Yemane Tsegay is looking to extend Ethiopia’s recent domination of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon on Friday morning, but with a prize pot of close to a million dollars, and a super-fast course to entice the speed merchants, there is no shortage of both colleagues and Kenyans, looking to upset his status as men’s race favourite. His compatriot, Tirfi Tsegaye (no relation) will equally be looking over her shoulder in the women’s race.
Tsegay is also keen to make amends for his poor showing last year when, despite running a time of 2.06.27, which would have been a world record little more than a decade ago, he could only finish tenth here. He quickly made up for that by winning the Rotterdam Marathon three months later in a personal best 2.04.48, beating 2.03 man Moses Mosop of Kenya into the bargain.
The two were due to renew their rivalry on Friday, but Mosop has had to stay in Kenya to deal with family problems. But Tsegay, fourth in the2008 Olympic race was non-plussed at suggestions that the Kenyan’s presence would have made any great difference.
“It’s not really the opponents in the marathon,” he said after Wednesday’s press conference, “it’s the marathon itself, the distance that’s the problem. I ran well here last year, but so did everyone else (eight of his colleagues beat him). I put that right in Rotterdam, and ran fast (11th all-time). But I think this is a faster course, and I’m in better shape”.
Of the dozen men in the field who have bettered 2.08, with a further half dozen under 2.10, Tsegay’s colleague Dadi Yami is felt to have as good a chance as anyone of upsetting form. He ran 2.05.41 here last year, and like Tsegay feels he’s in better shape.
There are at least another half dozen Ethiopians and a couple of Kenyans with designs on the top ten, if not better. But the most intriguing entrant is Moses Masai of Kenya. Marathon men (and women) have good reason to beware of debutants. Last year in Dubai was a case in point. Ayele Abshero of Ethiopia was on no one’s radar, but he ran out a first-time winner in a superlative 2.04.23, to break his illustrious colleague, Haile Gebrselassie’s course record, and post the fourth fastest time in history.
Abshero, unfortunately injured, cannot defend his title, but he is one of the new breed of young marathoners, who have never run quality races on the track, if at all, as a prelude to marathons. Masai, however is old style.
He is a former African junior 5000/10,000 metres champion, and won a bronze medal in the 2009 World Championships at the longer distance. If he has done sufficient preparation to augment his 26.49 10,000 metres speed, he can be a formidable opponent for anyone in the marathon.
Experienced manager, Federico Rosa thinks one of his athletes, Wude Ayelew has similar possibilities on her debut. Like Masai, she won a bronze at 10,000 metres in the World Championships in 2009, with 30.11.87; even better, she has run the half-marathon in 67.58.
But with her victory in Paris last April, in 2.21.40, followed by a second place in Berlin in Autumn, in a personal best 2.21.19, Tirfi Tsegaye has all the credentials to go sub-2.20 here, and even attack the course record, set by her currently injured compatriot, Asselefech Mergia, of 2.19.31.
Like the marathon distance itself, this Dubai event has come a very long way since its launch in 2000. That first year featured 120 finishers in the marathon, and close to 350 in the 10k. Event organiser Peter Connerton proudly boasts that entrants for Friday’s events, which now also include a 3k fun-run have surpassed 20,000.
“I always thought that numbers like that were a possibility,” said Connerton yesterday, “but I knew I’d be laughed out of court if I mentioned it to anyone back then. There was no history of distance running in this part of the world, and the idea of running for fitness had only just started to take root. But people here have really taken the race to their hearts, as have the sponsors, local and international”.