James Kwambai has won three marathons on the streets of Seoul, but he has never won the Seoul International Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race which this year will be held on Sunday 16 March.
The Kenyan is one of the fastest marathon runners in history, having clocked 2:04:27 in Rotterdam five years ago. The 31-year-old is familiar with the streets of the Korean capital, having won the JoongAng Marathon for the past three years, clocking 2:06:25 in 2013 and 2:05:50 in 2012.
But Kwambai’s best result at the Seoul International Marathon is a second-place finish from 2012. This time, he wants to go one better.
The course for the Seoul International Marathon is quite different to the one for the JoongAng Marathon, but the final 3km is the same and both races end at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium.
Five different Kenyan athletes feature among the past six men’s winners in Seoul. The course record of 2:05:37, set in 2012 by Wilson Loyanae, could even be a possibility for Kwambai, who has twice before run faster than that mark.
But there’s no such thing as a guarantee in the marathon, especially when up against a strong field.
Jonathan Maiyo could be Kwambai’s toughest challenger. The reigning African 5000m silver medallist boasts a PB of 2:04:56, set when finishing fourth in Dubai two years ago. But his most recent marathon was more than a year ago, finishing 10th in Tokyo in 2:10:18.
Maiyo will renew his rivalry with fellow Kenyan Gilbert Kirwa, who finished four places and two minutes ahead of him in that race in the Japanese capital. Kirwa, who has a marathon PB of 2:06:14 from 2009, will be looking to make amends for failing to finish in Frankfurt last October, his most recent race over the classic distance.
Ethiopia’s Feyisa Bekele finished between Kirwa and Maiyo in Tokyo last year and will once again come up against the Kenyan pair. Although he is yet to win a marathon, the 30-year-old has a PB of 2:06:26; a time that has only once been bettered at the Seoul International Marathon.
Bekele set his PB at the 2012 Amsterdam Marathon, where he finished one place ahead of fellow Ethiopian Abraham Girma. 27-year-old Girma will also be competing in Seoul, this time hoping to level the score against Bekele.
Duncan Kibet, the man who pipped Kwambai on the line at the 2009 Rotterdam Marathon when both were credited with a 2:04:27 clocking, is also in the field. Now 35, that classic race against Kwambai was the last time Kibet completed a marathon.
He failed to finish last year’s Seoul International Marathon, but ended the year on a positive note in Remich, Luxembourg, with a 1:04:02 half-marathon performance, his first completed race since 2010.
The women's field is yet to be publicised, but there is usually a strong contingent of Kenyan, Ethiopian and Chinese athletes present. Last year was the first time in the race's 81-year history that Kenyan athletes won both the men's and women's race. The women's race at the four prior editions had been won by Ethiopian athletes, but none got close to Zhou Chunxiou's course record of 2:19:51, set in 2006.
The race begins at Gwanghwamun Plaza in the city centre and finishes within the Jamsil Olympic Stadium. The point-to-point course traces a south-easterly path through the city centre, passing the statue of Yi Sun-sin and cutting through Cheonggyecheon Park before crossing the Han River to head towards the finishing point.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF