2016 Rotterdam Marathon

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Report by: Wayne Joness

Marius Kipserem was the surprise winner of the 36th edition of the NN Rotterdam Marathon. In the sunny Coolsingel street, the Kenyan athlete stepped out of the favourites’ shadow. With a personal best of 2:06:11 hours, he is now ranked 9th in the world for the season.

Kipserem didn’t know what hit him at the finish line. The sheer number of congratulations and compliments he received left him speechless, but his wide smile told the story. “I’m very happy with this victory,” he said later, quite taken aback by all the attention. A little shyly he raised the victor’s cup above his head, the trophy sparkling in the sunlight.

It was a great day for a marathon, as it wasn’t too windy and it was 9.4 degrees Celsius at the 10am start. All eyes were trained on the Ethiopians Ayele Abshero and Tsegaye Kebede, who were the favourites, having logged personal best times of 2:04:23 and 2:04:38, respectively. Nobody was counting on Kipserem, who had never completed a marathon in less than 2:09:21 hours.

The organisers aimed for a winning time of 2:05. For the first 25 km, the runners followed the exact schedule of the course record held by Kenya’s Duncan Kibet (2:04:27, set in 2009). They reached the 25 km mark at 1:14:06, only for the pace to slow down.

Abshero was already significantly behind at this stage, having dropped out of the leading pack not 15 km into the race. Kipserem, born in 1988 and inexperienced in major marathons, kept up with surprising ease.

Thirty-five km into the race, it was just him and two first-time participants, Ethiopia’s Solomon Deksisa and fellow Kenyan Geoffrey Kirui, who ended up finishing second and third in 2:06:22 and 2:07:23, respectively. In the end, they were unable to keep up with Kipserem, who broke away 5 km before the finish line.

While the TV audience was presented with gorgeous footage of the city of Rotterdam, Kipserem grew into the surprising hero in Coolsingel, which was packed as always. The Kenyan, who had previously won the minor marathons of Hefei (China), Mont Saint-Michel (France) and Brescia (Italy), completed his race in the 17th-best time ever recorded in Rotterdam.

At this point, the city-wide party was yet to erupt. Earlier in the morning, in the reception room of the Rotterdam City Hall, Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb had called the marathon “the most beautiful event of the year”. And who would gainsay him?

With a record number of 17,500 participants from 86 countries, and more than 40,000 participants for all races run, the NN Rotterdam Marathon, held last Saturday and Sunday, once more proved to be an inspiring treat for both old and young runners, and for professional athletes as well as recreational runners.

It certainly proved inspiring to the 400 runners entered by listed tanker transhipment company Vopak, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary this year. The runners prepared very thoroughly for the race, under the supervision of Energy Lab. “A fantastic experience,” was the general consensus among Vopak runners.

For his part, Niek Slappendel, who was wearing number 5232, also had a great time. The 81-year-old from Bergen op Zoom was the oldest runner in the marathon. By the time men’s winner Kipserem had triumphantly crossed the finish line, Niek was not even halfway yet. “I’d like to finish within five hours. That would really make me happy,” he enthusiastically announced.

By the time the first female participant had completed her race, Niek had just passed the halfway point. The winning lady’s name was Leterbrhan Haylay Gebreslasea, and her time was given as 2:26:15.

For a long time, the Ethiopian did not seem to be the leading contender for the victory. Her compatriot Sutume Asefa Kebede was dominating from the start, only to start suffering a side stitch. Between the 35 and 40 km marks, she went from being 34 seconds ahead to being 45 seconds behind. Gebreslasea did not break down and so got to collect the winner’s trophy. Kebede finished second in the women’s field (2:28:04), while Kenya’s Rebecca Korir came third with a personal best of 2:29:16, which made her very happy.

Ninety-five-year-old Wim Witvliet, who might have been the oldest spectator, followed the NN Rotterdam Marathon from the stands near the finish line. “The event has grown into an enormous party. When we started back in 1983, there were only two hundred runners. Now there are over forty thousand,” he said, a hint of pride detectable in his voice.

