Course records could well be under threat at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon when one of the best elite fields ever seen – including three-time Olympic champion Kenenisa Bekele – takes to the streets on Friday (23) for the IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
The weather forecasters have been kept busy in recent days as Dubai has been beset by evening thunderstorms at the start of this week, but a different kind of storm awaits the city in the Gulf on Friday morning.
Both course records are targets in the race which has become firmly established among the world’s leading distance-running events. Ethiopia’s superstar Bekele headlines the men’s list which features 20 athletes with personal bests faster than 2:10, six of whom have run faster than 2:06.
The women’s field shows unprecedented depth at sub-2:28 level for a city marathon as no fewer than 23 women in the field have PBs faster than that mark. Aselefech Mergia of Ethiopia is the fastest on the start list with a PB of 2:19:31 and that, for good measure, is the women’s course record.
In recent editions, the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon made headlines when marathon debutants took victories in sensational style. This has happened on three consecutive occasions in the men’s race and the winners clocked world-class sub-2:05 times on each occasion. But given the depth of the field, it would be truly sensational if Dubai’s debutants’ winning streak were to continue on Friday.
You could be forgiven for thinking this is an Ethiopian national championship since the field is stacked with an abundance of their talent. And the runner taking centre stage is Bekele, the 5000m and 10,000m world record-holder.
“I feel confident, I am happy and I know that I am better prepared than before,” said the 32-year-old, who won his marathon debut in Paris last April with 2:05:04 and then took fourth place in Chicago in 2:05:51.
“This is a very important race for me. I want to improve my time. I am confident to make history here, but you can never say you will win – you can’t be sure, because otherwise it would not be a race,” added Bekele, whose rivals include world silver medallist and 2013 Dubai winner Lelisa Desisa, who ran 2:04:45 here two years ago.
Bekele had trained just seven weeks before he competed in Chicago and missed his goal of improving his PB. But his manager Jos Hermens confirmed that Bekele’s training has gone well. “He is better prepared than before for his third marathon,” he said. “When he was running on the track he could train for two months and then break a world record. But this approach does not work in the marathon.
“After Chicago, Kenenisa knew that he had to change something. For ten years he had the same training rhythm. He needed something new and different impulses. This is why I brought him together with Renato Canova. And it is going well. If he runs a low 2:04, improving by around one minute, that would be fine.”
The course record of Ethiopia’s Ayele Abshero, who ran 2:04:23 in 2012, is the main goal. But Haile Gebrselassie’s national record of 2:03:59 could also become an objective on Friday. The great Ethiopian, who won this race three times in a row from 2008 to 2010, will be in Dubai to watch the marathon.
“I have not spoken to Haile about Dubai, but I saw his races when he was competing here,” said Bekele. “Every race is different.”
Bekele is ready to follow any pace on Friday. And it could become even faster than expected. “We don’t want to talk too much about the world record, but it is always a possibility,” said event director Peter Connerton. “The half marathon split time we will target will be in that region.
“I believe that one day we will break the world record here, but I don’t know when it will happen. We have the fastest and flattest course in the world – and we get the best runners. This time we have Kenenisa.”
On Dubai’s super-flat course there is just one corner, two turns and four bends to navigate for the runners.
Mergia set to go after own mark
The course record is also the goal for the women’s race and the current record-holder looks ready to attack it.
“If all goes well, I can run under 2:20 and break the course record,” said Mergia, who gave birth to her daughter Sena in July 2013, a year before she ran the Dubai course record of 2:19:31 which remains her personal best. “I am as strong as before maternity leave.”
It took the 30-year-old quite some time to regain her form after giving birth. “It was difficult to get back in shape,” said Mergia, who weighed 73kg by the end of her pregnancy. “It was tough to get rid of the kilos, but now I am back at 51.
“The Frankfurt Marathon in October was an option, but my shape was not good enough,” she added. “I really only wanted to come back once I was fully fit again. Now I’ve been able to train well for four months, so I am ready. My goal is to win the race.”
If she were to achieve her goal of breaking the course record, Mergia would earn prize money of $200,000, the biggest payday in marathon running.
“I am confident, but of course I know that it will be tough. Everyone who is coming to Dubai is competitive.”
Mergia will be up against a host of top Ethiopians, including defending champion Mulu Seboka, former Dubai winners Mamitu Daska and Askale Tafa, and last year’s runner-up Meselech Melkamu.
Kenya’s Lucy Kabuu, who finished second to Mergia in 2012 in a time of 2:19:34, is also in the field. She is one of six women in the race with a PB better than 2:22.
But the big danger – especially on a course that has produced so many victories from first-time marathon runners – could come from world half-marathon champion Gladys Cherono of Kenya. The world 10,000m silver medallist, who has a half marathon PB of 1:06:48, will be making her marathon debut.
Including shorter distance races, a total of 25,000 runners have entered the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon.
Jorg Wenig for the IAAF
Elite field (with PBs)
Lelisa Desisa (ETH) 2:04:45
Berhanu Shiferaw (ETH) 2:04:48
Feyisa Lilesa (ETH) 2:04:52
Kenenisa Bekele (ETH) 2:05:04
Bazu Worku (ETH) 2:05:25
Girmay Birhanu (ETH) 2:05:49
Chele Dechase (ETH) 2:06:33
Limenih Getachew (ETH) 2:06:49
Tebalu Zawude (ETH) 2:07:10
Belay Assefa (ETH) 2:07:10
Deribe Robi (ETH) 2:07:16
Amanuel Mesel (ERI) 2:08:17
Habtamu Assefa (ETH) 2:08:28
Adugna Takele (ETH) 2:08:37
Sisay Lemma (ETH) 2:09:02
Ghirmay Embaye (ERI) 2:09:08
Ezekiel Chebii (KEN) 2:09:15
Asmare Workneh (ETH) 2:09:20
Vitaliy Shafar (UKR) 2:09:37
Afework Mesfin (ETH) 2:09:47
Andualem Belay (ETH) 2:11:59
Mule Wasihun (ETH) debut
Abdi Fufa (ETH) debut
Aselefech Mergia (ETH) 2:19:31
Lucy Kabuu (KEN) 2:19:34
Meselech Melkamu (ETH) 2:21:01
Aliaksandra Duliba (BLR) 2:21:29
Askale Tafa (ETH) 2:21:31
Mamitu Daska (ETH) 2:21:59
Atsede Baysa (ETH) 2:22:02
Aberu Kebede (ETH) 2:22:21
Tadelech Bekele (ETH) 2:23:02
Mulu Seboka (ETH) 2:23:12
Firehiwot Dado (ETH) 2:23:15
Isabellah Andersson (SWE) 2:23:41
Abebech Afework (ETH) 2:23:59
Sultan Haydar (TUR) 2:25:07
Azalech Masresha (ETH) 2:25:34
Ashete Bekere (ETH) 2:26:00
Aberu Mekuria (ETH) 2:26:07
Mestawet Tufa (ETH) 2:26:20
Betelhem Moges (ETH) 2:26:42
Rebecca Chesire (KEN) 2:27:16
Meseret Kitata (ETH) 2:27:26
Fantu Eticha (ETH) 2:27:31
Beata Nandjala (NAM) 2:27:54
Gladys Cherono (KEN) debut
Shure Demissie (ETH) debut