Eshetu was the defending women’s champion and won like a champion should, taking down her own course record in the process despite suffering some discomfort from leg cramps in the closing stages of the race.
Burka crept into the race almost unnoticed, with others up to four minutes faster than him on best times. But the 27-year-old had already won marathons in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles this year and he showed that winning form is good form as he broke clear of compatriot Seboka Tola over the last five kilometres of the Sydney course.
It was cool and light rain was falling as the runners were called to the line in Milsons Point, just to the north of Sydney’s landmark Harbour Bridge. It remained overcast all the way to the finish line on the Opera House forecourt on the southern side of the bridge, good conditions for the 4000 competitors in the marathon and the 30,000 more in the associated Sydney Running Festival events.
An early lead group of about 10 as the runners crossed the iconic bridge was gradually whittled down to five by the half-way point in Centennial Park. Burka was there, though his 2:10:18 personal best did not augur well for his chances against his companions Tola (2:06:17), Sisay Jisa (2:06:27) and Kenya’s Benjamin Kiptoo (2:06:31). Also there was Japan’s Tsuyoshi Ugachi, whose modest 2:13:41 previous best was backed up with 27:40 track 10,000m credentials.
Yet it was Burka’s aggression which dropped Jisa and then reduced the leading group to two pairs – Burka and Tola in front, Kiptoo and Ugachi battling for third place some 30 seconds behind.
Inside the last five kilometres, Burka forged a gap of some 15 metres on Tola. Briefly, it looked as if the faster man was biding his time before launching his own attack, but in the final stages the gap grew from 20 metres, to 50 and 100.
It now became a race against the clock, with Burka chasing Yuki Kawauchi’s course record of 2:11:52 set two years ago. He won that battle, too, crossing the line in 2:11:18, 30 seconds clear of Tola. Kiptoo was third in 2:12:08, some 10 seconds ahead of Ugachi, the only one of the first four to run a personal best.
“I’m very glad with today’s result,” the winner said. “My trainer was aware of the race record and it was something he reminded me of before the start.”
Kenya’s Erick Wainana, a top-10 finisher in three consecutive Olympic marathons, topped by a silver medal at the Sydney 2000 Games, finished in 10th place.
There was no question that Biruktayit Eshetu was the favourite for the women’s race. The fastest of the four entrants with sub-2:30 credentials, she had finished fourth in Houston at the start of the year in 2:26:22.
The doubt was whether the 32-year-old Ethiopian could produce a winning performance in her fifth marathon of the year, just eight weeks to the day since winning in Eugene in 2:33:15.
Eshetu could, and she did. Despite slowing noticeably in the final three kilometres, she was always well clear and never threatened by second-place finisher Jane Kiptoo of Kenya, who also felt the strain in the closing stages.
The last few kilometres of any marathon make subtle demands on the body, demands scarcely noticed over shorter distances.
As marathon runners negotiate their way around Sydney’s Circular Quay to the Opera House finish, tired legs and feet have to cope with surface changes from road, to boardwalk, to paving stones, to road again and then back to paving.
Eshetu was clearly hurting, but she had so much time and distance up her sleeve that she was still able to finish in 2:29:42, some three minutes faster than the 2:32:46 record she had set the previous year.
Kiptoo, second in 2:32:08, was also under the previous mark. Japan’s Yuka Yano was third in 2:33:19.
“I was quite sure I could improve last year’s record,” said Eshetu. “I was able to set the pace, making my move at the 15km mark. However, I could feel my right leg cramping up in the final two kilometres.”
The leg held up, the record did not.
Len Johnson for the IAAF
1 Gebo Burka (ETH) 2:11:18
2 Seboka Tola (ETH) 2:11:48
3 Benjamin Kiptoo (KEN) 2:12:08
4 Tsuyoshi Ugachi (JPN) 2:12:18
5 Abdellah Tagharrafet (MAR) 2:16:56
1 Biruktayit Eshetu (ETH) 2:29:42
2 Jane Kiptoo (KEN) 2:32:08
3 Yuka Yano (JPN) 2:33:19
4 Zemzem Ahmed (ETH) 2:39:46
5 Yumi Sato (JPN) 2:55:20