Olympics: Jepchirchir leads Kenyan one-two finish in women's marathon

Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya reacts as she wins the women's marathon at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 7, 2021, in Sapporo, northern Japan. (Kyodo)

Peres Jepchirchir won gold in the women’s marathon to lead a Kenyan one-two finish on Saturday, the penultimate day of the Tokyo Olympics, while the top Japanese finisher was Mao Ichiyama in eighth.

The 27-year-old Jepchirchir overcame the oppressive Sapporo heat and crossed the line in a season’s best 2 hours, 27 minutes, 20 seconds. World record holder Brigid Kosgei followed 16 seconds later to earn silver, with Molly Seidel of the United States taking bronze in 2:27:46.

The starter’s gun went off at 6 a.m. with a temperature reading of 25 C and humidity of 84 percent. Only hours before it was scheduled to begin, the marathon was moved up by one hour from a 7 a.m. start to avoid the worst of the heat, which hit 29 C later in the race.

“It was so hot, it was not easy. I’m just thankful I managed (to cope) with that weather,” Jepchirchir said. “It feels good. I’m so, so happy because we win as Kenya. First and second.”

Fifteen of 88 runners, including world champion Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya who was part of the lead pack over the first 30 kilometers, did not finish the 42.195-km race, which started and finished in Sapporo Odori Park.

The pack had whittled down to nine by the 30-km mark, with the two Kenyans still looking remarkably fresh. Eight women were still in contention with 10 km to go.

With less than 5 km to go, Jepchirchir and Kosgei broke away from the final four, with Jepchirchir taking a slight lead. At the feed station just past 40 km, Jepchirchir put on a burst which opened a gap that allowed her to cross the line unchallenged, winning her country’s second straight Olympic gold in the event.

“I pushed on the pace (and when I opened the gap) it was like, ‘wow, I’m going to make it. I’m going to win’,” Jepchirchir said.

The one-two finish was the first by any country in an Olympic women’s marathon.

“I was happy because I was selected to represent my country for the first time,” 27-year-old Kosgei said. “I want to say thanks to Kenya and thanks to my fans, my coach and my colleagues who train with me because we won gold and silver.”

The 24-year-old Ichiyama, who clocked 2:30:13, became the first Japanese woman in 17 years to post a top-eight finish in an Olympic marathon. The last time it happened was at the Athens Games in 2004 when three Japanese women, including gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi, finished higher than eighth.

“I’ve been working toward this day for so long. Having had the opportunity to compete with world-class runners, it was impressive how fast they were despite the heat,” Ichiyama said.

Also for Japan, Ayuko Suzuki finished 19th and Honami Maeda, who led the pack in the early stages of the race, finished 33rd.