The spectre of Haile Gebrselassie hangs over Sunday's P.F. Chang’s Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon & Half-Marathon (14 Jan). Although not running in this year's race , after having set World records for the Half Marathon (58:55) and 20km (55:48) in the 2006 event, his impact still is being felt.
First, the entry list has increased from last year's total of 35,000 to 39,000, with many prospective runners turned away. That's the marketing effect that two-time Olympic champion Gebrselassie has had on the event. "Prior to the (2006) race, if you went to the top 100 athletes in the world, maybe 50 of them would know the name of the race," Tim Murphy, race director, said. "Just by his coming here, now everyone knows."
Second, several runners, intrigued by the fast course, have offered to challenge Gebrselasie's records, but organizers have turned them down ... at least temporarily. "A lot of people are upset with us who wanted to break the orld record on this course," Mike Long, elite athlete coordinator for Elite Racing, promoter of the event, said. "But we said no. We wanted to keep it with him (Gebrselassie) for at least a year. So there is no elite field in the half-marathon this year."
Third, Gebrselassie is sending one of his pupils, Tariku Aboset, over to challenge the Marathon course record of 2:10:33 set by Kenya's Hiron Toroitich in 2004, the race's inaugural year. "Everyone is excited about him, even Haile," Long said. "He (Gebrselassie) said the course is perfect for him (Aboset)."
The two Ethiopians train together, along with several of their countrymen, and Long said that Aboset "is the last one to fall off when Haile takes off. They (the Ethiopians) think he can run 2:08 or 2:09 in Phoenix. He hasn't run a marathon yet, but his training is incredible."
Deeper than ever fields
Should Aboset run that fast, he would provide organizers with the fast time they have been craving since the race's inception.
"It's a mystery why no one has run faster on this course," Murphy said. "They've run 2:08 (at the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon) in San Diego on a course that is not nearly as fast as this one. We need somebody to take the ball and run with it."
The 22-year-old Aboset could be the one, if he is not too weary, after having made the long trip for his first race outside Ethiopia.
In addition to Aboset, the men's field includes defending champion Shimelis Mola of Ethiopia; 2005 champion and 2006 runner-up Terefe Yae of Ethiopia; Assefa Mezgebu of Ethiopia, the 2000 Olympic bronze medallist at 10,000m; David Kirui of Kenya, the second-place finisher in the 2006 Country Music Marathon at Nashville, Tennessee.; and Luke Kibet of Kenya, winner of the 2004 Country Music Marathon.
Number 4 for Gemechu?
In the women's competition, Shitaye Gemechu of Ethopia will be seeking her fourth consecutive title.
Among those attempting to break Gemechu's stranglehold will be Adenech Zekiros of Ethiopia, third in last year's Rome Marathon; Luminita Talpos of Romania, third in the 2006 Bay to Breakers race; and Mulu Seboka of Ethiopia, ninth in last year's Nagoya (Japan) Marathon.
"I don't think the defending champions have a chance," Murphy said. "The field is much deeper. There are more people with the potential of running fast."
Nevertheless, Gemechu is confident that she can repeat.
"It's not only the money," she said of the $20,000 (U.S.) first prize for both men and women. "It's being a ... champion."
Bert Rosenthal for the IAAF