Sunday, November 7, 2010

In star-studded field, Gebrselassie the centre of attention in New York

James Dunaway for the IAAF

Sunday's 2010 ING New York City Marathon presents deep, strong, and extremely interesting fields in both men’s and women’s races – but for different reasons.

The ING New York City Marathon is an IAAF Gold Label Road Race.

MEN's race - Can Gebrselassie add New York to his list of laurels?

The centre of attention, of course, is 37-year-old Haile Gebrselassie. The smiling Ethiopian not only holds the World record of 2:03:59, but he is a fierce competitor and is rarely beaten at distances from 10,000m up, including Olympic gold medals in the 10,000m in Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000) on the track before moving up to the Marathon. He has to be the favorite.

But there are questions. Doubts. Age, for one thing: older distance runners have a way of suddenly unraveling, and in his earlier visit this year to New York in March, Haile dropped out of the New York City Half-Marathon – a race he had won in 2007. In addition, most of his really fast marathons have been assisted by groups of pace-setters, and New York does not provide pace-setters. And finally, those fast races have been run on flat, “easy” courses – London, Berlin, Dubai - totally unlike New York’s monster combination of bridges, sudden turns and twists, varied running surfaces, and hills late in the race.

On the plus side, Gebrselassie this year ran 2:06:09 in Dubai despite unfavorable weather, so he hasn’t lost his endurance; and a 59:53 half-marathon in Britain, which indicates he hasn’t lost his speed, either. So maybe all those doubts are just paper tigers.

And who’s going to beat him? The most likely candidates are a quartet of Kenyans and a Moroccan, all five of whom have run low 2:06 or better. In order of their best times, they are:

- James Kwambai (KEN), 27, 2:04:27. Hasn’t been at the top of his form this year, but he’s still the third fastest marathoner ever, finishing second in the 20009 Rotterdam Marathon, just ahead of:

- Abel Kirui (KEN), 28, 2:05:04. Kirui won last year’s IAAF World Championships race in 2:06:54, but his 2:08:04 in London last April brought him only 8th place. Which one will show up here?

- Abderrahim Goumri (MAR), 34, 2:05:30. Goumri finished second here twice, in 2007 and 2008, outkicked in the final mile both times. Now he’s back for another bite at the Apple.

- Gilbert Kirwa (KEN), 25, 2:06:14. Kirwa’s three marathons have resulted in two wins and one second place. That 2:06:14 win in Frankfurt last year was a course record (since broken), an encouraging sign for a young racer.

- Emmanuel Mutai (KEN), 26, 2:06:15. Another tough young Kenyan, winner in Amsterdam in 2007, and second (to Kirui) in the 2009 Worlds and this year’s London Marathon.

More possible winners? How about former NY winners Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, 33, whose best time is 2:08:37, but who knew how to win in 2006 and 2008 here; or Hendrick Ramaala (RSA), 38, who won here in 2004 and and lost to Paul Tergat by 0.3 seconds in 2005.

There are even Americans who could win. After all, Mebratom Keflzighi, now 35, did it last year, and took the silver medal in Athens in 2004 as well. His best marathon is 2:09:15, but he’s a racer, good enough to beat faster men here in 2009, and very determined to win again in 2010. There is also the talented, but often-injured Dathan Ritzenhein. He’s stayed healthy the last two years, knocking his 5000m time down to 12:56.27 and his half-marathon to 1:00:00 – indicators that his marathon PB of 2:10:00 is in for a drastic reduction at the very least.

Could someone I haven’t mentioned win? Of course – this is a Marathon. But if he does, he’ll beat the best field ever assembled in New York.

WOMEN's race - contest wide open

There is no Gebrselassie in the women’s race – nor a Paula Radcliffe to assure a fast, even pace. This New York field is almost the definition of “wide-open”.

In fact, it’s easy to envision a race with four to six women still in it with less than two miles to go. Predicting who they might be is a dark and lonely job, but somebody has to do it.. me. So here goes.

To begin with there’s the defending champion, 2009 winner Derartu Tulu (ETH – PB 2:23:30), who like Gebrselassie is 38 years old. After taking 2006-2008 pretty much off to take care of her six children (four adopted), she came back strong to run 2:28:52 to win here a year ago, and has been going strong in 2010.

Two other Ethiopians bear watching. Teyba Erkesso, age 28, has already won two big time marathons this year, Houston in a PB 2:23:53, and Boston. She’ll probably be among the leaders from the start. And Buzunesh Deba, only 23, finished 7th here in 2009, but has since come on strong this year, winning everything from a New York Road Runners road mile in 4:42.36 to a PB 2:27:24 marathon in Minneapolis.

Two Kenyan women are also in good current form. Edna Kiplagat, 31, is coming off a PB 2:25:38 victory in the 2010 Los Angeles Marathon. And Salina Kosgei, 33, PB 2:23:22, was 5th here in 2009 and 3rd behind Erkesso at Boston this year after winning there in 2009.

Russian Inga Abitova, 28, comes in with a 2009 marathon victory in Yokohama in 2:27:18 and a PB 2:22:19 second-place finish in London this year, plus sub 31-minute speed over 10,000m on the track.

Then there is the amazing Ludmila Petrova (RUS – 2:21:29), age 42, who finished second here in 2008 and 2009 after having won in 2000. Her consistency is what makes her dangerous: she’s in the hunt at 23 miles (and she usually is) she has a chance to win.

And finally, there are three “debutantes” – each with exceptional credentials and plenty of experience at winning, and ready to try their first Marathon.

Mary Keitany (KEN) 28, won the 2009 IAAF World Half Marathon title, in a stunning 1:06:36, and ran the fastest 25K time ever by a woman – 1:19:53 - in Berlin in May of this year.

Werknesh Kidane (ETH), 29, has been at or near the top of distance running since winning the IAAF World Cross Country title in 2003.

Shalane Flanagan (USA), 29, is the 2010 U.S. Half Marathon champion and cross-country champion, and the American record holder and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist at 10,000m.

Who will win? Ask me Monday morning, and I’ll tell you who I picked!