SOUTH SHIELDS, ENGLAND (11-Sep) -- Four-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah of Great Britain became the first-ever athlete to win the Great North Run half-marathon three years in a row, defeating American Dathan Ritzenhein by eight seconds after a spirited, 21-kilometer fight from Newcastle to South Shields. On a crisp, sunny morning, the 33 year-old Farah clocked 1:00:04, the slowest of his three winning times here.
"That was brilliant; it was amazing," a smiling Farah exclaimed to the media after the race. He continued: "It was definitely amazing to have so many people cheer for me; that's what drove me to the line."
While British fans might have been expecting a coronation for Farah, the 33 year-old Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian and world half-marathon bronze medalist, had other ideas. Moving to the lead right from the gun, Ritzenhein was determined to make it an honest race, hitting the first mile in 4:34 and taking the pack through 5 km in 14:15. Britain's Chris Thompson, Kenya's Emmanuel Bett, America's Abdi Abdirahman and Belgium's Bashir Abdi were also in the lead group, all content to tuck in behind Ritzenhein.
With such a strong pace, Thompson was the first to fall back, then Abdi, then Abdirahman, who later complained of a bad side stitch on his right side. By 8 kilometers (about 23:06) it was down to Farah, Ritzenhein and Bett.
In the downhill sixth mile, Farah and Bett accelerated, recording a sub-4:25 split. Ritzenhein fell back slightly and wasn't sure if he had just fallen out of contention.
"We were going so fast already that I thought we had accelerated a lot because it felt harder," Ritzenhein told Race Results Weekly. "And, we came through that mile and they were, like, 4:22. I was maybe 4:25, so that was why. I just tried to inch it back up the next couple of miles."
Farah had the lead through 10 km (28:31), still running with Bett. Ritzenhein could catch up soon, and then take control of the race once again. As the leaders approached the course's highest elevation point just before 15 km, Ritzenhein was beginning to wear down both Farah and Bett. He split 15-K in 42:36 (14:05), and Bett was dropped. Minutes later, Ritzenhein and Farah went through 10 miles in 45:40, well faster than Greg Meyer's 1983 USA record of 46:13.
"I led for 12 miles and I felt strong," Ritzenhein later told reporters. "I thought I might have had Mo sort of on the ropes."
But Farah had one final card to play. He knew from experience that he could attack on the short, but steep downhill which takes runners to the Coast Road about two kilometers from the finish. Farah ran through the roundabout at the top of the hill with Ritzenhein, then shot down the hill, leaving his American rival flat-footed. That's what Kenenisa Bekele had done to him three years ago when the Ethiopian defeated him by one second.
"I remembered Bekele just went, boom!" Farah told the media. "He went down so hard, opened up a gap, and I could never close that gap. So I was like, OK. That's what I did to Dathan. I went as hard as I could and just tried to make a little gap then hold that gap."
Farah's surge was too much for Ritzenhein, who is logging over 100 miles a week ahead of racing the TCS New York City Marathon on November 6. He couldn't match Farah's leg speed and had to settle for second.
"I ran out of steam the last couple of miles and couldn't keep pressing the same pace anymore," Ritzenhein lamented.
Nonetheless, Ritzenhein ran the second-fastest half-marathon time of his career, and his fifth sub-1:01:30. Bett held on for third (1:01:22), with Bashir Abdi in fourth (1:02:03), and Kenyan Duncan Maiyo fifth (1:02:06). Abdi Abdirahman, who is also racing the marathon in New York, finished sixth (1:02:46). Thompson, who appeared distressed at the finish, was seventh in 1:03:35.
Farah, who ended his season here today, seemed genuinely relieved that he had won, and gave Ritzenhein, a former training partner at the Nike Oregon Project, his full respect.
"Dathan made it so hard for me," he said, looking at the American. "We made a great race. I just had to hang for my dear life. But, it was tough today. It was tough."
The women's race also featured gripping late-race drama. With a mile to go, Kenya's Vivian Cheruiyot and Priscah Jeptoo and Ethiopia's Tirunesh Dibaba were all still in contention. Cheruiyot, the 2016 Olympic 5000m champion, was running in only her first half-marathon, and she was doubting herself from the start.
"For me, at the start I was saying, will I finish my first half-marathon?" she admitted to reporters. "I was a bit scared."
Dibaba was the first to let go, leaving the two Kenyans to battle for the win. Cheruiyot knew that Jeptoo, who won this race in 2013, would be a tough opponent.
"Priscah, she's a strong lady," Cheruiyot said glancing at her opponent after the race. "She was fighting, fighting all the way!"
Cheruiyot opened a gap within the last kilometer, and Jeptoo couldn't close it. Running into a slight headwind, she got the win in 1:07:54, just one second up on Jeptoo. Dibaba, who had won here in 2012, was third in 1:08:04.
For Cheruiyot, today's victory came with an extra bonus: it is her 33rd birthday. She said she would celebrate later today and begin her regular seasonal break from training.
"This is my last race," said Cheruiyot. "I'm going to take a break, from two to three weeks."
The top British woman was Charlotte Purdue, who finished sixth in 1:12:13. She's running the BMW Berlin Marathon on September 25th.