World Marathon record holder Haile Gebrselassie and Olympic Marathon champion Constantina Dita are the marquee attractions for Sunday’s inaugural HBA Great Australian 15km Run in Melbourne.
The Great Run series of races prides itself on bringing together elite runners and recreational runners in mass participation races - and Sunday’s Melbourne race is no exception. The Great Australian Run is set to be the biggest race Australia has seen outside of the Sydney Olympics. The course is a scenic yet flat 15 kilometres around the Melbourne CBD, and the prospect of fast times has attracted a host of top international runners to battle with the best Australia can offer.
Haile to chase World 15 km mark
The headlining act is Gebrselassie, who will be attacking the men's World record of 41:29, set by Felix Limo in 2001. There is no doubt that Gebrselassie is in excellent form following his recent Marathon World record of 2:03:59 in Berlin in September; and given good conditions and a successful transition down in distance, a 25th World record or World best for the man known as the Emperor may well be on the cards. But he will not have it all his own way, given the road running pedigree of his competitors.
Tanzania's Samson Ramadhani, 2006 Commonwealth Games Marathon champion, will be lining up to challenge Gebrselassie. So too will Kenya's Patrick Makau, who has run six times under one hour for the Half marathon, a feat yet to be equalled; and Austria's Gunther Weidlinger, who boasts a 10,000m personal best of 27:36.46, and was Europe's fastest 10,000m runner in 2008.
Mottram paces solid Australian contingent
And then there is the Australian contingent - a group admirably led by Craig Mottram. Mottram is a double winner of the World Cup 3000m, took bronze over 5000m in the Helsinki World Championships in 2005, and silver in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. But he has also had some recent disappointments - a hamstring injury cost him a shot at the 2007 World Championships, and unfortunate tactics saw him miss the Beijing Olympics final. Finding himself at a crossroads, Mottram has recently split from his manager and coach Nic Bideau, and is currently coaching and managing himself. In doing so he as rekindled his love and passion for running, and despite 15km being a stretch from his favoured 5000m distance, with the home crowd advantage Mottram may well find himself challenging some of the front runners this Sunday.
But Mottram is not the only Australian to feature in the lead pack. Youcef Abdi, who placed sixth in the Beijing Olympics steeplechase boasts a 3000m Steeplechase best of 8:16, and has quality racing experience. Collis Birmingham was a debutant at the Beijing Olympics, qualifying with a 13:21.12 over 5000m. He also has a 28:08.23 10,000m time to his name, and is in good form following a win on the roads over 5km earlier in the month. Ben St. Lawrence is another Aussie rounding into solid form, with a 13:42 opening 5km leg in last week's Chiba Ekiden road relay in Japan - a run which saw him finish the stage in third place and only eight seconds behind the eventual Ethiopian winners.
Dita v. Ndereba in women’s contest
The women's field is equally as exciting. It is lead by Romania's Constantina Dita, the runaway Beijing Olympic Marathon champion; and Catherina Ndereba, the 2007 Marathon World champion, and second behind Dita in Beijing. Not to be written off is Australian Benita Johnson, who is the 2004 World Cross Country champion, and has a Marathon best of 2:22:36. It has been a tumultuous year for Johnson, having lost her father in June, and then given the break up of her marriage. However she is back training in Falls Creek in Victoria, and is keen to prove herself over the 15km journey.
Dita surprised many when she surged to the lead in the second half of the Olympic Marathon. But the manner of her win - confident front running alone for the last portion of the race - left no one in doubt of her mental and physical strength. For Ndereba, her championship record especially speaks for itself. As a double World champion (2003 and 2007) and double Olympic silver medallist (2004 and 2008), along with holding four Boston Marathon titles, Ndereba certainly knows how to get the job done in big races.
While the women's World record may not be as under threat as in the men's race, Dita has a 15km personal best only 15 seconds shy of the 46:55 record - although her grueling racing schedule, including the Olympic Marathon and a fourth place in the Chicago Marathon in October, would be an admirable excuse should she be shy of this mark. So too for Ndereba who has had a similar program, running fifth in the New York City Marathon less than a month ago.
From the rest of the pack, Lara Tamsett is a 20-year-old student who may well surprise on Sunday. She recently beat Benita Johnson over 5km on the roads in early November, and ran her 7.195km leg of the Chiba Ekiden relay 35 seconds faster than Dita. The jump in distance will no doubt suit the older and more experienced campaigners, who are more suited to the longer races. Similarly the stress of Tamsett's recent Chiba adventure may not help her cause. But look for her to come out of the woodwork, if not on Sunday then in the near future.
Melbourne is set to host the most exciting field Australian running has seen in a long time. The rarely-run 15km distance will provide extra interest and the chance to see the all time list for the distance get re-written. And if all goes well, a World record may be the best prize awaiting the first across the finish line.
Edward Ovadia for the IAAF