After wins for his brother Kenenisa and the great Haile Gebrselassie in British road races in recent weeks, Tariku Bekele will bid to become the latest Ethiopian distance running star to triumph over the Half Marathon distance when he competes at the BUPA Great Birmingham Run on Sunday (20).
The younger Bekele, the 2008 World Indoor Championships 3000m winner and London 2012 Olympic Games 10,000m bronze medallist, will face stiff opposition in the IAAF Silver Label Road Race from the USA’s Abdi Abdirahman and the versatile Australian Collis Birmingham.
Home favourite and 2010 European Athletics Championships 10,000m silver medallist Chris Thompson will also be hoping to build upon his recent fifth place at the Great Scottish Run Half Marathon earlier this month, a race won by Gebrselassie in emphatic fashion.
Bekele ran 13.1 miles in Lisbon just two weeks ago, clocking a steady 1:03:21 to finish eighth in just his second competitive outing over the distance but will likely need to improve on his best of 1:02:59 if he is to get the better of Abdirahman and Birmingham, who come to the race in Britain’s Second City having enjoyed contrasting experiences in 2013.
Since his surprise qualification for the Marathon at the London 2012 Olympics Games, the 36-year-old Abdirahman has endured mixed fortunes, dropping out of the Olympic Marathon with a knee injury before then having to withdraw from April’s Boston Marathon due to a bout of flu.
An injury-plagued summer was salvaged, however, by a 1:02:57 clocking to finish sixth at the US Half Marathon Championships in June, followed by a successful series of races on the US road running circuit, culminating in a bronze medal at the US 20km Championships last month.
Birmingham, on the other hand, has raced prolifically on the track over distances ranging from 1500m to 10,000m, in addition to an outstanding eighth-place finish at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in March.
Perhaps his finest performance of the year, however, came in February’s Marugame Half Marathon in Japan, where he headed a high class field by more than 20 seconds to set an area record of 1:00:56.
A recent 1:04:28 for 10th at the Great North Run suggests that the track season may have taken its toll, yet Birmingham has previously shown form in the city that shares his name, most notably when running a season’s best over 5000m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in 2011.
While Bekele, Abdirahman, Birmingham and Thompson can boast a wealth of experience, at the other end of the age-range Olympic and World 10,000m finalist Thomas Ayeko is an unknown quantity on the roads.
The 21-year-old Ugandan is another athlete with fond recent memories of Britain, having won at the prestigious IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Antrim at the start of the year, and he makes his Half Marathon debut on Sunday with strong hopes of beating his more celebrated rivals.
Steel ready to show her mettle
The favourite for the women’s race is Britain’s Gemma Steel, who starts in Birmingham on the back of a successful couple of months, including finishing second at the Falmouth Road Race in the USA in August and a victory over 10km at the Great Yorkshire Run last month.
Steel was the first European home at the 2012 IAAF World half Marathon Championships, indeed the first runner across the line from anywhere other than Kenya and Ethiopia when she finished seventh in Kavarna and with personal best times of 31:34 for 10km and 1:10:46 for the Half Marathon, Steel has realistic ambitions of going under 70 minutes on Sunday.
Hoping to deny Steel victory will be her British teammate, Lauren Howarth.
After a fine senior international debut at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in March, where she placed sixth in the 3000m, the 23-year-old missed the summer track season through injury but has recently returned to action.
Howarth will expect to improve considerably on her 12th place last year, her sole previous race over the Half Marathon.
Completing a trio of Brits who will challenge for the podium is Elle Baker who, like Howarth, has raced sparingly in 2013 following the cross country season. She makes her Half Marathon debut with a 32:42 10km from 2012 to her name.
Less well known to the British crowds will be Ukraine’s Olga Kotovska and Russia’s biathlon exponent Natalia Solovyeva, the latter having won a gold medal at the 2011 European summer biathlon championships, which combines running and shooting. However, with Half Marathon bests of 1:12:19 and 1:13:49 respectively, the pair could also be in contention for a place in the top three.
Dean Hardman for the IAAF