The question on most people’s minds before Sunday’s 65th edition of Marugame Half Marathon seems to be: how fast can double 2008 Olympic silver medallist Elvan Abeylegesse run at this IAAF Silver Label Road Race in just her second race over the distance?
Abeylegesse, the 28-year-old Ethiopian-born Turk cruised to runner-up finishes at both 5000m and 10000m in Beijing in 2008, and last year won the longer distance and finished second in the 5000m at the European Championships in Barcelona. Earlier in the year, she made her debut over the Half marathon, clocking 1:07:07 at the Ras Al Khimah Half. Not only was it the 18th fastest ever at the time - making her the 11th fastest performer - it was also the second fastest debut ever over the distance. Furthermore, since the fastest debut, Kara Goucher’s 1:06:57 at the Great North Run was recorded on a downhill course (30.5m elevation drop over 21.0975Km distance), Abeylegesse’s time is the fastest half marathon debut on standard course. Obviously, Abeylegesse’s follow-up is an eagerly awaited one.
The Marugame course is not slow – the course records are 1:07:26 for women and 59:48 for men - so, how fast can Abeylegesse go? Two women – Paula Radcliffe and Susan Chepkemei – have broken 66 minutes for the half marathon but both were recorded on the net downhill course, which makes Lornah Kiplagat’s 1:06:25 from the 2007 the fastest half marathon on the standard course. In total, nine runners have broken 67 minutes – will the Turk join this exclusive club?
In order for her to run fast, Abeylegesse needs competition, which most likely will come from Kayoko Fukushi, the course record holder. In the category of fastest Half Marathon debuts, Fukushi, who raced the distance for the firest tim in Marugame in 2006, is the third fastest in history. She won that year with her 1:07:26 course standard. Furthermore, Fukushi is undefeated at the Half Marathon distance, having won all four she’s contested so far. So will the race be between Abeylegesse and Fukushi?
It may not be so, for the defending champion Nikki Chapple, who clocked a 1:08:37 personal best last year, will be back to defend her crown. More recently Chapple finished 12th at World Half Marathon Championships in Nanning last October.
Other invited runners who could give chase are Silvia Skvortsova, Yoshiko Fujinaga and Mika Yoshikawa. Skvortsova, who was tenth at the 2009 World Half Marathon Championships, has a 1:09:17 best along with 2:26:24 Marathon credentials from the Berlin Marathon in 2009. Fujinaga recorded her 1:09:29 best back in 2001, but more recently won the 2009 Nagoya Women’s Marathon. Yoshikawa’s half marathon best may be only 1:13:07 from Marugame in 2008, but she is primarily a middle distance runner, with a 1500m best of 4:10.00, and 5000m best of 15:28.44. Her winning streak at 1500m at the national championships currently stands at five, so if her endurance has improved in the last two years, Yoshikawa could make a huge breakthrough.
Course record assault? - Men's race
On the men’s side, Mekubo Mogusu, who has a best of 59:48 from Marugame in 2007, is the favorite, but the most intriguing runner in the field may be Yuki Sato, making his half marathon debut.
Sato is the fastest active 10,000m runner in Japan, having clocked 27:38.25 in 2009. Since he;s has been running distances of around 20Km in college Ekidens, the Half Marathon should not scare him. More recently, Sato recorded 1:03:25 in the 22Km section of New Year Ekiden. The national Half Marathon record, 1:00:25 by Atsushi Sato, may be in striking distance for Sato, especially if Mogusu sets a fast early pace and Sato decides to go with him. Mogusu has three sub-60 minutes Half Marathons to his credit. His performance in Marugame is also interesting in gauging his possible success at the Tokyo Marathon in three weeks time, where he could challenge Haile Gebrselassie.
Other runners, who might be in the picture, at least in the early part of the race include Rachid Kisri, a 2:06:48 marathon runner; Dmytro Baranovsky, a 2:07:15 marathoner; Ji Young-Jun, the 2010 Asian Games’ Marathon champion; and Girma Tola, who was fourth in the 10,000m at the 1999 World Championships. Their Half Marathon credential include a 1:02:11 best and 13th at the World Half Marathon Championships for Kisri, and 1:01:26 for Tola. Tsuyoshi Ugachi, who was 12th (second non-African) at the 2010 World Half Marathon Championships, may be the best Japanese besides Sato.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF
List of invited runners:
Rachid Kisri (MAR)
Dmtro Baranovsky (UKR)
Ji Young-Joon (KOR)
Girma Tola (Eth)
Mekubo Mogusu (KEN)
Cosmas Ondiba (KEN)
Micah Njeru (KEN)
Nicholas Makau (KEN)
Samuel Ndungu (KEN)
Elvan Abeylegesse (TUR)
Nikki Chapple (AUS)
Silvia Skvortsova (RUS)
Kim Sung-Eun (KOR)