Sifan Hassan, an Olympic track champion from the Netherlands running her first marathon, staged a stunning comeback on Sunday to win the London Marathon in one of the most dramatic and unexpected finishes in the race’s history.
In winning, Hassan, 30, showed both her stunning range as a runner — she was a triple medalist in three shorter distances on the Tokyo Olympics track two years ago and holds the world record in the mile — but also her inexperience as a marathoner.
An Ethiopian-born Dutch athlete better known for her middle-distance success, Hassan fell off the pace about an hour into the race, stopped at least once to stretch her aching left hip, and offered a drink to one of her rivals as they ran even after missing a water stop herself — the result, she said later, of having never practiced for them.
Hassan did it all despite training for the race during Ramadan, a month of fasting that left her unable to complete long runs because she could not eat or drink during the day.
Yet at the finish line on Sunday, she wound up on her knees a few yards beyond the tape she had just broken, draped in a pink towel and appearing to talk herself through what she had just accomplished.
“I can’t believe it,” she said to no one in particular.
“I learned to be patient and just to run your own race,” Hassan said at a news conference. “Just keep going as much as possible and maybe you will surprise yourself.”
Her race was hardly a textbook marathon. She stopped about an hour in, clearly struggling, and dropped off the pace while she stretched. She soon started to feel better, though, and went back on the hunt. Mile by mile, she closed the gap on the front-running group that included experienced marathoners like the Olympic gold medalist Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya and the defending London Marathon champion Yalemzerf Yehualaw of Ethiopia.
Creeping closer and closer to the front over the rainy streets of Westminster as the finish neared, Hassan pulled first within sight of the leaders and then onto their shoulders. Finally, as she rounded the race’s last turn and a large grandstand filled with spectators in front of Buckingham Palace let out a roar, she took off as if she were closing out a 1,500-meter race.
Her final two challengers, Alemu Megertu of Ethiopia and Jepchirchir, had nothing left to match her. And just like that, Hassan, in her debut race, was a marathon champion. Crossing the line at a sprinter’s speed, she covered her face in her hands in disbelief.
Hassan finished in 2 hours 18 minutes 33 seconds. Megertu was second, Jepchirchir third and Yehualaw fourth.
Kenya’s Kelvin Kiptum won the men’s race, posting the second-fastest time in history. Kiptum collapsed at the line after finishing in 2:01:25 — falling only 16 seconds short of the world record held by his countryman Eliud Kipchoge. Well clear of the rest of the elite field, Kiptum faded near the finish but still finished almost three minutes ahead of Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya, who was second in 2:04:23. Tamirat Tola of Ethiopia was third in 2:04:59
“I am so happy with the result,” Kiptum, 23, said. “I don’t know what to say right now. I am just grateful.”
Hassan is no stranger to victories, or to demanding running propositions. She won gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and a bronze in the 1,500, six hard races in nine days, after which she admitted she had questioned if she was “crazy.”
That experience was, perhaps, still in the back of Hassan’s mind when she woke up one morning and decided to run London.
In an interview before the race, she said that she had entered the race on a whim and that training during Ramadan had kept her from optimizing her training. “Sometimes I wake up like, ‘Why the hell did I decide to run a marathon?’” she said last week.
She acknowledged then that not only did she not expect to win, but that she wasn’t even sure she would finish. “I’m already having nerves, almost for one month,” she said. “And I’m just so scared of a marathon.”
Her goal had mostly been to learn from her London experience so that she might benefit from it if she ever tried the distance again. The most important thing, she said, was finishing the race, “so the next time I know what to do.”
The next time, whenever that comes, she will cross the starting line as a major marathon champion.