London, UKThere’s more than one thing on the minds of defending champions Emmanuel Mutai and Mary Keitany ahead of Sunday’s (22) Virgin London Marathon – retaining the titles they won so decisively 12 months’ ago in this IAAF Gold Label Road Race, and gaining selection for the Olympic Games.
With the London Games now less than 100 days away, the ‘Olympics’ has hovered like an uncertain air over the build-up to this year’s event; or, rather, ‘Olympics, question mark?’ for many of the world class athletes racing this weekend do so with a place on the Olympic start line in a little over three months’ time still up for grabs.
Much at stake for leading Kenyans
That goes, not just for Mutai and Keitany, but for men’s World record holder Patrick Makau and women’s World champion Edna Kiplagat, too. Indeed, Sunday’s races have been dubbed by race director David Bedford the ‘unofficial’ Kenyan Olympic trials.
Not without reason. Back in January Kenyan selectors named six men and six women on Olympic shortlists, and Bedford duly snapped up four of the men and three women for his London race.
After Geoffrey Mutai failed to finish the Boston Marathon last Monday, and Moses Moses Mosop was ‘only’ third in Rotterdam a day earlier, the situation on the men’s side is definitely still ‘all to play for’.
Mutai, who ran 2:04:40 in 2011 to set a new course record, admitted it will be tougher this year not least because he suffered a bout of typhoid just a month ago, missed a few days training at the end of March and took a week or two to regain full fitness.
“For me this will definitely be a tougher competition than last year because the field is so strong,” he said this week. “Everyone has run a good time so I will have to perform at my best.
“I had a fever a few weeks ago and was under medication. But I am feeling better now and my recovery has been good. I will have to be at my best.”
Another stellar line-up in men’s field
No kidding. Mutai’s name tops an elite men’s line-up that matches in speed and quality any that Bedford has put together over the last half decade, five remarkable years in which the London course record has been broken three times and new standards established in men’s marathon running, here and around the world.
Few would bet against the London record being lowered again on 22 April, for the 2012 race features 10 men who have run the Marathon in under 2 hours six minutes, and 15 who have broken 2:08. What’s more, the race features the top seven finishers from last year’s contest, three of the top five from the Beijing Olympics, and all three medallists from the Daegu World Championships in Korea last summer.
Attached to the names in the men’s field are titles such as World record holder, double World champion, World Marathon Majors champion, reigning and former London champions, London course record holder, double Berlin champion, double Frankfurt champion and former two-times New York champion.
Mutai went on from London to finish second in New York last November pocketing half a million dollars as World Marathon Majors champion and has arrived in the British capital this year in good spirits after seeing two of his training partners win medals in big city marathons last weekend – Henry Sugut, who broke the Vienna course record last Sunday, and Bernard Kipyego who was third in Boston on Monday.
“For me this is a good sign,” agreed Mutai. “We have trained a lot together and this shows that my training has been going OK. It definitely gives me confidence for London.
“The selection is challenging but I think if I can finish in the top three here I will qualify,” he added. “The extra pressure is there because of the Olympic selection but I’ve been concentrating on running well in London. What comes after, I will think about then.”
Kenyan runners won all six World Marathon Majors races in 2011 plus virtually every other significant city marathon. They also filled all of the top 20 places on the 2011 world list, and own the six fastest times in the London field.
Fastest of the lot are the two men who broke 2:04 last year: Makau, who erased Haile Gebrselassie’s World mark in Berlin last September just five months after finishing third in London, and Wilson Kipsang, who was just four seconds slower when he retained his Frankfurt title at the end of October.
Makau has been keeping his cards close to his chest here this week. “All I can say is that as athletes, we are like brothers,” said the 26-year old, who became a father to twin boys in January.
“It’s a matter of how much training you’ve done. On one day they might beat me, and on another, if I’ve trained more, I’ll beat them. But there is no pressure between us because we have such great friendship.”
Double World champion Abel Kirui is also in the field again, sounding as confident as anyone despite finishing fifth in 2010 and dropping out 12 months ago.
The two other Kenyan contenders – neither on the Olympic shortlist – are three-times London champion Martin Lel, who was second last year but limped out of January’s Dubai marathon with an injury, and world silver medallist Vincent Kipruto.
