Lemi Berhanu broke loose from the pack at the 38-kilometre mark of Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, and his pedigree suggested he would control the race from there. Berhanu won the Boston Marathon in 2016, and his 2:04:33 personal best makes him the fastest marathoner ever to race in Toronto.
But Philemon Rono kept stalking, and with 700 metres to go the Kenyan veteran surged past a faltering Berhanu to win in two hours and five minutes, shaving nearly two minutes off the course record and capping the fastest marathon in Canadian history.
“I like Toronto because when I come, I always win,” said Rono, a three-time champion.
The race’s quality ran much deeper than Rono. The top four men’s finishers all eclipsed the Canadian all-comers record, while women’s champion Magdelyne Masai-Robertson ran 2:22:14, the quickest women’s marathon in Canadian history. Calgary’s Trevor Hofbauer ran 2:09:51 to become the second-fastest Canadian man ever, and Windsor’s Dayna Pidhoresky ran 2:29:03 to set a new personal best and finish first among Canadian women.
Seven of the top 10 men’s finishers set new personal bests Sunday, as did eight of the top 10 women’s runners. Men’s silver medallist Felix Chemonges ran 2:05:12 to set a Ugandan national record.
Pidhoresky wrote her projected split times on her left hand in indelible ink. Each time she glanced at them she realized she was almost dangerously ahead of pace, but she avoided a late race breakdown to lop seven minutes off her personal best and become the first Canadian woman to qualify for next summer’s Olympics.
“We went out a little bit quick and that was motivating, because I knew that if I died a lot I was going to get in trouble,” Pidhoresky said. “My coach was going to be like, ‘You could have run (the Olympic qualifying standard) but then you went out too hard and then you ruined it.’ So in my mind I was like, ‘You better hold it together because it’s going to be your fault if you blow up.’ ”
Hofbauer, a former basketball player who lives and trains in Calgary, took the opposite approach. He didn’t wear a watch or peek at on-course clocks. Instead, he simply fell into a rhythm that felt right, and ran fast enough to qualify for Tokyo.
“The biggest thing when it comes to the marathon is to not think at all,” said Hofbauer, who beat his previous personal best by nearly seven minutes. “You just have to believe, and that’s all that matters. It was a mindset thing that got me to this point.”
What explains the avalanche of fast times? It might be the shoes. Rono, Hofbauer, Pidhoresky and several other elites raced in the latest version of Nike’s Vaporflys, whose springy foam soles and carbon fibre plates aim to make runners more efficient. But Berhanu and Benson Kipruto, who finished third and fourth respectively, both ran sub-2:06 in more traditional-looking Adidas runners. And Chemonges chopped four minutes off his personal best even though his Nike Flyknit racing shoes weren’t as futuristic as the models Rono sported.
But the new Ugandan record holder says he still had some help.
“I did not expect it,” Chemonges said. “But maybe God planned that this man from Uganda would run 2:05.”
Talent helps, and race organizers have boosted spending to attract faster runners to Toronto. An investment in appearance fees helped lure Berhanu, arguably the most accomplished male runner to compete in the waterfront marathon. Meanwhile, Rono and Masai-Robertson each earned $30,000 for winning and another $50,000 for setting records.
Masai-Robertson also credited her husband, Kenya-based New Zealander Jake Robertson, who ran this race last year and helped her with tactics. He counselled her to conserve energy eastbound on Lakeshore Blvd., when the course turns flat and fast, and to save some speed for the final three kilometres.
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“I was still feeling like I can still resist if they keep pushing,” she said. “I had told myself that if I’m going to be there until 39 kilometres, I’m going to make a move.”
Rono, meanwhile, trusted his fitness and his foot speed, even as Berhanu expanded his late-race lead. Rono trains in Kenya alongside world record holder Eliud Kipchoge, who broke the marathon’s two-hour barrier last week in a special time trial. So as a side stitch slowed Berhanu in the final kilometres, Rono knew he still had another gear.
“At 38 kilometres, when he ran away, I said, ‘No. Let me maintain,’ ” Rono said. “When I passed him I said, ‘He will not catch me again.’ ”