(26-Mar) -- It has been a momentous week for veteran distance runner Chris Thompson, and it's only Friday.
IMAGE: Chris Thompson after winning the 2021 Müller British Athletics Marathon Trials in a personal best 2:10:51 (image via British Athletics video stream)
On Monday, the 39 year-old Olympian and his wife Jemma Simpson celebrated the birth of their son, Theodore, their first child. Then today, in a perfectly timed effort at the Müller British Athletics Marathon and 20km Walk Trials, he ran his way on to his second Olympic team in dramatic fashion, coming from behind to win in a personal best 2:10:52, comfortably under the Tokyo Olympics qualifying standard of 2:11:30. According to statistician Jon Mulkeen, Thompson has now made 25 British national teams since qualifying for the World Junior Championships in 1998 in the 3000-meter steeplechase.
"I've never felt so much emotion in my life," a teary-eyed Thompson told commentator Tim Hutchings in his post-race broadcast interview. He continued: "Everything fell into place in the last couple of laps."
At today's race, held in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew in southwest London, the top-two men and women could earn automatic selection for the Tokyo Olympics if they left the finish area with the Olympic qualifying standard under their belts. Only one man and one woman, Ben Connor and Stephanie Davis, possessed those respective standards of 2:11:30 and 2:29:30 coming into the race. So Thompson had to hit the time today, plus finish in the top-2 to gain automatic team selection.
In the first five kilometers Thompson, Connor, Dewi Griffiths and Mohamud Aadan (making his marathon debut) ran close behind the pacemakers Callum Hawkins and Jake Smith. Hawkins, who finished fourth in the 2019 World Athletics Championships Marathon, had already been pre-selected for the Olympic team and ran today to "show fitness" as required by British Athletics selectors and also to help his compatriots fulfill their Olympic dreams. Through 10-K (30:51) they were all together running at a 2:10 pace, but over the next five kilometers Thompson would drift back. The 2010 European Athletics Championships 10,000m silver medalist decided that the pace was a little too ambitious.
"After 30 minutes I realized I'd worked the course out," Thompson explained. "Listen, you can't keep pushing like this. The turns, everything, was just building up and I thought, I need to check back. These guys need to be in very, very good shape to keep this going."
At the halfway mark (about 1:04:42), Thompson was about 20 seconds back. Because the Garden's paved paths are narrow and the primary 3.3-kilometer race loop had 11 turns or bends, Thompson was hidden from his rivals. Indeed, it seemed to the broadcast audience as if he was completely out of contention.
Between 25 and 30 kilometers, the leading men only put up a sluggish 5-K split time of 15:43. Thompson was a whopping 36 seconds behind, and was still out of sight. But over the next five kilometers --after pacemaker Hawkins had dropped out at around 32 kilometers-- Thompson made up that entire deficit, while Griffiths dropped back (the Welshman would finish fourth in 2:13:42). At 35-K (1:48:32) it was a three-man race and they were running at about a 2:11 pace. Thompson took stock of his position.
"I've either messed this up royally or it's going to turn around very quickly," Thompson said.
After running briefly with Connor and Aadan, Thompson left his rivals and forged ahead on his own. By the 40-kilometer mark (2:04:07) he had a commanding 44-second lead. He checked his watch a few times to make sure he was going to make the time, then in the final meters to the finish he started celebrating, nearly stopping at the finish tape as he punched his fists in joy. His official time of 2:10:52 put him well under the standard and on his second Olympic team in nine years.
"I was in dreamland," Thompson marveled. "The last two laps, I'm like nothing's stopping me now."
Behind Thompson, Connor and Aadan battled for second right through the final kilometer. Connor finished a clear second in 2:12:06, and since he already had the qualifying standard from the Virgin Money London Marathon last October where he ran 2:11:20 he locked up his team spot. Aadan got third in 2:12:20, a solid debut.
"Satisfaction, relief. Whatever you want to call it," Connor said when asked to describe his emotions He was impressed with how Thompson managed his effort today. "I could hear him breathing about ten seconds before he came by," Connor said. He added: "Smart running from him. Fair enough."
IMAGE: Stephanie Davis wins the 2021 Müller British Athletics Marathon Trials in a personal best 2:27:16 (image via British Athletics video stream)
The women's race, which used two male pacemakers, was dominated by Scotswoman Stephanie Davis. Davis, 30, was the only woman who started today's race in possession of the Tokyo Olympic qualifying standard (she ran 2:27:42 in Valencia in December, 2019). She ran a smart race, following the pacers closely through halfway in an honest 1:14:05. That whittled the lead pack down to five: Davis, Sarah Inglis, Natasha Cockram, Lily Partridge and Charlotte Arter (making her debut). By 25-K Davis had just a four-second lead. Over the next five kilometers that cushion mushroomed to 52 seconds and the race was over. Davis cruised to the finish in a personal best 2:27:16 booking her first Olympic team berth.
"I can't believe it," Davis said in her post-race broadcast interview wearing a surgical mask. "I'm smiling so much underneath this mask, and I'm just so delighted. I knew I was in good shape, but anything can happen in the marathon."
Natasha Cockram finished second in a personal best 2:30:03, but her performance was 33 seconds outside of the minimum required time for Tokyo so she did not earn a team berth. Third place went to Rosie Edwards in 2:31:56, also a personal best. Inglis finished sixth in 2:34:09 (she had run 2:29:41 at The Marathon Project last December in Arizona), and both Lily Partridge and Charlotte Arter dropped out.
With today's race in the books, British Athletics selectors will have to fill the other two places on the women's team by going through the remainder of their multi-step selection process. Three women who did not race today --Jess Piasecki, Charlotte Purdue, and Steph Twell-- all have the qualifying time and could be considered for team selection.
Today's race was the first stand-alone British Olympic Marathon Trials since 1980. The Virgin Money London Marathon, typically held in late April, is usually used as the primary selection race, but that event won't be held in 2021 until October because of the pandemic.