It was Ethiopians all the way, as they swept their Kenyan rivals from the board in both men’s and women’s races at the 14th Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, on a foggy Friday morning in the Emirates.
Lelisa Desisa, 23, only got away from his rivals in the final 200 metres, but the marathon debutant won in 2.04.45, for the 13th fastest time in history; and with four other men close behind, the quintet thus beat last year’s Dubai record of being the first marathon in history to feature four sub-2.05 men.
Desisa’s colleague, long-time race leader Berhanu Shiferaw was second in 2.04.48, while another compatriot, veteran Tadesse Tola clocked a personal best 2.04.49 in third. Yet another Ethiopian, Endeshaw Negesse was fourth in 2:04:52, and Kenyan debutant Bernard Koech finished fifth with 2:04:53.
But the Ethiopians scourged their East African rivals, with seven in the top ten men, only bettered by their female colleagues, who registered the top six.
All week in the event hotel, the Ethiopian coaches were warning us to look out for Desisa, but it was the unheralded Shiferaw, a 2.08.51 man, who provided the impetus throughout virtually the whole race for the fast finishing time. He tracked the pacemakers from the start, and was never absent from the lead trio though some variable weather conditions.
The early fog for the 7am start (15C) dissipated when the leaders hit the coast after eight kilometres, but on the lengthy stretch down the beach road, the fog returned even thicker, bringing high humidity with it.
A million dollar prize pot is sure to bring out the bounty hunters, proof of which was 20 world class marathoners still in contention at halfway, reached in a surprisingly sedate 62.39. But Shiferaw’s efforts from then on were going to ensure a second half over 30 seconds faster.
Another feature of the second half was the tenacity of Tola. With a best of 2.05.10, set in finishing fifth here last year, Tola looked a spent force at 35k. But despite dropping off the lead group, by now down to a half dozen, a couple of times, Tola fought his way back into contention, and used his experience of previous marathons to force his way into third place.
If the Ethiopian coaches were aware of Desisa’s good form in training, they were shocked by Shiferaw taking four minutes off his best, and emerging as another marathon force. “Nobody expected this from him,” said Gemedu Dedefo, coach to women’s winner Tsegaye, “he surprised all of us”.
Except Desisa, that is. “I tried to push the pace at 38k,” he said via Dedefo, but the others responded strongly, so I decided to wait until the end. I have a good sprint and I was confident that it would win me the race. I had aimed for 2.06 for my debut, but when I saw the time at the finish I was shocked. If I can find a similarly good course, and my coach agrees, maybe next time I can go for the world record (2.03.38 by Kenyan Patrick Makau)".
The winner comes from Oromia, homeland of the Bekele brothers, the Dibaba sisters and other athletics luminaries such as Olympic marathon winners, Fatuma Roba and Tiki Gelana. He said after his victory that he only ran sporadically at school, “but when I did I would win. I then entered a junior regional race, and won that. After that, I moved to Addis, and started training properly”.
He first emerged internationally in Mauritius in 2009, winning the African junior 10,000 metres title, in 28.46.74. He reduced that to 27.18.17 last year, having followed a well-worn path to marathon glory with several sub-60min half-marathons, including a gold medal in the All-Africa ‘half’ in Maputo in 2011.
In contrast, the women’s race lived up to predictions in all but the finishing time, according to the winner. Tirfi Tsegaye was a big favourite, following her victory in Paris last year and a second place in Berlin last October, in a marginally faster time, of 2.21.19. That persuaded her she could join the sub-2.20 club, like her training partner, Assefelech Mergia did, in winning here last year, in 2.19.31.
Mergia is currently injured (like last year’s men’s speedy winner, in 2,04.23, Ayele Abshero), but Tsegaye kept the title in Oromia – the pair hail from Bekoji, the community made famous by the recent ‘Town of Runners’ documentary.
Tsegaye was always part of the leading group, but by 30k, she was out on her own, and although slacking off in the final stages, still won by close to 20 seconds.
“I came with two aims,” Tsegaye said through coach Dedefo, “to win, and to run under 2.20. I was determined to push in the second half of the race, but by that time, it had become very humid, and it was affecting me. So I’m happy to win, but unhappy I didn’t break 2.20. I’ll have to come back next year, and try again”.
Her colleagues, Ehitu Kiros and Amane Gobena gained ground on her in the last five kilometres, but finished behind her in that order, Kiros second in 2.23.39, and Gobena third, in 2.23.50