On the final day of the Berlin 2018 European Athletics Championships, Belgium’s Koen Naert won European men’s marathon gold in a championship record of 2:09:51 with favourite Volha Mazuronak of Belarus taking the women’s title in 2:26:22 – but only after outsprinting the dogged French opponent making her debut at the distance Clemence Calvin.
Naert made a decisive break around the 33 kilometre mark to move clear of the two other runners who had put themselves in line for medals - Switzerland’s 2016 European half marathon champion Tadesse Abraham, whose surge after 30km had detached the trio from the main group, and Italy’s Yassine Rachik.
Abraham claimed silver in 2:11:24, with an exhausted Rachik crossing for bronze in a personal best of 2:12:09, 13 seconds clear of Spain’s Javier Guerra, who was also fourth in Zurich four years ago.
The Italian swiftly recovered, although had he required extra help the newly established gold medallist, who works as a nurse, could doubtless have provided it.
“This is incredible!” said Naert. “Coming out here and doing this time, it hasn't really sunk in. I waited until the right moment to move away from the group, and get the lead position. I was feeling particularly strong today, but equally apprehensive. This puzzle in my life is finally complete.”
Calvin, who was looking to emulate Rosa Mota in 1982 by winning the European marathon title on her debut, gave everything in pursuit of gold before succumbing to a final piece of acceleration from Mazuronak - who had suffered a severe nosebleed early stages in the race and then nearly took a wrong turn in the final kilometre – that took six seconds out of her at the Breitscheidplatz.
The French athlete’s reward for an indomitable effort was a silver medal in 2:26.28, with the Czech Republic’s three-time Winter Olympian and one-time Summer Olympian Eva Vrabcova-Nyvltova claiming bronze, and a national record, in 2:26:31.
Mazuronak, the top European finisher at the 2016 Olympics in fifth place, leads the European lists this season with 2:25.25 from victory in the Dusseldorf Marathon and was in control of everything throughout the race - other than the nosebleed that left her face a mask of red in the early stages.
There was a home connection to the victory, as Mazuronak has a German coach in Wolfgang Heinig.
All three medallists had been in lead group of nine that passed the halfway point, heading for the Victory Column, with Mazuronak’s compatriot Maryna Damantsevich leading them through in 1:14:00.
Led by Mazuronak, the three eventual medallists broke clear after 25km. The lone figure of Maryna Damantsevich had bridged the gap by 30km, and the lead group of four went through in 1:44:35 before Calvin made a big statement with another break that conclusively dropped the second Belarusian.
At 37km, passing the Brandenburg Gate for the last time, Calvin, Mazuronak and Vrabcova-Nyvltova went through in 2:08.07, with Damantsevich 20 seconds adrift. Barring a disaster, the medal group was decided.
As the 40km marker approached Mazuronak, who had put on a headscarf after finally stemming the flow of blood on her face, symbolically divested herself of it and pushed on again, at which point Vrabcova-Nyvltova began to flag.
Mazuronak’s face - a mask of blood in the early stages - was now impassive. By contrast, her only remaining opposition was grimacing and clearly working to stay with her. A quick look back from Mazuronak, however, determined that the race was not yet won.
A miscalculation on one of the final corners cost the Belarusian and allowed the French athlete to take a slight lead.
Mazuronak accelerated past her, but the French runner dug in to draw level again and the two raced side by side into the final turn before the Belarusian produced her final, unanswerable flourish. She covered the second half in 72:22 on a warm morning in Berlin where nine runners dropped out.
Norway’s Sondre Nordstad Moen, who set a European record of 2:05:48 to win the Fukuoka Marathon last December, was a major point of interest in the men’s race. He has raced sparingly this year due to illness and injury and although he took an early lead, the running was taken up on the half hour by Abraham.
The Swiss athlete led the field through halfway in 1:05:54, at the head of a group of nine. Moen, who was in the chasing group and ten seconds off the lead, was not looking comfortable. He dropped out soon after.
Moen was not the only major casualty. Abdi Nageeye from the Netherlands dropped out in the closing stages due to breathing difficulties and leading German runner Philipp Pflieger also dropped out just after the 30km checkpoint.
With three finishers in the top five, Belarus won the women’s team title from Italy and Spain. The men’s race was decidedly closer with Italy pipped Spain with Austria third.
This meant there was a farewell medal for 40-year-old Jesus Espana, who was competing in his seventh successive European Championships. Espana, who famously outsprinted Mo Farah for the European 5000m title in 2006, announced his retirement after finishing sixth in 2:12:58.