It is a record that has loomed over athletics for 15 years, impervious to challenge. Yet when Mary Keitany starts the London Marathon on Sunday she will be the first runner with a realistic shot at shattering Paula Radcliffe’s world record. And, tantalisingly, she intends to take it.
Her pedigree is beyond reproach. The 36-year-old has won in London and New York three times each, and last year ran faster than Radcliffe had ever done in a women’s-only race, scampering away from a stacked field in London after the first mile before finishing in 2hr 17 min 01 sec.
It was a staggering display of front-running and it led to the second fastest time in history – even though she slowed down significantly after going through halfway in 64min 55sec because she had to make so much of the pace by herself.
This time she will have three male pacemakers around her for the first time, which should enable her to take serious aim at Radcliffe’s overall world record of 2:15.25, which was set with the help of male runners, in 2003.
“I have my focus on the world record and hopefully with the help of male pacesetters I will be able to shave a few seconds off the time,” said Keitany, who is 5ft 1in. “If you compare last year to this year, last year I went almost alone from halfway but now I will have someone with me all the way, so it will help a lot.”
The mother of two knows it will not be easy to break such a famous record. “Running 2:15 is not easy, it is something else,” Keitany said. “We are trying to follow in the footsteps of a legend, Paula. But because the London Marathon have decided to put in male pacemakers we have to try to see whether it is possible. We will try our level best to see if we can go under.”
Unseasonally high temperatures and thunderstorms may thwart those ambitions but Keitany believes she will be able to handle whatever happens. Her confidence is particularly high after setting a personal best of 1:04:55 in the Ras Al Khaimah half-marathon in February.
Keitany may not get things her own way on Sunday. The Chicago marathon champion, Tirunesh Dibaba, who finished second last year, is in much better shape this time. “I have more experience and prepared well for the race,” she said. “I will not sit back, but take the race to Keitany.”
Dibaba, who has set three world records on the track and won five Olympic medals, has not ruled out attacking Radcliffe’s record. “Breaking Paula’s record is not an easy thing,” she said. “It’s a very challenging one. So I just can’t say I am going to break it but we will see.”
With other talented athletes – including the 2017 Berlin marathon winner Gladys Cherono and the 24-year-old Brigid Kosgei, who ran a personal best of 2:20.22 in Chicago last year – also intending to have their say, London could be set for a battle for the ages.
It is also worth noting the race will be started by the pioneering American Kathrine Switzer, who in 1967 challenged the all-male tradition of marathon running when she became the first woman to run the Boston marathon.
Dibaba was also asked about comments made by Britain’s Laura Muir, who said last month she would not talk to Dibaba’s younger sister Genzebe because of her association with the controversial coach Jama Aden. “I didn’t expect that,” Dibaba said. “It doesn’t bother me. I know my sister and I trust all her training.”