Mo Farah bridged a gap of 33 years as he sprinted to a thrilling victory in a British and European course record time at another memorable Morrisons Great North Run.
The 32-year old Great British distance running hero started his 2015 racing schedule by setting a world indoor two miles best on home ground in Birmingham in February and finished it in style as he emerged triumphant from a gripping duel with Kenyan marathon man Stanley Biwot.
Farah kicked to victory with just 150m to go, winning by two seconds in 59 minutes 22 seconds – ten seconds quicker than the official British and European record he set for the 13.1 mile distance in Lisbon in March.
In doing so, the Londoner became the first British man to win the world’s biggest half marathon since Tynesider Mike McLeod, who triumphed in the first two Great North Runs in 1981 and 1982.
Kenya’s Mary Keitany retained the elite women’s crown, with Charwood’s Gemma Steel the runner up again, while there was British success in the wheelchair races, David Weir taking the men’s prize for a record-equalling sixth time and Shelley Woods winning the women’s section for the seventh time.
It was the elite men’s race that took centre stage, though, with Farah tackling his first challenge since completing his global ‘triple double’ with his gold medal winning 5000m and 10,000m runs at the World Championship in Beijing last month.
Farah was attempting to become only the third winner of back to back titles in the elite men’s race, after McLeod in 1981-82 and Kenya’s Benson Masya in 1991-92.
Masya was a bantamweight boxer before he became a world champion half marathon runner and, fittingly enough, Farah floated like a butterfly for 13 miles on the road from Newcastle before stinging like a bee – finishing in the high speed manner of McLeod, who was affectionately known in his heyday as ‘Mick the kick.’
The 50,000 field were set on their way by Britain’s European 10,000m champion Jo Pavey, Kenya’s world 1500m champion Asbel Kiprop and England footballer Lucy Bronze, and Farah was in the vanguard of a 13-strong lead group that passed the opening mile mark in 4 minutes 40 seconds.
Farah then settled back into the pack as Kenyans Mike Kigen and Stephen Sambu led through 5km in 14 minutes 26 seconds. Only Farah and three others were able to remain in touch as the pack whittled down: Biwot, South African Stephen Mokoka and Uganda’s Thomas Akeyo.
Kigen, who pushed Farah right to the line in last year’s race, started to put his foot on the gas as the lead group passed 10km in 28 minutes 45 seconds, shaking Akeyo from the pack. Sambu was the next to drop, after Kigen injected a 4 minute 23 seconds mile.
The effort took its toll on Kigen, though. He was the next to fade, followed by Mokoka, as Biwot made his move with five miles remaining, reeling off a 4 minutes 20 seconds mile.
Only Farah was able to go with the pace on the long, steady climb up John Reid Road. It was a test of the Briton’s stamina against a marathon man who finished runner up in London last year.
The Kenyan got a gap of some 12m but Farah managed to stay within striking range and gradually closed the deficit. The pair were together at ten miles (45 minutes 30 seconds), setting up a 3.1 mile battle to the finish.
Biwott made another bid on the rise up past The Nook, with two miles to go. He gained another chink of daylight – but only five metres or so, not enough to crack a man of the calibre of the reigning Olympic, world and European 5000m and 10,000m champion.
Two years ago Farah was caught napping on the drop down on to the Coast Road, Kenenisa Bekele, the Ethiopian holder of the 5000m and 10,000m word records gaining just enough of an advantage to hold off the fast-finishing Briton.
This time Farah shot ahead on the steep decent, pre-empting any strike by Biwott. The Kenyan regained the lead and tried to break clear on the mile-long run in to the finish but Farah stuck doggedly to his heels before sprinting to victory in the last 150m, celebrating with a trademark ‘Mobot’ as he broke the tape.
“That took a lot out of me,” reflected a relieved Farah. “I was knackered with two miles to go. Credit to Stanley. He’s a class athlete.
“He tried to get away from me. He’s a strong and he pushed me to the limit.
“On that last downhill stretch I was trying to cover what he might do. I was thinking of what happened with Bekele two years ago.