Once upon a time, the born Rotterdammer singlehandedly designed the first course and personally checked with a surveyor’s wheel whether it really was 42.195 km long. “Everything was done manually in those days. I used to be asked if I’d ever completed a marathon myself. When I’d say ‘Yes’, they’d ask, ‘And what was your best time?’ And I’d grin and say, ‘Eight and a half hours.’ Yep, those were the track check-ups early in the morning,” Witvliet said with a smile.

For his part, Koen Raymaekers was not smiling this time. Raymaekers, one of the Netherlands’ best runners, failed to qualify to the Rio Olympics in his 21st marathon, for which he had to complete his race in under 2:11:00. What was worse: he did not finish his race, due to calf issues.

“My preparation wasn’t ideal,” Raymaekers admitted, “but I wanted to give it a shot, anyway. It was all or nothing. Also, today’s conditions were just perfect. At around the twenty-five kilometre mark, one of my calf muscles started cramping up. From that point onwards, I was completely focused on my calf, and so lost my race focus. I was hoping to be able to complete the race at a slower pace.”

Thirty km into the race, Raymaekers decided to give up. At that point he was lying in 20th place, but was no longer on track to qualify to Rio. In the end, Jeroen van Damme ended up being the highest-ranking Dutch male runner, finishing 58th in 2:26:18.

Inge de Jong was the fastest Dutch woman, coming 7th in 2:33:20. “I’m super satisfied. I once debuted onto the scene here in Rotterdam, and now I’ve improved my personal best by nearly four minutes. And as an added bonus, having completed this marathon, I’m now at the City Hall where my parents got married.”

The Youth Sport Fund [Jeugdsportfonds] had a memorable moment of its own. The charitable organisation, supported by the NN Rotterdam Marathon, received a €50,000 cheque from marathon organiser Mario Kadiks and NN representative Fleur Hudig. The money will allow 200 Rotterdam children from low-income households to join a club and play sports for a year.

Of course, Niek Slappendel is no longer a youngster, but with his sunglasses, the 81-year-old did look quite youthful. “The first thing I’m going to do is go grab a beer,” he said in high spirits. He attained his goal, having completed his race in 4 hours and 59 minutes. “That’s nearly an hour faster than last year, when I debuted at the marathon in 5:47.”

So, hang on, he made his debut at age 80? “Yeah, I was always afraid to run a marathon due to the risk of injury. I decided at age eighty to venture it,” the former maths and chemistry teacher said. “I had to slow down to walking a few times during the final five kilometres, but man, what a great experience this is! The best moment is when you round Coolsingel and then see your time at the finish line.”

Over 2,500 runners were treated to personal videos of encouragement on a large screen that was installed at the 37-kilometre mark. Countless text messages were displayed 500 metres before the finish line. Many of those were aimed at Super Marathon Masters, i.e., runners who have participated in the NN Rotterdam Marathon ten times or more. They were put in the limelight even more than the “regular” runners.

Using live tracking through a special marathon app, everyone was able to follow their favourite runner or runners every second of the way. The app was used a lot. It was used, too, to track Marieke Biemans, the last woman to cross the finish line, who received musical support in the form of Lee Towers’ version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It was quite the spectacular finale.

While orange-and-white confetti rained down on her, Mayor Aboutaleb and men’s winner Kipserem, who had by then somewhat got used to his new status, received Marieke. “What a party,” she shouted with happiness. The approximately thirty bands along the track contributed to the party mood. “The Coolsingel is obviously great, and in Crooswijk people are almost literally lifting you up. It’s just brilliant!”

The mayor said he was proud of municipal civil servant Marieke – and of all the other runners, obviously. He was smiling from ear to ear. So, was he right or not? Isn’t the NN Rotterdam Marathon simply “the most beautiful event of the year”?

Average Finishing Time: 3:8:12.9
Averge Per Mile Pace: 7:10.7
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