Tsegaye Kebede is the only non-Kenyan to win the London men’s title in the last eight years and the talented 2010 champion leads the challenge again this time. Kebede is also chasing an Olympic place. After such fantastic times by Ethiopians in Dubai and Rotterdam this year, the Beijing bronze medallist believes only a sub-2:04 clocking will ensure his selection.
Kebede’s compatriots here include Bazu Worku, the former world junior record holder who was third in Berlin in 2010 aged 20, Feyisa Lilesa, bronze medallist at the Daegu World Championships, and Abreham Cherkos who was fifth in Boston last April, while Markos Geneti has been withdrawn by the Ethiopian federation after he smashed his personal best to finish third in Dubai.
Olympic silver medallist Jaouad Gharib returns for his eighth London Marathon looking as competitive as ever. Just a month short of his 40th birthday, the Moroccan is hoping to return to the podium for a fifth time after missing out on the top three last year.
The field also includes the World Half Marathon record holder, Zersenay Tadese of Eritrea, who claims to have learned the lessons two rather unmemorable appearances in this race so far; and Brazil’s two-time New York champion Marilson dos Santos who was fourth 12 months ago when he hacked a chunk from his personal best.
Keitany’s difficult task – women’s race
The women’s race is equally loaded containing four athletes who have broken the 2:20 barrier, no fewer than 13 who have run quicker than 2:24, and 16 have been under 2:25. Keitany’s rivals include four fellow Kenyans, five quality Ethiopians, and double London champion Irina Mikitenko.
Keitany had a brilliant year in 2011 when she smashed the World Half Marathon record, broke the 2 hours 20 minutes barrier with a memorable victory in London, and ran the first half of the New York City Marathon last November inside World record schedule before fading to third.
The 30-year-old claims to have learned from her New York nightmare, while insisting she will continue to run without fear.
“Maybe it was a mistake to go so fast in New York because I missed it, but I was just running how I felt in myself,” she said. “Sometimes your body can cheat you and tell you that you are OK when you fail to understand your body is having problems.
“But I don’t fear the Marathon. I think of myself as a Marathon runner now and I also think I have to better understand tactics, to know the tactics of running and handling a race.”
The more tactically aware Keitany faces a tough task against a field that includes double London winner Irina Mikitenko, World champion Edna Kiplagat and 2011 Berlin champion Florence Kiplagat.
“I’m in the same shape as last year and I hope to defend my title and win despite the field being so competitive,” she said.
“It will be very hard because of the strong athletes. Almost every runner has a good time, and many have run around 2:20, but I am determined to defend my title. We will see.”
Besides the two Kiplagats, Keitany’s compatriots here are Priscah Jeptoo, last year’s Paris champion and silver medallist at the Daegu World Championships, and Lucy Kabuu, who ran a superb time to finish second in January’s remarkable Dubai race.
The Ethiopian women will also be striving for Olympic selection. They include Atsede Baysa, the double Paris Marathon champion, Ejegayehu Dibaba, runner-up in Chicago last year, Aberu Kebede, the 2010 Berlin champion, and Toronto champion Koren Jelela. Bezunesh Bekele, who ran an impressive personal best in Dubai, is no longer in the line-up.
Mikitenko should provide the Africans’ main threat. The German record holder was London champion in 2008 and 2009 and finished second in the Berlin Marathon last September ahead of Paula Radcliffe, a performance which guaranteed her Olympic selection.
For the first time, the German has prepared with a training partner, Fate Tola, who won the recent Vienna Marathon. “The entire build-up has gone very well. I didn’t get injured and didn’t have any colds. Thanks to that, I’ve had two weeks extra preparation compared to the Berlin Marathon last year where my training was hampered by a virus.”
The experienced Russian pair, Inga Abitova and Mariya Konovalova, shouldn’t be discounted either. Abitova was second behind her compatriot Liliya Shobukhova in 2010, while Konovalova was third in Chicago that year.
Swedish record holder Isabellah Andersson and Portuguese star Jéssica Augusto are also in the field, while Constantina Dita, Romania’s 42-year-old Olympic champion, runs her 10th London Marathon.
Bedford’s verdict – that this is one of the most talented women’s fields ever – is hard to dispute. “With numerous Olympic places up for grabs I’m sure we’ll see a fantastic race,” he said.
That goes for both.
Matthew Brown for the IAAF
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