Palermo, Italy A final sprint 500 metres from the finish gave Oleg Kharitonov the honours in the men's race of the inaugural edition of the International Ultrarunners Association 50 km Challenge Trophy in Palermo this morning (16 October), but the overall Trophy went to France's Sandor Barzca, who led today's race from the gun until the finishing metres.
Barcza had led today's race for the first 48 kilometres, but he was unable to resist the final burst of speed from the Russian, who had held back until nearly the end of the race before making a final burst to overtake the French athlete in the very last stages.
Under the rules of the Challenge, the winner was decided on the aggregate time from one of the nine qualifying races and their time here in Palermo in the Final.
Coming into the race, the standings were led by Alexander Boltachev with a best time of 2:59:02, with Barcza in third place overall with 3:03:12, but Barcza improved on his time despite the grueling conditions here in Palermo, where the temperatures during the race soared to 28° Centigrade, finishing his race in 3:02:20, 20 seconds behind Kharitonov but more than 10 minutes ahead on aggregate.
Barzca had gradually built up an impressive lead over the field and when he passed the half marathon point he was over three minutes ahead of his pursuers.
Passing 30 kilometres in 1:46:13, he was still running three minutes in front of the followers, with Kharitonov in a pack of four nearly three and half minutes behind. Then an error by a marshal put most of the leading followers off route, leaving Kharitonov in pursuit of Barcza, with the Russian gradually reeling in the Frenchman from 45 kilometres and closing in on him in the final two kilometers.
As they approached the finish line, in the final two kilometers, along the sea front of Mondello, the popular seaside resort area of Palermo, Barcza started to weaken and the Russian pressed home in a closing sprint for the line, that saw him pass Barcza just over 400 metres from the line to take today's victory in 3:02:00 and gain second place overall in the Trophy.
Slightly disappointed, Barcza nonetheless said that he realized that the Russian would be a threat: "I thought that I need to build up at least a four minute lead to hold him off," he said. "I thought that he would challenge though from around 45 kilometres and I was surprised that it was later. But in the end he was just too fast for me at the finish."
Kharitonov was delighted with his win: "It was a tough race, but I was determined to win and I ran really fast for the last two kilometers to catch the Frenchman.
"It was a great race and I am pleased that I have won."
In the women's race, Great Britain's Heather Foundling-Hawker, running just her second 50 kilometre race, dominated the event from the start, heading off fast from the gun and retaining a convincing lead throughout the race, relegating the seasoned Italian campaigners Monica Casiraghi, the reigning World champion over 100 kilometres and Lorena Di Vito to the lesser places on the podium.
The English woman finished over three minutes ahead of Casiraghi and Di Vito, who crossed the line hand in hand as the younger Italian supported her colleague who had a lot of difficulties during the race as the result of a bout of influenza suffered three weeks before that had hampered her preparation's for today's event.
Despite her novice status, Foundling-Hawker came to Palermo as the fastest of the women contenders with a time of 3:35:51 to her credit, nearly nine minutes faster than Casiraghi with 3:44:37 and Di Vito with 3:47:06.
In the end, her gutsy frontrunning left no chance to the two Italians, who had to settle for the lesser medals and also the second and third places in the final standings for the Trophy.
"It was a real good race," declared Foundling-Hawker after the finish. "I had a bit of a problem as I could not find my personal drinks after 25 kilometres, so I think I might otherwise have been faster, but I ran my best and it was good in the end."
Casiraghi was a little disappointed, but put down her performance to her lack of form after a break in training following the bout of influenza: "I have not been able to train properly and if it had been anywhere else, I might not have competed, but the organisers here have always given me such a great reception that I felt that I had to come."
She acknowledged the support of Di Vito too, "I really do not know what I would have done without Lorena. She really helped me and I think that if it had not been for her help and support then I might have given up and not completed the race. She showed what true comradeship in sport is all about."
Sean Wallace-Jones for the IAAF