By Joshua Donaldson, the editor of Youth Time Magazine.
Jiří Ježek’s Team Birell won the inaugural Battle Of The Teams, beating Team Volkswagen by nearly 300 points in Prague on Sunday morning.
The event, a marathon around the streets of central Prague, was the first of its kind, pitting four teams of eight world-class and homegrown long-distance running stars against each other, where every runner, no matter their time or ability, counted to the final points tally.
The winning squad had Kenyan star, Benson Kiprupto, to thank for much of their success as he won the elite men’s race with a late burst on the final lap. In the elite women’s race, Purity Rionoripo was the star of the show, setting a new personal best on her way to victory by more than a minute.
The Czech national championships also took place on the same course. Vit Pavlišta won the men’s race whilst Eva Vrabcová Nývltová beat Moira Stewartová to win the women’s edition and, in the process, qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo next month.
After the unique start at 6.30 am CET on the iconic Charles Bridge in the centre of Prague, the racers headed out for a short opening circuit into Mala Strana before 13 laps that would see them run through the Old Town, past the Metronome monument in Letna and then round to finish in the Old Town Square. A flat course that suited itself to quick running.
With 10 kilometres in the legs, the front group of elite athletes representing the four teams, had been whittled down to just eight – Skupina Čez and Team Mattoni leading the standings after half an hour’s racing. But with the groups sticking together in the early going, these scores were ever-changing.
With the team event playing out across the race, there was also the Czech National Championship on the line alongside Olympic qualification for some of the runners.
But the main focus was the inaugural Battle Of The Teams and as the race neared the hour mark, a leading group of 12, including the likes of Nobert Kigen, Thomas Kiplagat and Dickson Chumba, led the way. But, it was Kiplagat and Wily Canchanya who were the first to be distanced.
Behind, five women were starting to ease away and open up a gap, including Betty Lempus and eventual winner Rionoripo.
Canchanya got himself back in as they started lap six, but in the women’s race there was some concern for Lilia Fisikovici, from Moldova, who looked in some pain as she passed halfway. She would abandon the race after 1:22 of racing. She wasn’t the only female athlete to retire – Ruti Aga also pulled out, cutting a disconsolate figure in the guest zone.
Rionoripo thinned the group out by upping the pace as the women reached halfway, reducing the lead group down to three. Only Aberu Mulisa and Meseret Belete could respond. Meanwhile, the men’s group kept up their attritional pace – set for a time around 2:08 – but with each team represented by at least two runners, the points remained very close.
Rionripo went again on the 25 kilometre mark, splitting the group up and putting in a stinging attack to gain 100 metres on a group of three behind. Having ran well in Prague before, she was set for her personal best and looked strong as she continued to grow her lead.
The men meanwhile, went through 30 kilometres in 1:33:13 – the group now down to seven. With three laps of the three-kilometer course to go, still eight men led the way. With this being the first event of this type, it was hard to know how much of this was tactical or whether this was the natural rhythm of the race.
With just one lap to go in the men’s race, it remained a cagey affair – six runners were left to battle it out for the victory. But it was Kiprupto who took hold of the race with two kilometres to go, streaking away from his competitors to win his race.
The team event was secured by Team Birell, and with more points on offer for those who set personal bests, Ježek’s squad had the Peruvian Canchaya and Stewartova to thank as they both set lifetime bests out on the course.
Explaining the importance of the event to Prague Morning, he said: “Prague Marathon is very popular around the world. It is important for the publicity of the city, and being the first [city] for this new concept in the world is amazing.
“It’s a great message from Prague to the world that the world is coming back.”
Speaking about the Battle Of The Teams, he said: “It was amazing. This new concept of marathon running here in Prague in this difficult situation is amazing.
“Of course, I am very happy that my team won, but the most important thing is that we are at the beginning of a new concept and it is an amazing experience.”
He continued: “For me, meeting some of the biggest stars in marathon running was a bonus. It was difficult in the beginning to choose the right athletes – I got lucky!
Part of the prize money from Team Birell went to their chosen charity, Journey To A Dream, an initiative that supports disabled athletes take part in endurance events.
It is tough to say whether this event will catch on in the future. The organizers promised something new and something bold. It certainly was a good idea, but the event felt more like an added extra to a normal marathon than a captivating and engaging concept.