He wore the number of the devil but he ran like a saint. Daniele Meucci won men’s marathon gold for Italy at the European Athletics Championships in Zurich this morning with a superbly timed effort that was “all heart”.
Running in glorious warm sunshine on a looping course around the beautiful narrow streets and steep climbs of the city, Meucci emerged from a chasing pack to overtake long-time leader Marcin Chabowski of Poland in the final kilometres of the race.
Wearing number 666 and ignoring his watch, he strode away up the last climb of the punishing course to cross the finish line near the sparkling Zurich See lake in 2:11:08.
It was a personal best for the 28-year-old who was 10th in New York on his marathon debut last November. He has won European 10,000m bronze and silver medals on the track, and was sixth behind Mo Farah in Wednesday’s final here, but never a gold.
“After winning medals on the track, this feels so much better,” said Meucci. “I didn’t think I could win at the beginning, but in the last 10k I felt good and decided to push.
“I didn’t know how far ahead the leader was. I didn’t look at my watch at all, I just ran with my heart and my feeling.”
Meucci took his chance as Chabowski began to crack, allowing his lead of well over a minute to evaporate in the heat. Meucci, by contrast, simply got stronger and stronger and by the time he ran over the Quaibrücke bridge to the finish he had nearly a minute to spare, time enough to take the Italian flag and wave it at the massive crowds lining the route.
“The atmosphere was wonderful,” said Meucci, who joins two-time winners Stefano Baldini and Gelindo Bordin as an Italian European marathon champion.
“The people helped me so much in the last three or four kilometres. It was very, very beautiful.”
Thousands of Swiss fans had turned out to line the route hoping to witness a fairytale farewell for Viktor Röthlin in his last ever marathon. But the defending champion was destroyed by the effort of chasing Chabowski’s pace and wilted in the closing stages to finish fifth.
As he did, it was another Pole, a former 400m runner Yared Shegumo who won a three-way battle to take silver in 2:12:00, with Russia’s Aleksey Reunkov third in 2:12:15 just ahead of Spain’s Javier Guerra.
Switzerland’s other great hope, Tadesse Abraham, was ninth in 2:15:05 helping the hosts into third place in the Marathon Cup team competition won by Russia ahead of France.
Shegumo may have been the Pole on the podium but it was Chabowski who set the tone of the entire race when he broke away from a huge pack after 5km.
Running alone is a punishing way to tackle any marathon, and on this brutal course it was certainly brave, if not suicidal. Röthlin and Abraham were taking no chances and, spurred on by the huge crowds, they led the chase up the hill on the second lap of the 10km loop.
But Chabowski had found a rhythm and pushed on ahead establishing a gap that grew to more than three quarters of a minute by the half way point which he passed in 1:04:45.
For the next 10km Chabowski’s pace remained relentless. Clicking off 3:04 kilometres he continued to move away, establishing a 70-second lead by 25km before attacking the climb for a third time.
Abdellatif Meftah of France was first to break from the pack which was now splitting under the pressure. Meftah dragged Meucci, Garcia and Röthlin clear of the rest and by 30km the gap had begun to shrink.
Soon the strain was showing on Chabowski’s face as he set off on the last 10km lap with Meucci closing fast. The Italian ate up the ground and took the lead as he crossed the River Limmat towards the Grossmünster for the final time.
Chabowski was now holding his side and soon dropped out, but Muecci looked fresh as a Sunday morning jogger. No sane amateur runner would tackle the Seilergraben hill but Meucci took it with a bounce for the fourth time, and moved away rapidly to come home 52 seconds clear.
Waiting for him at the finish line were his wife, Giada and two children, two-year-old Dario and 10-month old Noemi. “My son cannot talk yet but I could see on his face that he was very happy and proud,” said Meucci. “
“It was a difficult course and I was very tired on the last lap. I always believed in myself. I was thinking about my son and that got me to the line.”
Meucci added that he owes his new-found self-belief to Bordin, the 1988 Olympic champion, who is his marathon sponsor.
“He made me believe I could be a marathon runner,” said Meucci. “After New York last year I knew this was my future. Now I have won. I couldn’t be happier.
“We are working on Italy continuing to write marathon history.”