LONDON — The London Marathon began from outer space Sunday and nearly finished with an otherworldly performance.
Tim Peake, a British astronaut, counted down the start from the International Space Station, where he ran 26.2 miles while strapped into a special treadmill. In the terrestrial race, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran the second-fastest marathon ever, taking first place in 2 hours 3 minutes 5 seconds — only eight seconds off the world record — on a cold, blustery morning.
The women’s race provided a scare when, several miles from the finish, Jemima Sumgong of Kenya got tangled with two other runners at a water stop and fell. She smacked her head on the pavement and suffered a cut over her right eye but climbed to her feet and prevailed in 2:22:58 over Tigist Tufa of Ethiopia (2:23:03) and Florence Kiplagat of Kenya (2:23:39).
“It was very painful,” Sumgong said. “But I tried my best to persevere.”
Eventually, Peake finished his treadmill marathon in an estimated 3:35:21. But the most stirring performance was provided on terra firma by Kipchoge, who has won six of the seven marathons he has entered and is perhaps the greatest ever at the distance.
If Kipchoge lacks one thing, it is luck in setting a world record. Last September, the insoles came out of his Nike shoes as he won the Berlin Marathon. On Sunday, he just missed the world record of 2:02:57, set by his fellow Kenyan Dennis Kimetto in Berlin in 2014.
At the finish, Kipchoge put his hands over his eyes in what appeared to be a twinge of disappointment. But he pronounced himself satisfied. In four months, Kipchoge is expected to be the gold medal favorite at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“When you go up a tree, when you cross one branch, you go for the next one,” Kipchoge, 31, said.
Stanley Biwott of Kenya, who won the New York City Marathon in November, persisted as the final challenger to Kipchoge before drifting away in the final 2 miles and taking second in 2:03:51.
The revelation of the day was Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, an 11-time world cross-country champion and three-time Olympic champion on the track, whose career has been disrupted by calf and Achilles tendon injuries much of the last six years. He had not raced in 15 months.
On Sunday, Bekele hung with the leaders for 17 miles before dropping back. Still, he held on for third place in 2:06:36 despite rustiness and what he said was a mix-up with a pacesetter that caused Bekele to miss his bottle of fluids at four or five water stops.
Ethiopian officials are expected to decide next weekend whether to place Bekele, the world-record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, on the country’s Olympic marathon team.
If Bekele is chosen, said Jos Hermens, the Dutch manager for Bekele and Kipchoge, “He or Eliud will win the gold medal.”
Sunday’s race began with the temperature in the mid-40s. And Kipchoge made his intent known immediately, running the first mile in a blistering 4:30 as a pack of nine runners settled in behind three pacemakers.
“When I am in the field, I am the best one,” Kipchoge said, repeating the encouraging words of his coach, Patrick Sang. “Those who want to run fast should come with me.”
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The lead pack went through 13.1 miles in 61:24. At such searing speed, it was clear that few challengers could hang on for the second half of the race.
Kipchoge hammered Mile 15 in 4:32 and Mile 16 in 4:37. Wilson Kipsang of Kenya, a former world-record holder and a bronze medalist at the 2012 London Olympics, rejoined the leaders after an early fall but did not have enough in his legs to remain near the front.
Kimetto, the world-record holder, also fell out of contention. Bekele lost contact with Kipchoge and Biwott, recovered to make it a three-man race after 17 miles, then wafted away again. It was left to Kipchoge and Biwott to sort out the victory and perhaps the world record.
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Kipchoge removed his hat and gloves. He motioned for Biwott to take the lead and share the pace. Instead, Biwott hung just off Kipchoge’s shoulder.
As the two runners took each other’s measure, Mile 21 slowed slightly to 4:51 and Mile 23 to 4:50. Then Kipchoge hit the accelerator again and covered Mile 25 in 4:38. Finally, Biwott succumbed to the brutal pace and Kipchoge ran alone to the finish.
“The record can be for next time,” he said.
Sunday’s achievement, however impressive, is certain to be tempered by widespread doping scandals in distance running. More than 40 Kenyans have tested positive for banned substances since 2012. Kenya has until May 2 to show that it is in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency’s standards or risk missing the Rio Olympics.
Before the race, Kipchoge assured that Kenya would stiffen its anti-doping resolve and maintain its Olympic eligibility. And Kipsang, the former world-record holder, asked that not all Kenyan runners be painted with the same broad brush of suspicion.
“It’s just like life,” Kipsang said at a prerace news conference. “You find in society there are one or two criminals, but it doesn’t mean the whole society involves criminals.”