Zersenay Tadese crosses the line for his fourth title in Birmingham (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Nanning, China

The spotlight on Tadese – MEN'S RACE PREVIEW – Nanning 2010

When the gun sounds for the start of the men’s race at the IAAF / SINOPEC World Half Marathon Championships on Saturday (16) morning at this southern Chinese city’s futuristic Wuxiang, or Five Elephant Square, the focus will fall squarely on one man – Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese, who will be chasing an unprecedented fifth consecutive title.

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Besides Kenenisa Bekele, whose six individual long course World titles have earned him the moniker of ‘Mr. Cross Country’, no man has become as synonymous with an event as has Tadese with the Half Marathon.

The Eritrean, now 28, underscored his dominance over the distance in March when he smashed the World record with a dazzling 58:23 run in Lisbon, knocking 10 seconds from the previous mark set by Sammy Wanjiru three years earlier. A fifth straight victory in Nanning, equalling the five straight triumphs by Bekele in Cross Country (2002-2006), will rightfully bestow the nickname ‘Mr. Half Marathon’ on Tadese.

Tadese has run sparingly this year, starting just three times since his World record run in Lisbon. A month after Lisbon he finished a distant 12th at the London Marathon - he did not finish in his debut over the distance a year earlier - and after a break of several months, returned to action in late July with a solid victory at the traditional 11.3Km road race in Castelbuono, Italy. Illness forced him to drop out of the Bogota Half Marathon on 1 August, but he's been reportedly training specifically for Nanning since.

The weather conditions expected in his astonishingly tropical area of China – the race morning forecast calls for high humidity with temperatures between 20-25 C. (70-77 F.) – certainly play well into Tadese’s hands, given his performances in hot and muggy weather.

His second global title came in the now-legendary heat and humidity of Mombasa in 2007 when he ended Bekele's World Cross Country streak with his triumphant run. His third Half Marathon title, won in dominating fashion with a largely solo run, came in the heat and under the sun of Rio de Janeiro in 2008. Nothing the climate in Nanning can dish out is expected to slow Tadese, whose native Eritrea is one of the hottest countries on the planet. But he’ll face some stiff competition on the roads, namely by a formidable Kenyan squad who have won the past four team titles, five of the last six, and 12 of 18 in all.

Kiprop leads strong Kenyan contingent

Indeed, in terms of depth, no team comes marginally close to the credentials that the Kenyan squad brings with them to Nanning. Each of the east African powerhouse’s entrants – five are allowed to compete in the team race, with the top three scoring – have covered the distance in under 60 minutes this year.

Wilson Kiprop, who raced to the African 10,000m title in Nairobi in July, will arrive as a solid podium threat. Kiprop made a strong debut over the distance in Lille, France, in September, winning in 59:39, currently equalling the fifth fastest performance of the year. There is also Moses Mosop, the 2005 World 10,000m bronze medallist, who with his March victory in Milan has clocked 59:20 this season, currently the No. 3 time in the world. Sammy Kitwara, Silas Kipruto, and Titus Masai. Sammy Kitwara (59:34) and Silas Kipruto (59:39) are also inside the season's top-five along with Mosop and Kiprop.

Ethiopia, the team bronze medallists in 2007 and 2009, are led by rising star Lelisa Desisa, who clocked 59:59 in Abu Dhabi in January, and followed up with a runner-up finish behind Kiprop at the Paris Half Marathon in March. At 20 he’s already a prolific road racer, having captured some key victories at shorter distances on the US circuit. Surprisingly, Ethiopia has captured the individual title just once, thanks to Haile Gebrselassie’s victory in 2001 when he led a 1-2 finish for his running-mad nation. That year also marked the last time an Ethiopian reached the men’s podium.

Eritrea, the team silver medallists for five consecutive years, will also be in the running again this year. Not as strong on paper as Kenya, Tadese will nonetheless have solid back-up with Samuel Tsegay (1:00.17 PB) and Adhanom Abraha (1:02.47 PB) in the field.

In the past, China hasn't been a factor in the men's race, a record not likely to change this year on home turf. To surpass it's highest team finish, 15th in 2002, would be a reasonable goal for the host team, led by Gao Laiyuan (1:03:49).

A total prize money purse of $245,000 (122,500 each for the men's and women's races) is on offer, paid to the first six finishers. with $30,000 going to the individual winners. Teams will be gunning for a $15,000 first place prize.

Also on offer is a $50,000 World record bonus. Given Tadese’s performance in Lisbon, a largely solo effort in which he also broke the 20Km World record (55:21) en route, the possibilities are certainly not out of the question.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF