Our Laura Graham on a high despite giving up Belfast Marathon crown
Defending Belfast Marathon champion and mother-of-four Laura Graham had to settle for runner-up in yesterday's women's race after a long struggle with Kenya's Caroline Kepchirchir.
In a tight contest, Kepchirchir won by some two minutes in two hours, 41 minutes and 23 seconds, with Graham coming in behind in 2.43.33.
Graham had been hoping to make it back-to-back wins in the event and had been boosted by some good news in the build-up to the start when Athletics Ireland confirmed she could run without the threat of losing her place at the European Championships in August.
The Dublin body eventually accepted that she could compete yesterday without any threat of de-selection from Berlin, much to her delight.
However, she found herself bested by Kepchirchir, a member of Ciaran Collins' Project Africa scheme designed to assist up and coming runners.
The 35-year-old Kenyan was racing for the first time since becoming a mother and exceeded even her own expectations.
Speaking through an interpreter, Kepchirchir explained that despite her changed circumstances she had hoped to do well in Belfast, though she never expected to win.
For Graham, it was a disappointing result, but the mother-of-four enjoyed the day.
"I enjoyed every minute of that," Graham commented. "I am just glad to be able to run here. Belfast is marvellous, though I felt a little pressure as defending champion.
"The experience is unreal, there was enough support to make me cry. The weather was perfect. This has meant a lot to me and my family."
Despite having taken time away, Kepchirchir came into the event with enough of a track record to suggest she could be a threat, with her personal best time of 2.39.00 just two minutes slower than Graham's best of 2.37.05 set in Berlin last autumn.
Graham, who runs for the Mourne Runners club, started the race cautiously and at the seven-mile mark she was some 70m behind her Kenyan rival.
However, that all changed over the next six miles as the defending champion closed the gap at the halfway mark, which was reached in a very fast 78 minutes.
Behind them, Ukraine's Christina Bogomiakova was some four minutes back with Radka Churanova a distant fourth, the Czech no stranger to Belfast with a third place to her credit in 2016 followed by fourth last year.
However, having made the effort to catch Kepchirchir, Graham's challenge faded over the next few miles to the extent that she was over a minute back at the 20-mile mark.
Little changed from then to the finish other than the gap widening further. At the finish, Graham's runner-up time was some six minutes slower than her best time from Berlin.
Bogomiakova was third in a personal best time of 2.46.43, followed by another fourth place for Churanova in 2.52.38.
Next came local finishers Karen Alexander of Sperrin (2.54.31) and Louise Smith of North Belfast (2.57.36).
While there was general satisfaction by the marathon organisers that the race provided an exciting clash between the leaders, the position could, however, have been enhanced by the inclusion of a number of athletes who were denied temporary visas to enter the UK.
This happened to Ethiopia's Berhan Gebremichael, who won in Belfast in 2016 when she beat Graham, and the same thing happened on the male side to Tsegaye Alemu of Ethiopia, who is a two hour 13 minute marathon runner.
Moroccan athletes also find it difficult to get visas despite having competed in Belfast before. Mostafa Channi has been fifth on two occasions here, while his colleague Abdelhadi El Mouaziz was fifth last year. Both were denied visas this year for reasons which were not specified.
Meanwhile, organisers have warned this year's Belfast Marathon could be the last after concerns over new legislation.
Under the new law, organisers would have to pay for the event to be policed, which would price the event out of being viable.
This was the 37th running of the Belfast Marathon, and the PSNI have worked alongside organisers to ensure the event passes off without a hitch.
However, it has been argued that police efforts should be directed towards other matters rather than the race.
David Seaton, chairman of the Belfast Marathon's organising committee, said: "The new road legislation means we're going to have to pay for policing costs among other things.
"I'm told that an officer is charged out at £65 an hour and on Bank Holiday Monday it's twice that. That's £130.
"They are usually on duty for seven to eight hours so that's about £1,000 each.
"Last year we had about 120 officers, that's £120,000. We couldn't take that hit. That would be the end of the marathon."