LONDON, April 23- Ethiopia may have claimed a clean sweep in the men’s race at the Boston Marathon last Monday but Kenyan runners went one better in the Virgin Money London Marathon last year, filling the first four places.
Twelve months on, Kenyan runners are again expected to dominate proceedings in this IAAF Gold Label Road Race on Sunday.
That is not to say the Ethiopians will be completely outmatched. Arguably the greatest track and cross country runner in history, Kenenisa Bekele, makes his comeback after two years of injury problems to contest his fourth marathon.
Bekele hasn’t finished a race in 18 months and while he outlined that his long-term goal is to break the world record at the distance, Bekele told the press he is only “90 per cent fit” ahead of his debut in this race.
His team-mates Sisay Lemma, Tilahun Regassa and Abera Kuma haven’t attracted as much attention but they have recent form to their names.
Lemma made his breakthrough last year with victories in Vienna (2:07:31) and Frankfurt (2:06:26) before finishing fourth in Dubai this year in 2:05:16 while Regassa was the leading non-Kenyan finisher last year, finishing fifth in 2:07:16.
Kuma won the Rotterdam Marathon last spring in 2:06:47 and has a 2:05:56 PB to his name.
But Kenyan runners have claimed 10 of the last 12 titles in London and this streak looks set to continue on Sunday in no small part due to one man: reigning champion Eliud Kipchoge.
The 31-year-old has amassed a near-flawless record at the distance, winning five of his six races and running 2:05:30 or faster each time.
Kipchoge, who is looking to become the first runner since Martin Lel in 2008 to win back-to-back titles, elected to forego any races over shorter distances in the build-up but told the press he has prepared well for his title defence.
He will be joined on the start line by former world record holder Wilson Kipsang, who is the only athlete to beat Kipchoge at the distance. But Kipchoge turned the tables on Kipsang last year, claiming victory in 2:04:42 to Kipsang’s 2:04:47.
The rest of the year didn’t go quite to plan for the former world record holder, but Kipsang said he enjoyed an injury-free build-up to this year’s race.
Likewise, current world record holder Dennis Kimetto dropped out of two marathons last year after finishing third in London but believes his shape coming into this race is comparable to Berlin two years ago where he ran 2:02:57.
If Kimetto misses out on Olympic selection, he looks set to return to the German capital this autumn.
Stanley Biwott missed out on a place on the podium last year but the Kenyan is considered a threat for the title after winning the New York City Marathon last November.
The Kenyan and Ethiopian runners who attended the press conferences all expressed their desire to compete at the Olympics but said they hadn’t received any communication from their respective federations about selection policy.
But one runner who doesn’t have to worry about selection is world champion Ghirmay Ghebreslassie from Eritrea.
The 10th fastest in the elite field, Ghebreslassie is very much an outside bet for the title but the 20-year-old is still focused on performing well in London on the road to Rio.
The men are expected to go out at course record pace with the pacemakers assigned to reach halfway in 61:45.
-Keitany looks to regain title-
The women, meanwhile, will be paced by world silver medalist Helah Kiprop and Angela Tanui and have been asked to reach halfway in 69:15.
With cool temperatures and a bracing northerly wind forecast for Sunday’s race, former two-time winner Mary Keitany isn’t unduly concerned about the conditions on offer. “I think we will be ready for anything on Sunday,” said Keitany.
She will no doubt be pleased about the projected quick pace in the first half. Keitany said she struggled to respond off the slow pace last year when nine women were still in contention at the 35km checkpoint.
In the end, Ethiopia’s Tigist Tufa came through for a surprise victory in 2:23:22 with Keitany second in 2:23:40.
Tufa returns to defend her title and is part of a strong Ethiopian quartet on show in the British capital. Based on the exploits of their training partners in recent weeks, Aselefech Mergia and Feyse Tadese are likely to challenge for the top prize.
They are coached back home in Addis Ababa by Gemedu Dedefo, who also coaches Boston Marathon winners Atsede Baysa and Lemi Berhanu, and Vienna Marathon winner Shuko Genemo.
Mergia, who won this race six years ago, explained she bypassed the Dubai Marathon – a race she has won three times – in order to focus on London and hopefully pave her path to Rio.
Mare Dibaba had a busy albeit successful campaign last year which climaxed in Beijing where she became the first Ethiopian woman to claim the world marathon title.
Dibaba is the fourth fastest in the elite field with a 2:19:52 PB – a time which she has run twice – and is making her London Marathon debut.
The third past winner in the field is Priscah Jeptoo, who feels she is back to form after two difficult years. After winning in London three years ago, Jeptoo dropped out of this race the following year with a stress fracture and struggled with more injuries last year.
But after finishing seventh last year, Jeptoo believes she is in shape to run close to her lifetime best of 2:20:14, set in London in 2012.
Other title contenders include world half marathon record-holder and reigning Chicago Marathon winner Florence Kiplagat and perennial nearly-woman Jemima Sumgong – a runner-up in New York, Boston and Chicago – who set a 66:58 half marathon PB in the build-up to London.