Elvan Abeylegesse ran the fastest-ever debut Half Marathon at the RAK Half Marathon on Friday morning.
Running in windless and sunny conditions, Abeylegesse, a double Olympic medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games, clocked 1:07:07 to take the 4th edition of this IAAF Silver Label Road Race. Only five women* have ever covered the distance faster than the 27-year-old Ethiopian-born Turk.
In the men's contest, the expected challenge of Ethiopian Deriba Merga faltered as the prolific racer and regular front runner inexplicably stepped off the road at 18km when the pack had reduced to four, opening the way for yet another Kenyan win, this time Geoffrey Mutai taking the honours in 59:43.
Abeylegesse – ‘My time could have been a lot quicker’
But it was the diminutive Abeylegesse who captured the day’s attention. After a stuttering first 15 kilomtres, the Turk tore through the last six kilometres to defeat a stellar field of more fancied Ethiopians. Illustrating the race’s depth, the first eight women dipped under 1:09.
Despite her sensational performance, Abeylegesse’s post-race comments suggested a hidden frustration. “If the pace had been faster and steadier, my time could have been a lot quicker,” she said. “I felt easy at 15km (48:03) and it was only then I decided to start pushing the pace.”
After working under Croatian coach Nicola Boric for just ten weeks, the debut for the reigning Olympic silver medallist at both 5000 and 10,000m signaled an important career move. She insisted after the race that her Marathon debut would still have to wait until after the 2012 Olympics, but did admit to being excited by what more she could achieve over this new distance.
The early pace (16:02 for 5km) was disappointing in the perfect conditions (18C at the start), but hopes rose of something special as the big pack passed 10km in 31:54 (a 15:52 split). However, 15km in 48:03 meant a 16:09 split and any chance of a shot at the targeted World record (1:06:25, Lornah Kiplagat, Udine 2007) was gone. At that point, the group of six included the winner, and five Ethiopians: Teyba Erkesso, Aselefech Mergia, Koren Yal, Mare Dibaba and the defending RAK champion Dire Tune.
Just as Tune had turned the screw in the late winds that spoiled last year's record attempts, firstly Erkesso then Abeylegesse, the only track specialist in the group, picked up the pace with the latter ripping a 15:44 split to 20km to test her far more experienced rivals. Surprisingly while Tune dropped back quickly, it was Dibaba and Mergia who hung on the longest, though even they couldn't live with the withering home straight surge from the Turk.
While Abeylegesse's winning time is the quickest debut ever, Dibaba improved her own best to 1:07:13 as runner up, with ever consistent Mergia in third place breaking new ground in 1:07:22, beating her personal best from last year's RAK runner-up performance. Teyba Erkesso - also a lifetime best - and Dire Tune followed through under 68 minutes, with Atsede Habtamu (ETH), Hilda Kibet (NED) and Agnes Kiprop (KEN) all under 69 minutes. Ten miles had been passed in 51:28, only twelve seconds outside Colleen de Reuck's 51:16 World best.
Mutai prevails in tactical affair– men’s race
Such has been the quality of the men's running in each of the three previous years at RAK, that Mutai's performance seemed almost anti-climactic, but as in the women's race, the early pace did the main protagonists no favours and a sense of “what might have been” prevailed. In 2007, then unheralded Sammy Wanjiru won in 58:53; in 2007 Patrick Makau took the first of two consecutive titles, in 59:35, followed by a 58:52 course record 12 months later - still the No.2 performance all time
And now this - a 59:43 clocking, though not a personal best for Mutai, seen as a relative failure in only the fourth year of the event; how so? Well conditions were perfect, but the pack chose to ignore the pace making and as in the women's contest, started cautiously, with Jairus Chanchima (59:43 in Lille last September) leading a pack of 13 through 5km in 14:04, already 14 seconds outside of schedule. Thirteen became seven at 10km (28:11) by which time all thoughts of a World record had gone, the 14:07 split for that 5km continuing the theme. At this stage, an unusually restrained race from Deriba Merga meant no-one was prepared to push on and the subsequent splits times of 42:33 at 15km (a 14:22 5km, six in contention) and 56:52 at 20km (14:19, four left in it) made even the one hour mark look precarious. Almost unnoticed en route, ten miles had been passed in 45:45.
For 28-year-old Mutai however, this was a further indicator that he's a man to watch. Last November he won the Valencia Half in 59:30, and here he had the confidence to be the first to start pushing the pace at around 18km. Complaining afterwards that the humidity was high, he nonetheless controlled the last mile, burning up the last 1.097km in 2:51 for a six second win from debutante - though established marathon runner - Tadese Tola, who clocked 59:49. Titus Masai of Kenya with 59:51 set a personal best, having run 60:00 exactly in Nice last April, and the fourth man under the hour was Ethiopian Getu Feleke with 59:56, another lifetime best.
Greg Fairlie (organisers) for the IAAF
* Ingrid Kristiansen's 1:06:40, from 05-Apr-1987 in Sandnes, NOR, is not included due to uncertain course measurement. [Link to women's all-time Half Marathon list]