Kenyans have dominated the autumn marathon season so far, but their rivals from Ethiopia hope to hit back in the BMW Frankfurt Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Race, with Dino Sefir and Feyisa Lilesa the two fastest men on the start line in the German city on Sunday (27).
The pair are closely matched on personal best times, Sefir having run 2:04:50 and Lilesa able to claim a career best only two seconds slower; and both also named the same athlete as their idol when quizzed in Frankfurt.
The runner’s identity will come as no surprise: Haile Gebrselassie.
“His success and his mental strength are both unbelievable. I have never met Haile, but I know exactly how he trains. I want to be better than him,” said Sefir
“When I was going to school I heard about Haile and his success. I remember that even in our exercise books at school there was a photo of Haile Gebrselassie. He is my idol,” added Lilesa.
Lilesa grew up as the son of a farmer in the village of Tullu Bultuma, approximately 100 kilometres from Addis Ababa.
“First at school, I started with gymnastics, but then I did not want to do it any longer and started running instead,” said 23-year-old Lilesa, who used to work on the farm helping his parents when he was young.
He was still at school when he started competing at various local and regional road races but it was at a 10km race in Addis Ababa that a coach from the Military Club spotted his potential and since then he has trained in the capital in a group of about 50 runners.
Lilesa in good company
Among them are several of the biggest names in road running. Lelisa Desisa, the 2013 Dubai and Boston Marathon champion, who was also second at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow this summer, is one of his training partners.
“We always run together and I am always on the same level with Lelisa,” said Lilesa, who dropped out in Moscow after 36km with a muscle problem.
“But I recovered well (after Moscow) and then I decided to run in Frankfurt. I know about the fast course here and I feel that I am in the best shape of my life now.”
Lilesa, and Sefir, have plenty of figures and times in mind for Sunday other than just pace charts.
He has four target times to be precise on the super-quick circuit which can boast of being the second fastest standard course in the world: the World record of 2:03:23, Wilson Kipsang’s course record of 2:03:42, which the Kenyan ran two years ago, Gebrselassie’s Ethiopian record of 2:03:59 and then his own personal best.
“If the pacemakers do their job well, I want to go for a 2:03. Haile’s record is always in my mind, but I want to run a personal best, at least.”
Sefir quickly admitted he has the same aims as his compatriot.
“In terms of speed, the Kenyans are better than the Ethiopians but we want to try to beat them,” added Sefir modestly. “I like to run on flat courses and that is why I am here. I have watched the Frankfurt Marathon on TV. I want to be the first to run into the indoor arena on the red carpet, and then cross the line.”
The only Ethiopian man to have won before in Frankfurt was Dereje Nedi back in 1984.
The top Kenyans in the race are well aware of the Ethiopian threat to end that barren streak but Vincent Kipruto sounded confident upon his arrival in Frankfurt that he can go faster than 2:05.
“I know that the Ethiopians will be very motivated. But we will not make it easy for them,” said Kipruto, who has prepared for five months specifically for Sunday’s race.
In addition to Kipruto, his compatriots Levy Matebo Omari (2:05:16) and Albert Matebor (2:05:25) have also run under 2:06 in the past while Eric Ndiema (2:06:07) and Gilbert Kirwa (2:06:14) have personal bests below 2:06:20 to add to the depth of a classy men’s field.
Best ever women's field at a German Marathon
Sadly, Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu has been forced to withdraw from the women’s race due to an injury. The defending champion and course record holder with 2:21:01 from last year pulled a muscle in one of her final sessions before she was due to fly to Frankfurt.
However, with three women remaining with bests below 2:22 it is still a very competitive field.
Ethiopia’s Tirfi Tsegaye Beyene is the fastest in the field now with 2:21:19 to her name, Kenya’s Eunice Jepkirui Kirwa has run 2:21:41 and Ethiopia’s Mamitu Daska has a career best 2:21:59.
This is an achievement in itself because for the first time in a German Marathon, including the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin, there will be three women on the start line who have run under 2:22.
Just behind the leading trio on times is Kenya’s Caroline Kilel with 2:22:36 and there is also Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka, who will make her Marathon debut on Sunday.
You can draw a parallel between Burka and her compatriot Melkamu 12 months ago.
When the latter arrived in Frankfurt 12 months ago, she had never before raced more than 15km, and the same applies to Burka this year.
“But in training I have run up to 40 kilometres,” said the 27-year-old former World cross-country champion and World indoor 1500m champion.
“I don’t know what will happen, but I am looking forward to Sunday," added Burka. "I will follow the others in the first group, it does not matter which pace they will go. I would like to run 2:20 and would, of course, be very happy with that."
Jörg Wenig (organisers) for the IAAF