Fionnuala McCormack produced the best marathon performance of her life in finishing 20th in the Olympic Games marathon, as Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong took gold, writes Will Downing.
McCormack’s time of two hours, 31 minutes, 22 seconds - in what was only her third ever marathon- took 24 seconds off her lifetime best set earlier this year.
The double European cross-country champion started conservatively in the 27-degree Celsius temperatures, allowing herself to be positioned 73rd after 5k, going through in 17 minutes 48 seconds.
From there, she largely kept the same pace throughout as she reeled in those who had gone out too strong. The Wicklow athlete was 60th after 10k, 52nd after 15k, up to 40th by halfway – and still she went on.
McCormack hit 20th position with 12k to go, and try as she might, couldn’t overtake Japan’s Tomomi Tanaka, who at one stage had been as high as 14th.
With McCormack’s final time setting herself a new standard, up front the race was being jousted between two Ethiopians and three Kenyans, two of whom were competing for Bahrain.
The long-standing lead group of 16 also contained two sisters from North Korea, Kim Hye-Song and Kim Hye-Gyong, Americans Shalane Flanagan, Amy Cragg and Desiree Linden, plus Volha Mazuronak of Ukraine and Latvian Jelena Prokopcuka.
These were burned off one by one until it was a straight fight between two Kenyan athletes – Eunice Kirwa of Bahrain and Kenya’s own Jemima Sumgong.
Both had been stride for stride throughout, until it because a straight shootout.
Sumgong avoided a protester with 10k to go at Botafogo beach, and then forced herself away entering the Sambódrono, the large street-wide arena used for the annual Rio Carnival, and the Kenyan was the one left in party mood as she claimed her country’s first ever women’s Olympic marathon title in 2:24:04, nine seconds ahead of Kirwa, with world champion Mare Dibaba third a further 17 seconds down.
Ethiopian compatriot Tirfi Tsegaye was fourth, with Mazuronak fifth, Flanagan sixth and Linden seventh.
Leevale AC’s Lizzie Lee came home 57th in 2:39:57, while at the age of 38, Breege Connolly was 76th in 2:44:41.
McCormack said afterwards: “It’s nice to be top twenty. I’m not sure what to think of it but I think it was good, positive!
“The best part of it was that I had a plan and it paid off. In one way I’m thinking should I have gone off harder at the start, but I’m not sure I could have.
“I slowed down anyway. It was just that other people slowed down a bit more.
“It would have been nice to catch the Japanese girl at the end but I think everyone knew you had to be a bit conservative today, and yet you will always have people who aren’t. It’s the Olympics, people will always go off. There always should be carnage at some point.
“We knew there was going to be a heatwave as it’s due to be hot all week. It didn’t seem too bad.”
McCormack doesn’t feel yet though as if she is an out-and-out marathon runner: “I don’t know if I’m established in the marathon yet, that’s why I’m not sure what to make of the whole thing! It’s only my third one.
“Two of them were Championship ones and one was pretty much just a bad race, so I don’t really know what to think. A lot of the time you base your races against who you beat or who you should have beat.
“A 20-second PB in a marathon is not major, but a PB is going in the right direction.
“I think it was better than my other two Olympics, so I’ll have to come back again!”
Breege Connolly was enthusiastic with her race: “Grand. Probably not the time I had in my mind but I probably didn’t know what to expect with the heat after. Glad to have gone under the qualification standard.
“I tried to forget about the weather.
“The way my coach has trained me is to try and come through at the end, but it was just a little lacking for me today. I had a steady pace and picked it up again in the final 5k.
“It was a fantastic experience. I really enjoyed it. I took it all in as I won’t be here again. But then – never say never. Tokyo?”
Of the history-making Estonian Luik triplets, Lily was 97th, Leila 114th, but Liina did not finish.
The German Hahner twins, Anna and Lisa, crossed the line hand in hand in 81st and 82nd.