DPR Korea’s diminutive Kim Hye Gyong, seventh at last year’s Asian Games, caused a minor surprise when she won the Standard Chartered Hong Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, in 2:31:46 on Sunday (25).
Although she arrived in Hong Kong with the second-fastest personal best to her name, Kim still beat the otherwise all-conquering East Africans and won the Asian Marathon Championships title.
The victory puts her in line for selection for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing this summer, and she could be a dark horse as a medal tip after her eighth place two years ago in Moscow.
If successful there, Kim would be the first person from her country to stand on a World Championships podium since her compatriot Jong Song-Ok won the women’s marathon in Seville back in 1999, DPR Korea’s only IAAF World Championships medal to date.
Once the 21-year-old Kim made a break at 30km on a relatively cool – temperatures ranging between 15-18°C – but windy and humid morning, it became clear that the pursuing Ethiopian and Kenyan runners were not going to catch her. She ran out an easy winner, by more than two minutes, in 2:31:46.
"Winning this race will do my confidence a world of good," said Kim.
Meskerem Assefa of Ethiopia was second in 2:33:57, with her compatriot Tsehay Desalegn third in 2:34:06 while 2014 champion Rehima Kedir, also Ethiopian, finished sixth in 2:34:53.
In theory, the Mangyongdae Prize Marathon in Pyongyang this coming April serves as the selection race for DPR Korea's team for the IAAF World Championships, but team officials accompanying Kim in Hong Kong said that since she had won at the IAAF Label Road Race in the DPR Korean capital city last year, that – along with her proven championship record – might prove sufficient to give her a free pass to Beijing.
The women’s race could have been more interesting had Kim’s twin sister, Kim Hye Song, been able to compete, but a left hamstring injury has prevented her from training recently.
Hye Song was second in Pyongyang last year, and the pair are the leading lights in their country’s women’s marathon squad, along with Kim Mi Gyong (no relation), who won the national title in 2012 and 2013 before finishing third behind the twins last year.
Mi Gyong also finished second in the Asian Marathon Championships on Sunday in 2:36:08.
The Kim twins hail from Sariwon City, in the northern Hwanghae Province, and began running at middle school when they were 14. After showing early promise, they transferred to Pyongyang two years later, and have been part of the distance-running squad there ever since.
The men’s race followed a now conventional script, or rather it did so after 32km, when the East African pack engulfed the runaway leader, Japan’s Shingo Igarashi.
Sentayehu Merga only got the better of his fellow Ethiopian, Fikre Assefa, in the final kilometre, winning in 2:13:00 with Assefa five seconds behind.
"It was a good race and apart from some wind, the conditions were ideal," said Merga.
Former world junior 10,000m and cross-country champion Robert Kipchumba led the chase for Igarashi but paid for his initiative into the strong wind, when he couldn’t hold the Ethiopians in the final stages, and the Kenyan had to settle for third in 2:13:07.
However, so tight was the pack until the final stages that the top 10 all finished within 50 seconds, and the leading 15 finishers were within two minutes of each other.
Igarashi, who makes a habit of leading early in marathons, finished outside the top 10 but his effort was good enough to win the Asian men’s title in 2:14:29. DPR Korea’s Pak Song Chol was second in that event in 2:16:09.
An estimated 70,000 people took part in all the races on Sunday morning, which included a half marathon and 10km.
Organisers for the IAAF