Morocco’s Aziz Lahbabi took the honours at the Rome-Ostia Half Marathon, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, clocking a huge personal best of 59:25 on Sunday (2).
Lahbabi, the 2010 world junior 5000m bronze medallist, sliced more than two minutes of his previous best of 1:01:53 which was set back in January.
It was also the fastest time ever on a record-eligible half marathon course by someone hailing from elsewhere than East Africa.
He was just 10 seconds outside the course record that Kenya’s Wilson Kiprop set 12 months ago.
In a thrilling race, two other men finished within one hour.
Ethiopia’s Hunegnaw Mesfin also made a huge improvement when finishing second in 59:39, coming home two seconds in front of Kenya’s Titus Masai, the latter also improving by 10 seconds.
Kenyans filled the next seven places with last year’s third-place finisher Simon Cheprot finishing just off the podium this year in fourth with 1:00:05 and the 2013 runner-up Robert Chemosin this time having to settle for fifth in 1:00:24.
The men’s race set off at a fast pace with a 10-man group reaching the 5km mark in 14:08. The front group was down to six men by 10km as Kenyan pacemaker Victor Chumo Kimutai stopped the clock at that checkpoint in 28:02, three seconds ahead of Lahbabi, Cheprot, Masai, Chemosin and Mesfin.
With Kimutai dropping out, Masai, Cheprot, Mesfin and Lahbabi passed the 15km mark in 42:24, with Chemosin six seconds further back.
At that point, with the rain starting to fall, Lahbabi launched his kick and was never headed as Mesfin and Masai behind him started their battle for second and third place.
“The weather conditions were excellent apart from some slight rain at 15km where I broke away," said Lahbabi. "I hope to represent my country at the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen (on 29 March)."
Copenhagen medal contender
If Lahbabi can repeat his form in the Danish capital later this month, he could become the first man from outside East Africa – Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Eritrea – to win since Italy’s Stefano Baldini did so in 1996.
However, he would not be the first Moroccan to win the World Half Marathon title, Khalid Skah having taken the gold medal in 1994.
Last December, Lahbabi gave an indication of his potential over the half marathon distance when he was third in the famous Boclassic 10km race in Bolzano on New Year’s Eve, behind Ethiopia’s Imane Merga and Wilson Kiprop.
Further back, despite missing out on a top-three place, it was an encouraging return to form for both Cheprot and Chemosin after some dismal races in the past 12 months since the 2013 Rome-Ostia Half Marathon.
However, there was a Kenyan victory in the women’s race as Caroline Chepkwony held off her better-known compatriot Sharon Cherop to win in 1:08:48 with the 2012 Boston Marathon winner three seconds in arrears.
Chepkwony missed her personal best set at the Berlin Half Marathon two years ago by 12 seconds as just five seconds covered the first four women home.
The Ethiopian pair of Netsanet Gudeta Kebede and Shure Ware were third and fourth respectively but both were given the same time of 1:08:53.
Hungary’s Krisztina Papp was the best European runner in fifth place with 1:09:50. Two-time Rome-Ostia winner Anna Incerti was the first Italian runner home in seventh place with 1:10:16.
Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegesse, one of the pre-race favourites and the double 2008 Olympic silver medallist, was forced to drop out after just a few kilometres due to a knee injury problem.
More than 11,000 runners took part in the popular race from Via Cristoforo Colombo to the finish-line near the beaches in Ostia.
Among them was Abdon Pamich, the 1964 Olympic 50km race walk gold medallist. He celebrated the 50th anniversary of his Tokyo triumph completing the Rome-Ostia Half Marathon at a walking pace. Now 80, the Italian race walking legend crossed the finish line in 2:58:16.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF