Ethiopian marathon runner Deriba Merga warmed up for the international road running season by clocking a fast 41:54 to take victory in the 2011 Major Hayelom Araya 15km road race in Bahir, 580km north of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, on Sunday.
Although not as explosive as the men's race, a tightly-contested women's race was won by Dire Tune ahead of Atsede Habtamu with both runners timed 48:31.
Impressive Merga runs fast after minor accident
The 29-year old supremely talented, but massively inconsistent Merga has endured such career highs like breaking the World 15km record (the honour is now shared with Kenyans Felix Limo and Samuel Wanjiru) and equally forgettable career lows like dropping out of the 2009 World Championships marathon after leading for 33km and failing to finish his last two marathons. As his coach Haji Adilo commented last year, it is difficult to know which Merga will turn up on a given race day.
But in the early hours of Sunday morning on the flat roads of Ethiopia's lakeside third largest city Bahir Dar, it was Merga the invincible who was clearly on show. There was no sign of the hapless runner who failed to complete his last two marathons in Chicago, USA and Chuncheon, South Korea. Instead a rejuvenated Merga led from start to finish to clock an impressive 41:54, not quite the 41.29 he clocked nearly two years ago in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE, but good enough to be the fastest time over the event on African soil.
Steeplechaser Yacob Jarso, who finished fourth in the 2008 Olympics, came a distant second in 42.41 with another marathon runner Feyissa Lelisa, third in the Chicago Marathon earlier this year, finishing third in 42:43.
Merga's victory came as a surprise to many, not least his training partners and friends who had endured the horror of seeing him walk away unscathed from a car accident two days before the race in Sendafa, 42kms outside Addis Ababa.
"I survived a car accident two days before the race and I am glad to be the winner," he said. "He also mentioned "I was preparing for the RAK Half Marathon and today's race was easier. I will go to the UAE next Wednesday for the Half Marathon on Friday which I prepared very well."
Tune edges Habtamu in epic women's race
With 2008 Boston Marathon champion and one-hour world record holder Dire Tune, Berlin and Eindhoven marathon winner Atsede Habtamu, Dubai Marathon champion Asselefech Mergia, and Great Ethiopian Run 10km winner Koreni Jelila entered in a star-studded elite field, the women's race was expected to be bitterly-fought.
It delivered in emphatic fashion. After evading the attentions of early leader Jelila and Merga after the 10km mark, Tune and Habtamu turned the contest in a two-horse race. They exchanged leads for the final five kilometeres before Tune used her experience to edge Habtamu on the finish line for victory. Both runners were timed 48:31, but Tune's victory margin was seven hundredths of a second.
Elshadai Negash (with the assistance of Bizuayehu Wagaw) for the IAAF
1. Diriba Mergiya (Defence) 41:54.84
2. Yakob Jarso (Maremiya) 42:40.90
3. Feysa Lelisa (Defence) 42:42.99
4. Dereje Getachew (Federal Crime Prevention) NA
5. Driba Megersa (Federal police) NA
6. Dereje Hailegiorgis (Oromiya Prison) NA
1. Dire Tune (Federal Police) 48:31.29
2. Atsede Habtamu (Federal Police) 48:31.36
3. Koreni Jelila (Defence) 48:35.18
4. Almaz Alemu (Defence) NA
5. Aselefech Mergiya (Federal Police) NA
6. Alemitu Abera (Federal Police) NA