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The Olympic Marathon in Sapporo: A Test of Survival at the Tokyo Games

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At 30 kilometers, or 18.6 miles, Seidel ran at the front of nine runners as the course was dappled in shade. The temperature on the tarmac was above 100 degrees, according to the NBC telecast. Even some of the greatest runners who have faced the worst heat began to falter. Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, who won the 2019 world marathon championship in brutal conditions in Doha, Qatar, where the temperature was still 90 degrees at midnight, fell away and began walking.

At 20 miles, the pack was down to seven contenders, then five, then four who would decide the three medals. NBC showed a note that Seidel had written in the fourth grade: “I wish I will make it into the Olympics and win a gold medal.”

At 23 miles, Jepchirchir and Kosgei began to pull away. Another contender, Chemtai Salpeter of Israel, trying to win the country’s first-ever medal in track and field, could not continue. Seidel had the bronze if she could hold on.

With about a mile and a half remaining, Jepchirchir, the world-record holder in the half marathon for a women’s-only race with a 1:05:16, began to draw away from Kosgei. Kosgei, whose world record of 2:14:04 was set at the 2019 Chicago Marathon, began to flail.

Earlier in the race, Jepchirchir had run for miles with a bottle of fluids tucked into her shirt to keep a store of carbohydrates available. As she approached the finish, what seemed to be a small bag of ice stuck out of her singlet. At the tape, she smiled, then bent over and seemed to pray.

It was the second consecutive Olympic marathon victory for a Kenyan woman. But Jemima Sumgong, the 2016 winner, is now serving an eight-year ban for doping. Jepchirchir’s victory is being seen as a matter of redemption and a hoped-for indication of restored integrity.

Seidel began to pump her fists, point to the “U.S.A.” on her jersey, and scream as she neared the finish. Until the 2020 Olympic trials, she had never run a marathon. Saturday was only her third. But she had run smartly, confidently and patiently in awful conditions. And she was now an Olympic medalist.

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