Olympic selection has been an underlying theme to every marathon this spring, and that issue will also be foremost on the minds of most of the elite runners at the Prague Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday (8).
The race in the Czech capital will serve as the last realistic chance for many to qualify for the Games. With a relatively flat layout – there are only about 150 metres lost in elevation – and ideal weather forecasted, with temperatures hovering around 14C at the start, dozens of runners have the explicit goal of achieving Olympic qualification.
For one of the women’s favourites, Ethiopia’s Biruktayit Eshetu, the road to Rio selection will be difficult as four of the five fastest times run in 2016 have been by her fellow countrywomen, which is why the focus of her training since winning the Houston Marathon in January has been on increasing the speed of all her workouts.
“My goal for Sunday is to run faster than my PR of 2:23:51,” said Eshetu, who trains in Albuquerque. “I have to run a fast time.”
If Eshetu’s odds of making an Olympic team are long, the chances for Prague men’s defending champion Felix Kandie are otherworldly as Kenya has seen seven athletes just this year run faster than his personal best of 2:07:07, and that doesn’t even include Dennis Kimetto and Wilson Kipsang, the current and former world record-holders in the marathon.
Nevertheless, that situation hasn’t stopped Kandie thinking about running a fast enough time in defence of his men’s title to legitimately throw his hat into his country’s already-overloaded ring of Olympic candidates.
"Based on past performances, with hard work a time of (under) 2:05 is possible,” said Kandie.
“I will try to see what I can get for a time. This is the last chance that we have to make the team. It is really hard but I will try my best. I have given everything I have in preparation, and it has been very good. I prepared hard last year and I won last year. I came back for the half-marathon, and I am ready again this year now.”
Last chance for Rio ticket
“For almost 40 runners from the elite field, this race is not only for the podium but it is a run for Rio,” said Jana Moberly, elite athlete coordinator for the marathon. “This race is extremely important for Olympic selection to the national teams in Ireland, Greece, Eritrea, Brazil, Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, Israel, Italy, Finland, Slovakia, and Portugal. It’s their last chance.”
Runners from the Olympics’ host nation of Brazil will also be jockeying for the opportunity to run in a home Olympics in front of their families and friends.
Based on time, Marilson Gomes Dos Santos, Paulo Paula and Solonei Silva stand to be chosen for the Brazil’s men’s team and Sunday’s race is a final opportunity for these three to solidify their standing or for a runner like Damiao Anselmo DeSouza to surprise and earn a spot instead.
On the women’s side, Adriana Silva, Marily Santos and Graciete Santana will equally be aiming to enhances their chances of selection to the Brazilian team.
In Eritrea, achieving the qualifying standard of 2:13:00 is no guarantee for selection as five men, including world champion Ghirmay Ghereslassie, have bettered the standard of 2:13:00.
For national record-holder and Olympian Yared Asmerom, who ran 2:07:27 in 2011 and who also clocked 2:09:41 last year in Tokyo, Beraki Beyene, debutant Yohannes Ghebregergish and Samuel Tsegay, ending Sunday in the top three on the Eritrean selection list is all that matters.
Among local running fans, all eyes will be on a group of Czech runners also looking to achieve their country’s qualifying time in their last opportunity to do so.
Eva Vrabcova, a Winter Olympian in cross-country skiing, will be making her marathon debut in a bid to become the 35th athlete ever to compete at the Summer and Winter Olympics.
The 30-year-old finished 10th in a personal best of 1:11:06 at last month’s Prague Half Marathon and needs to run 2:35:00 or faster to qualify for Rio.
On the men’s side, Jan Kreisinger, Jiri Homolac, Vit Pavlista and Petr Pechek will all be in pursuit of the Czech Athletics Federation’s qualifying standard of 2:15:00.
Joe Battaglia (organisers) for the IAAF