Tsegaye Kebede after his commanding victory in London (Getty Images) © Copyright

Tough task looms for defending champions Kebede and Shobukhova in London – PREVIEW

London, UKOlympic bronze medallist Tsegaye Kebede will target Haile Gebrselassie’s World record when he defends his Virgin London Marathon title on Sunday (17) while reigning women’s champion Liliya Shobukhova is confident she can break the 2:20 barrier in her third appearance at this IAAF Gold Label Road Race.

Both dominated their races here last year and will start as favourites to retain their titles. But race director David Bedford has again put together two fields packed with enough talent to give them a severe test.

In brief, the men’s race features three of the top five from the Beijing Olympics and all three medallists from the 2009 Berlin World Championships; the three 2010 European Championships medallists; the fastest man in the world last year; the third and fourth fastest men of all time; and no fewer than seven athletes who have run 26.2 miles quicker than two hours six minutes.

Throw into the mix eight of the top 10 finishers from London last year, and an intriguing return from injury for Martin Lel, the three-times London winner who’s been out of action for two years, and you have quite a race. Indeed, the only name missing from Sunday’s line-up will be that of the Olympic champion Sammy Wanjiru, who withdrew three weeks ago with a knee injury.

The women’s race is equally loaded containing no fewer than 13 athletes who have run quicker than 2:24, including the Olympic champion, Constantina Dita, the reigning champions from Berlin and New York – Aberu Kebede and Edna Kiplagat –the 2010 Paris champion Atsede Baysa, and the World Half Marathon record holder, Mary Keitany.

The line-up includes the top five finishers from the 2010 London contest, plus the 2008 and 2009 London champion, Irina Mikitenko, and the 2007 champion, Zhou Chunxiu.

Confident Kebede

Despite the quality of opposition, however, the returning champions seemed equally confident about their chances on Sunday.

Despite rainy conditions, Kebede finished just nine seconds outside Wanjiru’s course record last year in 2:05:19, and promptly claimed he would have run 2:04 in better weather. This week he reiterated that promise, and added another, that he would chase Gebrselassie’s world mark of 2:03:59.

“I said it’s possible to run 2:04,” said the super confident Kebede today. “If the weather is nice it’s possible to run 2:04 here, or even 2:03. If the body is healthy, and the weather good, I think on Sunday I will run the world record.

“I think will improve my time from last year and, yes, even a world record is possible.”

Among those who’ll be out to stop him, are four Kenyans who have quicker PBs – James Kwambai, the third fastest man in history thanks to his 2:04:27 in Rotterdam two years ago; Patrick Makau, the fastest man in the world last year; world champion Abel Kirui, who challenged Kebede until the final five miles last year; and Lel, who ran 2:05:15 on his third London victory in 2008.

Kirui learned from his ‘mistake’

Lel is understandably cautious about his prospects here after missing the last couple of years with hip injuries, saying he’s “just happy to be running again”, while Kirui vowed to learn from his “mistake” 12 months ago when he was goaded into taking the fight to the plucky Ethiopian.

“My mistake last year was to push with Kebede,” said Kirui. “The day before the race we were challenging each other about who was going to win. We were mocking each other. So in the race, when the two of us were together, I thought, ‘I have to beat him’. But it was too much for me.

“This time I will control myself so I can finish better. Of course, I hope to win, so I am not going to worry about the world record. If I am in a position to do well, if my body feels good and the weather is ok, then there is no obstacle to doing it here.”

Kirui's personal best currently stands at 2:05:04, set when he finished third in Rotterdam in 2009, a time that makes him ninth quickest in marathon history. The 28-year-old also ran brilliantly to win the World title that year, but he has never won a major city race having finished second in Berlin in 2007 and ninth in New York last November.

Kirui’s rashness allowed another Kenyan, Emmanuel Mutai, to come through for second in 2010, followed by the ever-green Jaouad Gharib. Both will be in the hunt again this time. Mutai followed up his London podium place with another in New York last November, when he was second again, while Gharib went on to win the Fukuoka marathon last December.

The 38-year-old Moroccan, who won two World titles in 2003 and 2005, claims he is in better shape than ever and highly motivated to win here for the first time in seven attempts.

At the other end of the age scale, Ethiopia’s 20-year-old rising star, Bazu Worku has been forced out with food poisoning. But others who may feature include Morocco’s Abderrahim Bouramdane, who was fourth on his London debut in 2010, and Viktor Röthlin, the Swiss runner who recovered from serious illness to take the European title in Barcelona last August.

Shobukhova targeting 2:20 barrier

If anything, the women’s race is even harder to call. Shobukhova’s second win in Chicago last October means she sits supreme as the current Marathon queen. Indeed, she pocketed half a million dollars last year as the 2009/10 World Marathon Majors champion.

It’s not money on Shobukhova mind ahead of Sunday, however, but finishing times as she seeks to become the 10th women in history to complete 26.2 miles under 2:20.

“Of course it will depend a lot on the weather, but with the quality of the field we have here, I think I can run sub-2:20,” she said. “My training has been going really well, in Portugal and at home in Russia, so I am confident.”

Mikitenko – ‘I’m much more prepared now’

It could be argued that Shobukhova’s 2010 victories came in an “off year” for Mikitenko who was forced to drop out in London with a shin injury, and finished fifth in the Windy City. The German certainly seems revived this term, and after three months altitude training at a new base in South Africa, the former Kazakhstani has arrived in London looking tanned and sounding confident.

“Training has gone very well and I’m really looking forward to the race,” she said. “I must say quite a few athletes here have a chance of winning. When you come to London you know you're in for a tough race.

“I really don’t like to compare my form with my previous races here, but I know I am much more experienced now. I know London well, I know the course. I’m much more prepared this time.”

Mikitenko is one of two in the field who have run sub-2:20 before, thanks to her 2:19:19 German record. The other is Zhou, whose PB stands at 2:19:51. The Chinese athlete is also in good shape after she retained her Asian Games title on home soil last November.

But there’s quality right through the field here, including Shobukhova’s compatriot Inga Abitova, who finished strongly to take second place last year just ahead of Aselefech Mergia.

Mergia is one of five talented Ethiopians, including Kebede and Baysa, plus Bezunesh Bekele and Askale Tafa, who were fourth and fifth respectively a year ago.

Kenya’s hopes rest with Edna Kiplagat and Keitany, who took first and third in New York last November, the latter on her marathon debut. Keitany believes she has learned valuable lessons for her second marathon outing.

“I learned that the marathon is very tough and you need to do a different type of training,” said the 29-year-old. “It’s a long distance, not just 21km but two times that distance, so it needs a lot of endurance.”

Then there’s the experienced Dutchwoman, Lornah Kiplagat, the former World Half Marathon and World Cross Country champion, who was fifth here in 2007, and the emerging Russian Mariya Konovalova, third in Chicago last October.

Yukiko Akaba leads the Japanese challenge hoping to improve on her sixth place last year. Akaba has been joined by seven of her compatriots who are racing in London for places on Japan’s World Championships team following cancellation of the Nagoya International Women’s Marathon on 13 March due to the earthquake and tsunami which struck Japan two days earlier.

One of those running, the 2009 Tokyo marathon champion, Mizuho Nasukawa, lost a school friend in the disaster, as well as weeks of training time.

“She had two daughters and when they found her body she was holding one of her children who had died,” Nasukawa revealed. “Her husband and other daughter managed to escape.

“My spirit was completely broken and I was shocked when I heard my friend passed away. We were team-mates in high school ekiden road races.

“I could not concentrate on my training after hearing the news, but a lot of my team-mates and the people where I live supported me and helped me overcome how I was feeling.

“I realised coming to London and doing my best through my running would be the best way to remember my friend.”

Yurika Nakamura, a former winner of the Nagoya marathon, added: “I hope in some way, by running here, we are contributing to the recovery of Japan’s spirit.”

The romantics will be hoping for a Japanese victory on Sunday. But the realists’ money will be on Shobukhova and Kebede, and two cracking races.

Matthew Brown for the IAAF