Weldon Kirui and Nataliya Lehonkova saw their Valentine's Day sacrifices pay off Sunday, as they scampered to victories in the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon.
The Kenya-born Kirui took home the win on the men's side with a time of 2:13:07 for his first win in one of the year's biggest distance events. He defeated countryman Willie Koitile by a little more than 16 seconds. Each of the top four finishers among men's racers were Kenyan, continuing the country's run of dominance. Sixteen of the last 18 Los Angeles Marathon winners hail from the African nation.
“The pace was very slow,” Kirui said, per the Associated Press (via the Daily Mail). “We were talking to each other, saying, ‘Let’s go faster.'”
Lehonkova of Ukraine was the wire-to-wire winner on the women's side with a time of 2:30:42. She defeated Serkalem Abrha of Ethiopia by a minute and 41 seconds in one of the most dominant performances in recent memory. Lehonkova and Abrha were each more than 10 minutes removed from third-place Julia Budniak, who led a cabal of American runners who filled out the top 10.
|2016 Los Angeles Marathon: Top Finishers - Men|
|2016 Los Angeles Marathon: Top Finishers - Women|
|3||Julia Budniak||2:44:44||United States|
|4||Kath Hardcastle||2:49:19||United States|
|5||Julie Woodruff||2:58:11||United States|
"I pushed myself. I didn't look where [my competitor] was," Lehonkova said after the race.
Lehonkova is the first winner to hail from Ukraine since Tatyana Pozdnyakova took the 2004 race. Pozdnyakova, of course, is one of the most accomplished racers in Ukraine history. She took the 2003 and 2004 open competitions, along with three straight in the Masters class.
It's Lehonkova's fifth marathon win overall and her first in Los Angeles. She paced the field the entire way, building a solid lead within the first mile and scampering away from the field, as no one gave her all that much of a challenge. Abrha, the winner of December's Cal International Marathon, ran a similar pace Sunday but came up against a stiffer competitor. She seemed grateful for the experience despite the loss.
"Los Angeles was wonderful and the people of Los Angeles were wonderful," Abrha said.
Despite failing to bring home the win, it was a successful day for the United States on the women's side. Seven of the race's top 10 hail from the host country, a stark contrast to the men's side, where only three U.S. racers finished in the top 10. Jose Madera was the highest-finishing American among the men in seventh place. The Los Angeles Marathon has not seen an American winner since Paul Pilkington and Olga Appell swept proceedings in 1994.
Either way, it's hard to quibble with the result. Kirui and Lehonkova overcame the fog and a field of elite runners to capture their first L.A. marathon title. There will be some well-deserved Valentine's chocolates in the winner's circle.