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2009 London Marathon Pre-Race Sentiments
by Sharon Ekstrom
In the days leading up to the 2009 London Marathon, excitement is building rapidly as one of the deepest fields of elite runners ever assembled arrives in England. The fastest men on the elite roster will follow pacemakers who have been instructed to set out at world record (2:04:00) pace from the gun. The top women, including some of the fastest marathoners in the world, look to unseat defending champion Irina Mikitenko. We caught up with a few of the athletes prior to race day to get their thoughts about the 2009 London Marathon.
The Men's Race
The men's field is a list of marathon all-stars. Among them are Martin Lel, Samuel Wanjiru, Jaouad Gharib, Abderrahim Goumri, and Tsegaye Kebede, to name a few. All the men are confident in their training and a few share the same goal: to break the world record of 2:03:59 set by Haile Gebrselassie at the 2008 Berlin Marathon.
Wanjiru: Hopes for a New World Record
Wanjiru could be the man to do just that; runner-up in the 2008 edition of this race, Wanjiru is confident. "If the pace is 61:50 at the halfway mark," said the half marathon world record holder, "that would be good for me and we could break the world record." But his hopes for favorable weather and reliance on the pacemakers are big variables in this chase for more than just a victory at the London Marathon. Wanjiru's performance at the 2009 Lisbon Half-Marathon seemed less than stellar with a seventh-place finish in 61:25; but perhaps it was merely a "training run" for the big day at London.
Lel: Hopes for a Fourth Victory
A victory here for Lel would put him in the history books as the first man to win four London Marathons. It would also continue the five-year streak of Kenyans winning the men's race. While defending champion Lel comes into the race with slight para-tendonitis to his hip, he feels capable of a strong performance - "I know very well that London is not a joke. I come here to try my best." This is not the first time he will take on a top field after some minor setbacks. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, his training was impeded as a result of limitations due to the violence in Kenya along with a personal bout of malaria. Lel pulled off a fifth-place finish although he doubted that he could finish in the top ten during the race. He has since taken an unusually long recovery and returned to competition to win the 2009 Lisbon Half Marathon, beating Gharib and Wanjiru. Depending on how the next few days unfold, Lel could very well surprise the field.
Tadese: Hopes to Go the Distance
Half marathon star and former top cyclist for Eritrea, Zersenay Tadese will be a wild card in his marathon debut. He is known best as a double world half marathon champion and a bronze medalist in the 10,000m at the Athens Olympics, but has been encouraged to attempt the marathon distance by his coach along with fellow countryman Yonas Kifle, the Eritrean marathon national record-holder. Tadese is nervous but confident he can run 2:05-2:06 on race day, but we are not sure how that will work as his pace group is going out at a faster pace. In response to Wanjiru's proposed halfway mark, Tadese admitted, "61:50 is fast and it's my first time. I don't like to say it is too fast; but I will try."
Gharib and Kabede: Hopes to Defy the Odds
Meanwhile, Gharib and Kebede - who won silver and bronze, respectively, at the 2008 Beijing Games - seem to be focused on their own personal time goals. Both are formidable competitors in their own rights; Gharib, oldest in the field at nearly 37, is a two-time world champion gold medalist. Kebede, on the other end of the spectrum, is only 22-years-old and broke Wanjiru's Fukuoka Marathon course record with a 2:06:40 at the end of 2008. Though neither Gharib nor Kebede have the fastest previous marathon performances, they each have their own expectations for race day.
Gharib, having employed more altitude training into his preparations, feels that he can beat his personal best time of 2:07:02 from the 2002 London Marathon. He believes that he has good years of competition ahead of him: "I performed better at age 30, age is not a factor. The only difference is when a person is young, he is more ambitious."
Kebede, the rookie in the deep field of veteran runners, remains surprised to have earned bronze in the marathon at the Beijing Olympics. Although his performances continue to improve tremendously, even he is excited to see what happens at his London debut: "Actually, the most important thing for me is not my position," he said, "but my time. I can't guess what that will be but I want to get faster."
When asked on what being the youngest in the field will be like, Kebede remarked, "Age has not much to do with the success of the race, as much as confidence does."
The Women's Race
The women's race will feature the fastest female marathoners ever gathered outside the Olympics. We caught up with Irina Mikitenko, Catherine Ndereba, Constantina Dita, and Zhou Chunxiu to ask about their training, and to get their thoughts on race day and their fellow competitors.
Return of the Champions
Mikitenko: Champion - London (2008), Berlin (2008)
Mikitenko returns to the London Marathon following an undefeated 2008 with wins at the London and Berlin Marathons. Having sat out of the 2008 Beijing Olympic marathon due to a back injury, this defending London Marathon champion is one of the only women on the elite roster who missed the Olympic Games. Despite being challenged by an incredibly deep field, Mikitenko remains unfazed by the competition and told us, "I want to win, and within this race I have no friends. This race is all about the competition."
Chunxiu: Champion - London (2007)
Chunxiu, who makes rare appearances in races outside of Asia, is returning to London after sitting out of the 2008 race to focus on Beijing. Despite a mild head cold, she claims "this will be no obstacle on race day." Chunxiu is ready to take on the field and with her continued training of 180-mile weeks, she will definitely be a threat.
Ndereba: Champion - World Championships (2003, 2007), Boston (2000, 2001, 2004, 2007) - among many others...
Ndereba, who will undoubtedly be a leader in the race, reveals very little about herself, her training, or what she expects on race day. "I always run my race according to how I feel," she states. She must always be feeling fairly well to have won 18 out of 21 career marathons.
With a silver medal from the 2008 Beijing Games, she retains a positive outlook - "When you go to any race you have a 50/50 chance. You win it or you lose it. I did my best; it was Constantina Dita's day."
Ndereba returns to London after finishing second to Paula Radcliffe here in 2003, Ndereba's last visit to the London Marathon. Ndereba is definitely a favorite in the field, particularly since Radcliffe is out of the race due to a toe injury. Despite the odds among the stacked field, Ndereba won't leave it to chance if victory is within her grasp.
Dita: Champion - Beijing Olympics (2008)
Veteran marathoner Dita comes to the race with the prestige of winning an Olympic gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. One of the oldest in the field at 39, Dita is still ready to take on the competition, "Age is just a number. Now I do more recovery and less mileage than when I was younger. If you know what you must do, you can train for many years."