With the athletes gathering in the UAE for Friday mornings’ 6th edition of the RAK Half Marathon, now clearly one of the fastest half marathons in history, the question to ask this year is not “Will the races be fast again?”, but “How fast will they run?”. Each previous edition of the Men’s race has been won under the hour, and the tiny Emirate is now able to boast world record setting contests since 2007 for both men and women.
Mary Keitany’s stunning 65:50 world half marathon record of last year redressed the balance of the slow first two women’s editions of the race, with each subsequent lady’s contest getting quicker than the last. For their part, the slowest winning time in the men’s race was in 2010 when Geoffrey Mutai, who returns to RAK this year and is now the world’s fastest ever* marathon runner, crossed the line in a still mighty fast 59:43. It was the late Sammy Wanjiru who set a world record in the very first edition of the men’s race, winning in 2007 in 58:53; little did we know at the time, that eighteen months later the powerful young Kenyan would destroy a stellar marathon field in the stifling heat of the Beijing Games.
In RAK this year, both men’s and women’s elite fields are strong enough to justify optimism once again of, at the least, two fast and highly competitive contests on Friday morning, and at best perhaps more record breaking runs. The elite men’s field lost Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa with a knee injury late last week, but the intention to break the 59 minute mark, first achieved here in 2009 with Patrick Makau’s then world record of 58:52 just 7 seconds ahead of Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich (another returnee this year) is clear and accepted by the best men with the pacemakers tasked to reach 10km in 28:00 (59:00 pace).
Favourite perhaps amongst the men is the champion of last year’s Boston and New York Marathons, Geoffrey Mutai. The 30 year old, fresh from a comfortable 82 second winning margin in a preparatory run (63:53) in the San Blas Half Marathon on February 5th, is rumoured to have picked up well at his Kapng’tuny training camp following a two week break post Big Apple last November. Previous tests of his form earlier in January in two domestic cross country events showed all was well, with a win and a second place confirming the Boston bound father of two girls was picking up in Olympic year where he left off in 2011. He’ll need to, because he is not yet confirmed in Kenya’s Olympic Marathon team and is targeting a successful return to Boston on April 16th to convince his selectors that he should pull on the Kenyan colours next August in London.
While Mutai copes well with the trappings of wealth and the demands of parenting that derail many high-earning runners from East Africa - he has recently built a new house in Eldoret, has invested much of his earnings in rental apartments and is the proud father of two young girls - his counterpart as women’s race favourite, Mary Keitany, has had other distractions and the proof of her ability to cope with them begins in RAK. The world record holder got married on December 31st, just six weeks ago, and has apparently been training just once a day to feel her way back to full fitness after a momentous 2011 on the roads that saw her RAK run followed by a sub 2 hours 20 minute run in the London Marathon.
None the less, Keitany starts as favourite on Friday, aiming for something around 67 minutes but with the London Marathon in late April as her main objective, she too hopes to secure Olympic team selection at the full 42.2km distance; RAK therefore is a vital indicator of form with 9 weeks to go. To assist a hoped-for return to winning ways after her 3rd place in New York last November - she started at almost suicidal pace and the resulting time of 2:23.38 was remarkably good considering this - there will be a pacemaker for Keitany and any other ladies interested in times around 67 minutes. Knowing that the fastest woman ever at the RAK distance is supposedly vulnerable, might encourage others to take her on at that tempo. The truth will out early this Friday morning with the starter’s gun sending the field of almost 3,000 off shortly after sunrise.