“I’m just delighted to finish my season in this way. I started with a world best for two miles. I won the two gold medals at the World Championships. And I’ve finished with my best time for the half marathon. I couldn’t have asked for a better year.”
Farah was not aware that he stood to become only the second British man to win the race for a second time. “I was just thinking about winning today,” he said.
No runner of any nationality has ever won the elite men’s race three years in a row – a piece of history that is likely to tempt Farah after he defends his Olympic 5000m and 10,000m crowns in Rio de Janeiro next August.
“It would be amazing to do a hat-trick in the Great Run,” he said. “It depends on how the season goes. Obviously Rio is my main aim but I’d love to come back and get a hat-trick.
“Brendan Foster and his team put on a great show. The Great North Run’s getting better and better. The support you get from the crowd up here is brilliant.
“It was great to finish my season of a high like this. I just want to jump on a plane, be there for the birth of my son, and spend time with my family.
“We’re going to rent a camper van and drive down to Mammoth Lakes [in California]. I’m looking forward to doing that and playing a bit of play station and just chilling out. “
As Farah prepared to back his bags and head back to his US west coast base in Portland, Oregon, Biwott could reflect with some satisfaction on having beaten the hour mark, with a time of 59 minutes 24 seconds. Kigen was third in 60 minutes 10 seconds with Mokoko 30 seconds further back in fourth place.
The elite women’s race was not such a close-run thing. In the absence of Kenya’s Priscah Jeptoo and Ethiopians Tigist Tufa and Gelete Burka, all withdrawals in the build up to the race, Keitany started as the overwhelming favourite.
The two-time London Marathon winner did have company at the front of the field, but not for very long. After passing the first mile in 5 minutes 16 seconds, the 33-year-old mother of two surged clear on the gentle drop down to the Tyne Bridge and had a gap of 37 seconds at 5km, which she reached in 16 minutes 01 seconds.
At that stage Steel, Sunderland Stroller Aly Dixon and Latvia’s Jelena Prokupcuka formed a chasing group. Soon after, though, Steel broke into a clear second place, starting a long, lone run to the finish.
Unbeaten over the half marathon distance for six years, Keitany picked up the pace with a couple of 5 minute 00 second mile splits but was never going to beat the 65 minutes 39 seconds course record she set in 2014.
The former world half marathon champion crossed the line in 67 minutes 32 seconds, with Steel second in 71 minutes exactly, Prokopcuka third in 71 minutes 52 seconds and Dixon an excellent fourth in 72 minutes 07 seconds.
“Winning this race for a second time is amazing for me,” said Keitany. “My training has gone well and I might have run 65 minutes again but I was alone after the first mile.
“I would like to come back and try to win again next year. I like this race and the fans here.”
Steel, the reigning European cross country champion, said: “I had more confidence going into the race last year because I was running better then. Hopefully I can build on this and get my confidence back to where it was twelve months ago.”
Like Keitany, Weir dominated the elite men’s wheelchair race. The 36-year-old home town hero of the 2012 London Paralympic blasted away from his rivals at the start and finished 1 minute 58 seconds clear of the field in 42 minutes 46 seconds. Cumbria’s Simon Lawson took second place in 44 minutes 44 seconds, with Canada’s Josh Cassidy third in 45 minutes 20 seconds.
“I had a bit of a problem in the first three or four miles with stomach cramps but I picked up again and got a second wind,” said Weir, the six-time Paralympic gold medallist, who is preparing for the IPC World Championships in Doha next month. “I’m following the same training programme that I did for London 2012 and it seems to be working.”
Weir now has six Great North Run victories to his name, equalling David Holding’s record tally.
Woods is just one short of Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson’s women’s wheelchair record of eight after overcoming the challenge of Margriet van den Broek, who had a lead of two minutes in mid race.
Woods had already closed the gap before her Dutch rival crashed into a hay bale on the drop down to the coast and the Lancastrian proceeded to secure victory in 53 minutes 38 seconds. Amanda McGrory of the US took second place in 53 minutes 49 seconds, with the unlucky van den Broek having to settle for third in 53 minutes 58 seconds.
“This was my hardest Great North Run and my toughest race in a long time,” said Woods. “Margriet made me work hard for it.”