopped her personal best time by an unlikely ten minutes to win in 2:27:08.
"It's normal," commented Kenyan Philip Manyim who marveled at Kiptoo's performance after the race. "It's marathon."
Kiptoo was entered by his coach, Gabrielle Rosa, as a pacemaker. But top athletes coordinator Max Monteforte informs all athletes that pacemakers are permitted to finish after they do their contracted pacing jobs, and Rosa gave his athlete the freedom to go to the finish if he felt strong. The word out of Lel's training camp in Kapsabet was that Kiptoo was ready to do something special.
"He decided to run here and push the pace, but his plan was to finish," explained Rosa.
Kiptoo was part of a 20-strong lead pack which hit half-way in 63:54. He kept close to his teammate, Paul Kirui, the 2004 world half-marathon champion who was seeded #1. The pace slackened a bit as the field passed Olympic Stadium and pushed into a stiff headwind at around 23 km. Little had changed by 30 km as there was still a large pack of contenders running together.
But at 32 km, Kirui put in a surge down a long hill breaking up the pack. Kiptoo stayed close to Kirui while another pacemaker, Joseph Ngeny, and the #6 seed Philip Manyim also managed to stay on the pace. Another top contender, Hosea Rotich, was dropped.
It looked like the race was setting up for #1 Kirui to get the win, but Kiptoo knew that Kirui was slightly short on training and sensed an opportunity. He pushed again, and by 39 km he had sole possession of the lead, with Ngeny in second and Kirui, looking somewhat distressed, in third.
"I was thinking that Kirui had not done enough long distance (training)," commented Rosa.
With the Coliseum in the background, Kiptoo looked surprisingly fresh has he approached the tape alone at the race's magnificent finish on the Via del Fori Imperiali. Hands raised, Kiptoo smashed Ethiopian Alemayhu Simeretu's Italian all-comers record of 2:07:45 set in Torino in 2001, and collected a special 50,000 euro bonus. He also broke Alberico Di Cecco's course record of 2:08:02 set in 2005.
"I have improved my best level and my best time," said a stunned-looking Kiptoo moments after finishing. "Because, first I had 2:09, but now I am somebody different. I am 2:07."
Ngeny faded a little in the last three kilometers, enough to allow Kirui to pass him and place second in 2:08:23. Ngeny kept his gap over Hosea Rotich to take the last podium spot in a personal best time of 2:08:41. Manyim faded badly, needing about nine minutes to cover the last two kilometers, and finished ninth. Rotich got fourth in 2:09:47. Monteforte assembled a deep field, and 20 men broke two hours and 20 minutes.
LAST IN, DADO FIRST TO FINISH
All eyes in the women's race were on the top-seeded Anna Incerti of Italy. Expectations were high after her victory at the marathon in Milano last December, and her personal best 1:09:24 half-marathon at the Roma-Ostia on March 1. Indeed, Incerti was tucked in a lead pack of five athletes at 30 km, but so was Dado who decided the time was right to strike. She stepped on the gas and by the time she hit 35 km she had a 25-second lead. Incerti was no longer feeling strong; the pressure had gotten to her.
"I was disappointed," she said after the race. "I felt the pressure. The expectations were high because of recent results in Ostia and Milano."
Dado, who is from Ethiopia's Arsi region but who now lives and trains in Addis Ababa, continued to open her lead all the way to the finish, much to the delight of her manager, Hussein Makke. Makke was only able to get her into the race at the last minute; elite coordinator Monteforte was reluctant to take Dado with a modest 2:37 personal best.
"We didn't know where to go," said Makke who knew his athlete was ready to race. "He doesn't want to take her. She just got her visa on Wednesday, she flew to Rome on Thursday, and now she is a winner."
Ukraine's Tetyana Filonyuk got second in 2:27:43, and Dado's training partner Haile Lema Kebebush got third in 2:28:03, a personal best. Incerti had to settle for fifth in 2:29:33.
Monteforte, who accompanied the men's lead pack on a bicycle, was pleased with his race, especially given the difficulty of the course which has many cobblestone sections and a lot of sharp turns.
"It's like Paris-Roubaix," Monteforte said, referring to the famous bicycle race which has long cobblestone sections.
PHOTO: 2009 Rome Marathon winner Benjamin Kiptoo Koulum (photo by David Monti)
PHOTO: 2009 Rome Marathon winner Firehiwot Dado (photo by Jane Monti)