Mekuant Ayenew winning the 2016 Beijing Marathon (organisers) © Copyright
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Former champions Ayenew and Birhanu return to Beijing Marathon

Organisers of the Beijing Marathon have assembled a quality field for the 37th edition of the IAAF Gold Label road race with defending champion Mekuant Ayenew and 2014 winner Girmay Birhanu, both from Ethiopia, set to vie for the men’s title on Sunday (17).

Ayenew took a surprise victory last year as he upset eight sub-2:10 runners in the field to grab his first ever win over the classic distance. Although his 2:11:09 clocking was the slowest winning time in Beijing since 2010 and nearly four minutes slower than the course record of 2:07:16 registered by Ethiopia’s Tadese Tola in 2013, the 25-year-old Ayenew has been on the rise this season, improving his personal best twice in four months.

He first clocked a PB of 2:09:23 to finish sixth in Dubai in January, beating his previous career best of 2:10:05 from his runner-up finish in Hannover in 2013. He further improved it to 2:09:00 en route to finishing third in Prague in May.

Ayenew will be joined on the starting line by his compatriot Girmay Birhanu, who in Beijing in 2014 hit the front with 500 metres remaining before winning in 2:10:42, his first victory since debuting at the marathon in 2012.

The 30-year-old Birhanu has a PB of 2:05:49 from the 2014 Dubai Marathon and took the honours in Daegu and Ottawa in 2015.

Fellow Ethiopian Bazu Worku, winner of the Houston Marathon in 2014 and 2013, owns the fastest PB of the field. The 27-year-old clocked 2:05:25 when finishing third in Berlin in 2010 and is a consistent sub-2:10 performer.

Worku was below par in 2016 with a season’s best of just 2:15:08, but he has bounced back this year with a 2:08:48 performance in Prague, where he finished second, one place ahead of Ayenew. It also makes him the fastest runner in 2017 on the entry list.

With a PB of 2:05:58 set in 2015 when finishing second at the Eindhoven Marathon, Ethiopia’s Deribe Robi is another candidate to threaten the course record on Sunday. Since setting his PB, however, his fastest clocking was 2:10:55 from finishing seventh in Vienna in April.

The field also includes two sub-2:08 runners from Kenya. 35-year-old Stephen Chemlany ran a PB of 2:06:24 for second place in Seoul in 2014 and placed second at the Commonwealth Games in the same year. Nickson Kurgat, 29, is a two-time winner at then Chuncheon Marathon with a PB of 2:07:11, but has been off the radar since last year.

Ethiopian athletes have won the women’s race at the past three editions of the Beijing Marathon and Mulu Seboka is the biggest hope to maintain such dominance this year.

Seboka set her PB of 2:21:56 at the 2015 Dubai Marathon, which makes her the fastest entrant in the field. The course record of 2:19:39, set in 2003 by three-time winner Sun Yingjie, might be a bit of a stretch for the 32-year-old.

A former marathon winner in Dubai, Daegu and Toronto, Seboka achieved sub-2:25 clockings each year from 2013 to 2016 but her best so far this year is 2:29:17, set when finishing seventh in Prague.

Rebecca Kangogo Chesir of Kenya, meanwhile, has shown sound form this season as she cut 57 seconds off her best to finish runner-up at the Vienna Marathon in 2:24:25. And Ethiopia’s Marta Lema is another sub-2:25 runner toeing the line who clocked 2:24:32 to finish second at last year’s Xiamen Marathon.

The field also contains three Ethiopians that could challenge for a podium place on Sunday. The 33-year-old Aberu Mekuria captured the 2015 Ottawa Marathon title in 2:25:30. Melesech Beyene, 23, lowered her PB to 2:26:44 when finishing second in Barcelona in March. Rahma Tusa also bettered her career best this season as she clocked 2:27:21 to successfully defend her title at the Rome Marathon in April.

Vincent Wu for the IAAF