05 NOV 2004 Preview 5 November 2004 – New York, USA

Okayo fit for defence in New York Marathon - PREVIEW

Margaret Okayo breaks the tape at the 2003 New York Marathon (Victah Sailer)Margaret Okayo breaks the tape at the 2003 New York Marathon (Victah Sailer) © Copyright

New York, USAAs is so often the case these days here, the women’s version of the ING New York City Marathon (Sunday 7 Nov) seems more intriguing than the men’s race, especially this year.

Olympic redemption for Radcliffe?

Not only is Britain's Paula Radcliffe (holder of the World record at an awesome 2:15:25) competing for the first time since her agonising dropout at 36 kilometres in Athens 11 weeks ago, but she’ll be facing three other top 10 performers on the all-time list: Kenyans Tegla Loroupe and Margaret Okayo, equal 7th at 2:20:43, and American record holder Deena Kastor, 10th at 2:21:16.

Radcliffe's presence has brought a squad of Britain's best athletics writers across the pond to see how she will fare, and today she faced them and others for the first time since she stopped at 36 km in Athens. She was cheerful, almost chirpy, and said she had gotten over her Athens disappointment and was ready to run hard and win. "It's something you can never forget," she smiled, perhaps a bit ruefully, "but you have to get over it."

If she is as ready as she says she is after two months of hard training in Flagstaff, Arizona, it's hard to bet against the 30-year-old Radcliffe. She's run more than five minutes faster than anyone else in the field, and if form holds, she could win literally by a mile (more than 1600 metres).

Okayo fit for task

But of course, form doesn't always hold in a Marathon, and no world-class runner toes the line with the idea of finishing second.

Okayo, 28, who took the London Marathon title this spring, has won in New York twice, in 2001 and 2003, setting a course record each time (it's now 2:22:31). She had to drop out of the Athens Marathon in August with an inflamed Achilles tendon, but says she is fully recovered. Her manager, Federico Rosa, said recently, "She put in a year's training getting ready for Athens, and she still has that fitness."

John Manners, the resident American expert on Kenyan runners, says, "I think the race will be won in 2:19, and I think Okayo will win it."

Loroupe, who won here in 1994 and '95, hasn't run sub-2:29 since 2001. Then there's Deena Kastor, who unlike Radcliffe and Okayo finished the Olympic Marathon, and claimed the bronze medal. She'd probably have to lower her own American record to win the race, and if the weather comes up as predicted (10-12 degrees Celsius) she could run sub-2:20 and still not win.

She's not as experienced a marathoner as the other two, and even her coach, Joe Vigil, isn't quite sure how well she'll handle her third marathon in seven months.

Others who have run under 2:25:00 include Susan Chepkemei (2:22:12) and Lorna Kiplagat (2:22:23), two Kenya-born runners who compete for the Netherlands; Russian Ludmila Petrova (2:22:33), who won here in 2000; and Jelena Prokopcuka (2:24:01) of Latvia.

One intriguing entrant who's running her first Marathon and could make a big impression is 25-year-old Australian Benita Johnson, winner of the 8 km race at the World Cross-Country Championships in March, beating an all-star field of Kenyans and Ethiopians.

Wide open men’s race

The men's race looks like a wide-open affair. Manners, just back from three weeks in Kenya, thinks three Kenyans should battle it out for first.

One of them, 22-year-old Michael Rotich, has the fastest PB in the field, 2:06.33 winning last year's Paris Marathon. His two chief competitors should be Timothy Cherigat, 27, whose PB is 2:09:34, but who now trains in Boulder, Colorado with coach Hogen; and Christopher Cheboiboch (PB 2:08:17), second here in 2002 and third last year.

Manners looks for them to finish that order, but admits he is doing a bit of guessing. Still, he's correctly predicted the winners of the last two NYC Marathons, Rodgers Rop in 2002 and Martin Lel in 2003, so I'm inclined to go with his predictions.

There's a lot of local interest in Mebratom Keflezighi, the Olympic silver medallist in Athens. His coach Bob Larson, says, "This will be Meb's fourth Marathon in 13 months, which makes a coach nervous, but we agreed after the Games that if he didn't feel right he wouldn't run in New York, and he's here."

Keflezighi's PB is 2:10.03, but with any kind of decent weather he should improve on that; the question is, how many others will be ahead of him. One thing he will be is patient; when he ran his first marathon - here in 2002 - he felt so good at 20 miles that he took the lead and pushed the pace. Too much, too soon; he faded to ninth at the finish.

Others who have run under 2:09:00 include Benoit Zwierzchiewski of France (2:06:36), who finished just three seconds behind Rotich in Paris in 2003; Kenyans Joseph Ngolepus (2:07:57), John Kagwe (2:08:12 and winner here in 1997 and 1998), and Ben Kimondiu (2:08:52), and Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa (2:08:58).

Two Americans running their first Marathons will be watched with interest: Bob Kennedy, national record holder at 3000 and 5000m, and Abdi Abdirahman, Olympic finalist at 10,000m in Sydney and Athens.

Jim Dunaway for the IAAF