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If the Half Marathon was an Olympic event, the top five entries in the women's race for the 2012 Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on 16 September would make it one of the Games' premier events. That's how strong they are.
Lined up to compete in the race's 35th anniversary running are Ethiopia's Meseret Defar, the Philadelphia winner in 2010, the London Olympics 5000m gold medallist and multiple World record-holder; Ethiopia's Firehiwot Dado, winner of the 2011 New York City Marathon; Kenya's Sharon Cherop, winner of the 2012 Boston Marathon and a bronze medallist at the 2011 World Championships; Ethiopia's Mare Dibaba, the Ethiopian record-holder for the Half Marathon and a 2012 Olympian; and Ethiopia's Buzunesh Deba, winner of the Los Angeles Marathon and Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Marathon in 2011, and runner-up at the 2011 New York City Marathon.
Their presence puts in jeopardy the World record of 1:05:50, set by Kenya's Mary Keitany on 18 February 2011, and the race record - and U.S. all-comers' mark - of 1:07:11 set by New Zealand's Kim Smith last year.
"The race could be the fastest in the U.S. this year," said Matt Turnbull, manager of the professional athlete fields for Competitor Group, owner of the Philadelphia race. "It's tough to pick a winner from that group. Of course, Defar is coming off her Olympic success and she won this race two years ago in her Half Marathon debut. So she will be tough to beat. She has the strong finishing kick of a 5000m runner."
The scenic and historic Philadelphia course, which traverses Market Street, the Schuylkill River, the Falls Bridge and ends at the front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, has produced five World Records, three U.S. marks and numerous U.S. all-comers' records.
In her debut Half Marathon two years ago, Defar set the all-comers' mark of 1:07:45 before Smith obliterated it at Rock 'n’ Roll New Orleans on 13 February 2011, running 1:07:36, before breaking it again at Philadelphia last year. Defar's blistering finishing speed helped her also win the 5000m Olympic gold medal in 2004, the 5000m Olympic bronze medal in 2008 and set the world 5000m record twice. She also has won the Carlsbad 5000 three times.
Dado is very upbeat about running in the Philadelphia Half-Marathon, which Turnbull calls "one of the best races in the world."
"I'm very excited about returning to the U.S. to race in the Rock 'n' Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon," Dado said. "I have heard many great things about the event and have seen some great performances there over the years. I will be returning to defend my New York Marathon title in November, so this race fits perfectly into my schedule."
Cherop, who will be battling the four Ethiopians for superiority, is also elated about competing in Philadelphia.
"I'm happy to be returning to Philadelphia," she said. "I ran there in 2007 and finished in fourth place. I'm looking forward to my first Rock 'n' Roll experience. I've had a great couple of years, claiming bronze at the World Championships and then winning in the heat at the Boston Marathon. I'm excited to race again in America."
Dibaba's Ethiopian record for the Half Marathon is 1:07:13, just two seconds off Smith’s Philadelphia course record. She also ran a 2:19:52 Marathon in Dubai this year, before finishing a disappointing 23rd in the marathon at the London Olympics.
Deba has recovered from a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from the Boston Marathon in April and is anxious to get back into prime form like last year, when she produced three of her finest races.
"I think we drew such an outstanding field because of Philadelphia's reputation and because we have a world-class venue," Turnbull said. "It's a wonderful field so I wanted the best athletes in the world. Whether it's a fast or a tactical race, I won't mind because of the athletes we have. I'm grateful they will all be joining us in Philadelphia."