Florence Kiplagat takes Kenya's only individual victory of the day (Getty Images) © Copyright

Kiplagat the favourite, as Kenya and Ethiopia prepare to tussle – WOMEN'S RACE PREVIEW – Nanning 2010

Nanning, ChinaFlorence Kiplagat, the 2009 World Cross Country champion, will lead a strong Kenyan squad eager to retain its grasp on both the women’s individual and team titles at the IAAF / SINOPEC World Half Marathon Championships in Nanning on Saturday (16).

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At just 23, Kiplagat has made a strong and steady rise from the deep Kenyan ranks, first with her individual Cross Country triumph in 2009 upon which she swiftly followed up  with a 30:11.53 national record in the 10,000m in June of that year. More recently, she made further waves in her debut over the half marathon distance, clocking 1:07:40 in Lille, France, on 4 September, currently the fifth fastest performance of the season and one which propelled her well inside the event’s all-time top-20. With several other key victories on the roads this year, Kiplagat is a solid bet to succeed compatriot Mary Keitany as World champion.

Kenyan women have won the team title on seven occasions, including at three of the last four editions and will again come armed to defend their team supremacy in Nanning. Backing up the team leader is Peninah Arusei, who was second to Kiplagat in Lille with a 1:07:48 lifetime best. Sarah Chepchirchir (1:09:27, PB, SB), Joyce Chepkirui (1:09:51, SB, PB) and Eunice Kales (1:09:50, SB, PB) round out the squad.

Tune tops Ethiopian squad

But the Ethiopians, who took the team title in 2004 and 2008, won’t let the Kenyans, or the weather conditions expected in this sprawling and tropical Southern Chinese city of six million - the race morning forecast calls for high humidity with temperatures between 20-25 C. (70-77 F.) – keep them from battling for the top step of the podium in both the individual and team races.

Dire Tune, the World record holder for the One Hour Run, is the lead Ethiopian hope. Fourth at these championships in 2006, the 25-year-old has a 1:07:18 career best, and at 1:07:58, has gone nearly as fast this year. A strong marathoner with a sub-2:25 personal best, Tune has illustrated her depth and range from 10Km up.

Watching her back will be 20-year-old Abebech Afework, who’s clocked 1:10:49 this year, and Feyse Tadese (1:10:08, SB, PB).

China has competed well at this competition in the past, with Ren Xiujuan and Sun Yingjie running to individual gold in 1996 and 2004, respectively. With her victory in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, Ren, at 22 years, 15 days old, was the youngest ever women's winner at these championships. The best team finish for China was eighth in 2002 (they were also 10th in 1996) and look on paper to be prepared to produce their best-ever team finish here on home soil.

Zhu Xiaolin leads local charge

This year, the Chinese to watch is Zhu Xiaolin, who improved her career best to 1:10:07 with her runner-up finish at Milan’s Stramilano in late March. No stranger to major competitions, the 26-year-old usually arrives very well prepared. Zhu finished fourth in the Olympic Marathon in 2008, and fourth and fifth over the 42.2 Km distance at the 2007 and 2009 World Championships, respectively. She was also a notable third at the Rotterdam Marathon in April. She’ll be backed up by some of the host’s youthful up-and-comers, including 20-year-old Hao Xiaofan, who clocked 1:11:24 this year, and 18-year-old Ding Changqin, who has yet to tackle the Half Marathon competitively.

Japan, the inaugural team champions, has been consistent at these championships since their inception in 1992. Most recently, Japan pieced together a string of four consecutive bronze medal finishes, from 2005 through 2009, in the women's race, and could be in the running again this year. Yoshimi Ozaki, Noriko Higuchi, Ryoko Kizaki and Hiriko Miyauchi have all run under 1:11 this year.

A total prize money purse of $245,000 (122,500 each for the men's and women's races) is on offer, paid to the first six finishers. with $30,000 going to the individual winners. Teams will be gunning for a $15,000 first place prize.

Also on offer is a $50,000 bonus for breaking Lornah Kiplagat’s 1:06:25 World record, set in Udine, Italy, in 2007, when the Dutchwoman won the second of her three consecutive titles.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF