01 January 2004, 8am
Paul Tergat burst through the Brandenburg Gate, but that wasn’t the barrier he was aiming to break. Fourteen years later, history had moved on down the road. The first sub-2:05 marathon ever run lay 400m ahead of him, if he could only keep going … and stay ahead of his friend and training partner Sammy Korir.
He did it, and Korir came in, hard on his heels over the last 200m, only a second later. Third across the line was Titus Munji, who had kept pace with his two compatriots until 36km. It had all been in the plan, which was for Tergat to be paced as far as possible into this deliberate world record attempt. The main unknown was how far that may have been.
It was a bold gambit. Although Tergat had all possible credentials – as five-time World Cross champion, former 10,000m world record holder and fastest ever over the half marathon – he had not won a marathon in five attempts. But he had run the third fastest marathon ever, over a course in London that was very clearly less swift than that Berlin could offer.
And Berlin had fine-tuned their offering. The course had been changed primarily to allow the iconic Brandenburg Gate to be the backdrop to both start and finish. This incidentally changed the profile from an overall 1m drop to an overall 1m climb along the 42,195m of well-surfaced streets that separate the start from the finish (although they are also separated by only 850m of straight road).
The changes had also shifted the course’s single modest climb to 8km earlier in the course, culminating at 27km. Being earlier, the climb would be less of a break point, and the denouement could be deferred until much closer to the finish line.
Only 6km into the course the group had been reduced to eight, of whom four were pacemakers. It stayed the same through to 15km, the four contenders being last year’s winner Raymond Kipkoech, Tergat, and two Japanese. But there were other undeclared contenders among the accompanying pacemakers. The second group was already a minute adrift.
Nothing much had changed by 25km, except that the Japanese had tailed off and Kipkoech seemed to be hanging on. It was still half a minute shy of world record pace. Passing over the course’s single significant rise, Tergat was away with his pacers, and at 30km was on pace for a personal best 2:05:45
Between them, they raised their game. Only 2km later they were on record pace by a few seconds, as they sped up along the Kufurstendamm, which was the finish straight for the old course. But there remained one more loop to run – out towards the Alexanderplatz, and then back along Unter den Linden. The pacemakers had long ceased to be anonymous helpers and were now identified contenders – but at 36km along Potsdamerstrasse Titus Munji dropped back to leave only Korir accompanying Tergat towards a new world record – but whose would it be?
It was only decided – and then not conclusively – with a kilometre to run. Somehow Tergat imperceptibly edged into a 10m lead. Nothing seemed to change in terms of effort, but it was now up to Korir to claw back that space as they raced towards what was clearly going to be a sub-2:05 clocking. He couldn’t quite manage it.
Beyond the three-piece band of Paul and his pacers, it was a great surprise to see veteran Andres Espinosa, a former winner in New York, come through to claim fourth place in a time which improved the world over-40 best by nearly two minutes, to a highly impressive 2:08:46
The women’s race was submerged by the men’s performances, but longtime leader Alina Ivanova finally yielded to Yasuko Hashimoto after 35km – and then faded badly. Hashimoto cracked her personal best by three minutes, and many ordinary Berliners seemed to do something similar, judging from the expressions of pleasure as they checked their watches while crossing the finish line.