The capital’s streets once again reverberated to sustained sounds of cheers and joy as the London Marathon finally returned at full strength after an 889-day break due to Covid. And on a day of so many feelgood stories, perhaps the biggest one of all was provided by an NHS doctor who came a shock seventh in his first competitive outing over the distance.
Throughout the past 19 months Phil Sesemann has combined working in the A&E department at St James’s and Leeds General Infirmary with running more than 100 miles a week – accompanied by his loyal spaniel Kipchoge, who is named after the Kenyan world record-holder.
And the 29-year-old, who calls himself a “junior doctor and occasional distance athlete, unsponsored”, earned his reward by running 2hr 12min 58sec – a time quick enough to qualify for the Commonwealth Games and European championships next year.
“It’s been difficult, there have been challenges, but I’ve been really fortunate I’ve got brilliant colleagues,” said Sesemann, who was also celebrating his birthday. “It meant in September I was really able to reduce my hours down to avoid the risk of missing out due to Covid.”
Sesemann was also quick to praise his dog for her help in training too, adding: “Kipchoge is three years old and a spaniel cross – so she is a little bit mental. She will do 20-milers and stuff. She did a seven-day rolling 103 miles the other week. She seems to love it – but doesn’t get a choice. She usually lags behind but is a stalwart on the Leeds training scene.”
Race organisers were also celebrating with close to 36,000 people successfully running the 26.2 miles from Blackheath to the Mall.
With another 35,000 also expected to finish “virtually” across the globe, they believe they will be able to announce a world record number for runners in a single marathon on Monday – beating the previous best set by New York.
While crowds were down – with estimates of around half a million people watching compared to 750,000 in 2019 – organisers said that was in line with expectations after they encouraged people not to congregate in large numbers.
“The positive feeling that is out there is incredibly special,” said the event director, Hugh Brasher. “Finishers are telling me that their heart is singing. We have been through an incredibly dark 20 months, and we are not out of the woods, but this sends such a strong message of positiveness about the return to normality.
“We have a divided society, and we need to bring people together,” he added. “That is what the London Marathon is. It is far more than just 26.2 miles.”
The men’s race was won by Ethiopia’s Sisay Lemma in 2:04:01 – 27sec ahead of Vincent Kipchumba of Kenya. But the victor was unable to take his place on the podium after being flagged as a close contact of his compatriot Kinde Atanaw, who failed a Covid-19 test and was withdrawn from the race on Saturday night. Instead Lemma, who passed a PCR test to allow him to compete, was whisked back to the race hotel.
It led to the bizarre sight of Lemma’s agent, the 67-year-old Italian Gianni Demadonna, standing on top of the podium holding flowers.
The women’s race was won by the Kenyan Joyciline Jepkosgei, in 2:17:43. Degitu Azimeraw of Ethiopia was second with her compatriot Ashete Bekere third.
In 10th was Charlotte Purdue, who ran 2:23:26, the third-fastest ever time by a Briton. It was also vindication for the popular athlete, who was controversially left out of the Team GB squad for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I knew I was in good shape but I hadn’t run a marathon since 2019,” she said. “It is one thing saying I am in good shape and another to do it, so at least I feel I have been able to put myself back out there.”
Earlier participants went in 40 waves spread over a 90-minute period to avoid large crowds gathering rather than the usual bunch start. Unlike in past years there were no pacers to guide people to personal bests.
“This shows the London Marathon is back,” said Brasher. “There’s a smile on my face, seeing the crowds, seeing people together outdoors. This is what we do. Inspire activity for all ages, all demographics. And the icing on the cake is we’ve also raised millions for charity.”