Koech delighted to use his 2016 knowledge and take advantage of Kipsang misfortune
It was second time lucky for Kenyan Eric Koech - the 2016 Belfast Marathon runner-up - yesterday in the 37th running of the Deep RiverRock event as he clinched victory in two hours, 18 minutes and 19 seconds.
The 36-year-old did not take the start line at the City Hall as favourite, as that privilege went to his compatriot Joel Kipsang Kositany, who was going for his fourth victory in the event, which saw upwards of 3,000 entries in the main race and some 2,200 five-person relay teams.
The race started in perfect overcast conditions with ideal temperatures for much of the day. The main challengers were well to the fore from the onset with Koech and Kipsang leading the pack.
The duo were together at the seven-mile mark in a respectable time of 40 minutes, with last year's runner-up Dan Tanui 50 metres back.
It was clear at the halfway mark at the top of the tough Antrim Road section that there would be no course records set despite the favourable conditions. Koech and Kipsang were still locked together in a time of just under one hour and nine minutes.
Tanui was some 20 seconds back, followed by Eoin Callaghan (right) and Jarlath McKenna, with former Olympic walker Colin Griffin in close attendance.
Little had changed at 20 miles in the Duncrue Estate, although the gap to third-place Tanui had increased to 100m. With fewer than three miles remaining at the Waterfront Hall, three-time winner Kipsang looked more comfortable than Koech.
Marathons, however, show no respect for reputations and a short time later Kipsang suffered a pulled hamstring, which meant that his final two miles were something of a nightmare.
Koech took full advantage of the situation to break clear and cross the line in Ormeau Park with an easy two-minute victory margin in two hours, 18 minutes and 19 seconds. Next came a resurgent Tanui to claim another runner-up spot, followed by the unfortunate Kipsang in 2.23.40.
A delighted Koech said: "I am very happy. The conditions were good. I knew the course from my second place in 2016. I was injured last year and when I recovered I trained for Belfast.
"There was no agreement to run with Joel. We are friends off the course but when racing we are like animals."
Koech's runner-up spot two years ago was achieved in his first race outside Kenya. He comes from the famous Rift Valley area and regrets that he did not take up running until he was 28. He confirmed that he is determined to race in Belfast again next year.
A disconsolate Kipsang said: "I was confident I could win again until my hamstring went."
Tanui (33) was also disappointed with his performance.
"I initially held back as a tactical move but was unable to close the gap later on," he said. "My runner-up time of 2.17.40 a year ago would have been enough for a comfortable win this time."
Former Olympic walker Griffin was delighted with his fifth place in 2.29.15, which beat his personal best by four minutes, in just the 35-year-old's third marathon.
Running is clearly in his DNA as his mother Patricia won in Belfast in 1995.
McKenna was sixth for the third consecutive year in 2.30.45.
Many leading finishers in Belfast in recent years, such as Koech and Tanui, come from Ciaran Collins' Project Africa scheme which has assisted many up and coming Africans who would not normally have the opportunity to compete abroad because of funding constraints. Collins explained that his scheme has been very successful and he intends to continue to support the Belfast Marathon and other local races as far as is practicable.
Meanwhile, there was debate yesterday about the likelihood of substantial changes to the course for the future. The route currently encompasses much of West, North and East Belfast with the finish in the South of the city in Ormeau Park.
The current itinerary has long been criticised as being too difficult, such as the long uphill stretch on the Antrim Road. The Duncrue Estate is also viewed as a rather soul destroying area with few spectators.
The Marathon Committee has been involved in ongoing discussions with the City Council on this matter for some time.
The current course was clearly designed to cover as many different geographical areas of the city as possible. While this would still be an aim, other objectives would be to ensure a flatter and more spectator-friendly course for the future.