Paula Radcliffe has been unbeaten on the roads for two-and-a-half years, but a world class field gathers on Sunday hoping to end her winning sequence.
Gete Wami was the last athlete to beat the European 10,000m champion in a road race, over five miles at Balmoral in Scotland in April 2001, and Radcliffe hopes to extend her sequence to 12 successive road victories on Sunday before hopefully avoiding an unlucky 13th in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships at Vilamoura, Portugal on October 4.
Radcliffe has set a world best in three of her four races in 2003 and has an identical success rate in her career half marathons, her only defeat coming on her debut in this race in 1999 when beaten by Joyce Chepchumba and Tegla Loroupe. She returned a year later to win in a course record of 67:07 and won the world title on her other two outings at the distance, but victory on Sunday is not a foregone conclusion.
Berhane Adere won one of the greatest women’s 10,000m races in history with a sensational final 250m to take the World title in Paris, and the Ethiopian is the reigning World half marathon champion as well as holding the indoor 3000m crown.
One of her few disappointing races came in this event 12 months ago so she will be anxious to make amends on Sunday, when two former champions - Susan Chepkemei and Sonia O’Sullivan - are in action. Chepkemei is the fastest half marathon runner in history with 65:44 on a Lisbon course not ratified for record purposes due to the drop in elevation, but the Kenyan arrived on Tyneside this week looking to win.
All the talk in the north east of England has been about Radcliffe, but Chepkemei warns she is not in Britain to be second best. She was second to Radcliffe when the UK staged the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Bristol two years ago but is looking to repeat her 2001 victory when she kicked away from Chepchumba in the final straight.
The women’s race, because of the inclusion of the 2002 World Athlete of the Year, will take centre stage but the men’s race, which gets underway 25 minutes later, will also be a fast affair. Kenya’s Paul Kosgei last year became the first athlete to break the hour in the UK and he is desperate to produce another impressive run for the appreciative crowd that create a great atmosphere in the closing stages approaching South Shields.
Kosgei knows a good performance would set him up for the defence of his World title in Vilamoura, and taking on the likes of Sergey Lebid, Julio Rey and Julius Kibet will add to Kosgei’s half-marathon experience. When he won the World Championships in Brussels a year past May he had never tackled the distance before, and Sunday will be only his fourth half-marathon, having first excelled as a steeplechaser.
He is now looking more to the roads, having suffered continuing calf problems by wearing spikes on the track and is considering moving up to the marathon in readiness for next year’s Olympics in Athens.
Lebid is more renowned as a cross country runner but is as strong as an ox and he also possesses an awesome finishing kick, so if he is in contention when the race drops down onto the coast for the final mile he will prove very difficult to beat.
Some way further back among the 47,000 runners will be former Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist Brendan Foster, who launched this race in 1981 and has decided to join in this year.
It is not only the distance runners in action this weekend, as Britain’s two female World Championships medallists, Kelly Holmes and Hayley Tullett, take on Turkish star Sureyya Ayhan in the mile races tomorrow.
Bob Frank for the IAAF