After a brilliant 26.1 miles, Charles Kibiwott found himself on the losing end of a 100m sprint to the finish line at the Gyeongju International Marathon in Gyeongju, South Korea. Countryman and friend, Edwin Komen won the race in 2:09:44; Charles ran 2:09:45. “So close,” he said immediately after the race, his thumb and index finger stretched apart indicating a close margin. “So close…” Laban Kipkemboi was forced to drop out with an injury to the ball of his foot.
The race played to Charles’s strength, a nice even effort with very few swift changes in pace. Perhaps the biggest surge was the one Komen threw in after making two sharp turns just before entering the stadium. It was a race that tested the athlete’s patience and will, an occasion to which Charles rose today.
The race went out rather slow, with none of the contenders eager to push the pace. In fact, for much of the first half, the pacemakers ran alone about 30 meters in front of the main pack. At 18.5 kilometers I thought the athletes made a terrible error, allowing Wilson Kigen to tuck in behind the pacemakers while the rest of them sat back. Quickly they realized their mistake, and six athletes, Charles and Komen included, pressed to close the gap. At that point, the race was on.
By 32K the pack was down to five athletes – Kigen, Kibiwott, Komen, Matthew Sigei, and pacemaker Hosea Kogo, who did a fantastic job keeping the athletes in the race and on pace as best he could. At this point, the nerves started to creep in. We – the agents, coaches, and marathon staff – were watching the race in a small makeshift locker room inside the stadium. People were getting tense. Or at least I was. I thought Charles looked good, but at 35K his facial expression changed. He was constantly looking at his watch and over his shoulder. And he wasn’t taking sponges from the tables like the other athletes. I thought he was in trouble.
At 35K Kogo stepped off the road, a job well done. At 37.5K Sigei lost his rhythm and faded off the back of the pack. It was down to three – Charles, Komen, and Kigen. Kigen’s manager, Arien Verkade, looked over at me and shrugged; we both agreed that Komen looked very relaxed and effortless. We hoped to be proved wrong.
Around a slight bend at 39K, Komen became the aggressor for the first time in the race. He didn’t break away from the other two, but he pushed the pace hoping to. Approaching 40K I thought to myself, “Charles should skip his water and make a charge to the finish line. He doesn’t have the strongest kick.” After the race, Charles would tell me that he thought the same thing, but was scared to push from too far out because of what happened in Rotterdam 2006. There, he pushed from a few kilometers out and appeared to have the race won, but his back tightened with about 600 meters to go and he almost slowed to a walk. Three athletes passed him in the last quarter mile.
As they approached the last water stop, Charles found himself on the outside, away from the table. All three athletes had their water on the first table, so they all lunged at the same time. Charles just grabbed his bottle by the flag. After they each ditched their bottles to the curb, with 1.4 kilometers to run, they pulled even with one another, running three abreast. At that point we all left the locker room and headed to the finish line.
When we stepped outside and locked up at the jumbotron, Kigen had fallen off the back. It was down to Charles and Komen. Before entering the stadium the athletes make two semi-sharp turns. Komen almost missed the first one, veering to the right before the course marshals waved him to the left. Unfortunately, Charles was following right behind him and in the quick change of direction, lost a step. But Charles quickly regained his ground and I honestly thought he was going to go right past Komen. They pulled even again, but at the final turn before entering the stadium, Komen got the inside track. He stepped on the track, 100 meters from the finish line, two strides in front of Charles. Charles gave it one last grind, his head down with arms flailing across his body, his singlet waving off his shoulders. But it wasn’t enough. Komen crossed the line, arms raised, with Charles just two steps behind.
Despite being “so close,” Charles was very happy with his race. “After Chicago and Rotterdam (where Charles ran poorly), I needed a good effort here. And I did that. I am happy.” From the minute he crossed the finish line until now, save for the 120 seconds when he was vomiting into the trash can, Charles hasn’t stopped smiling. At the awards ceremony the top six athletes were given a trophy and a bouquet of flowers. As Charles came off the awards stand, I watched as a young boy ran up to him, having scrambled away from his mother. Charles shook the boys hand and then gave him the flowers. The boy was grinning from ear to ear.
Now we’re back at the hotel, where I’m sure the rest of the day will consist of napping and eating, in no particular order. Tomorrow is another early morning for most of us, as we have the dreaded five hour bus ride back to the airport before our 10+ hour flights. At least we’ll be leaving with a smile.
Gyeongju Race Results – Top Ten
1. Edwin Komen – 2:09:44
2. Charles Kibiwott – 2:09:45
3. Wilson Kigen – 2:09:56
4. Matthew Sigei – 2:10:10
5. Yusuf Songoka – 2:12:36
6. Procopiofra – 2:14:16
7. Teklu Tefera – 2:16:03
8. Heiyang Deng – 2:16:20
9. Thomas Chemitei – 2:17:59
10. Sin Jung-Hoon – 2:18:00