Marcel Hug and Manuela Schär took the honours in the elite wheelchair events at the inaugural Vitality Big Half to make it a double victory for Switzerland.
Hug held off Great Britain’s David Weir to win the men’s race in 51:36, almost 30 seconds ahead of Weir, who crossed the Finish Line by the Cutty Sark in 52:17. John Boy Smith, who was runner-up at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, finished two seconds behind Weir in 52:19.
It was a similar story of dominance in the women’s race, with Schär beating fellow Swiss athlete Sandra Graf by almost three minutes. Runner-up Graf finished in 59:58, while Great Britain’s Nikki Emerson was third in 67:08.
The wheelchair racers were the first to set off today at 08:55 on a bright, sunny morning in the capital, five minutes ahead of the 11,000+ runners taking on the first edition of the race.
The new half marathon course produced a measured performance from the para athletes as they raced it for the first time, with Hug saying afterwards: “The first 14K was very easy and a slow, tactical race, but then I started to attack several times. Sometimes I went away alone and it was pretty tough.”
Both Hug and Weir agreed that the new course was particularly testing. “It was tough, very technical with lots of twists and cobbles,” said Weir, who was racing for the first time since beating Hug to win a historic seventh victory at the Virgin Money London Marathon last April.
“Marcel was taking it easy, I think, using it as a bit of a warm-up,” continued Weir. “He’s the best in the world at the moment over the marathon distance and I’m the last man to beat him on the road so I knew it was going to be tough having had almost a year out, but I needed a good blow out.
“As we didn’t know the course, we took it slow until Marcel made the break with about a mile to go. I couldn’t stay with him; I felt as though my chair was slightly out today, so I was wasting a bit of energy, fighting it, so I need to sort that out. The race was pretty cat-and-mouse but I found out what I need to work on between now and the London Marathon in April.”
Hug, who will line up against Weir at the London Marathon next month, relished the experience of winning again in the capital: “I really love to be here in London and to race here; it’s fantastic. The atmosphere is great, the spectators, the organisation, everything. It was pretty cold out there but it went well so I’m happy.”
Women’s winner Manuela Schär will also be back in London next month to defend her title at the Virgin Money London Marathon. The 33-year-old led The Vitality Big Half from the start today, pushing herself over the new 13.1-mile course as she tested 48-year-old Graf.
“There were a lot of turning points and a lot of cobble stones so it was pretty intense, but it was a good one to win,” said Schär after crossing the Finish Line. “It’s always great to race in London. I really love to come here; the crowds are always amazing and I’m looking forward to coming back for the Marathon.”
The Swiss para athlete was the number one wheelchair road racer in the world last year, winning four Abbott World Marathon Majors races in Boston, London, Berlin and New York City, and, after her dominant performance at today’s Vitality Big Half, she looks like the woman to beat in 2018 too.