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Athens, Friday, November 9, 1200gmt
The 30th anniversary edition of the Athens Classic Marathon on Sunday will provide a little light relief for Greeks beleaguered by another round of austerity cuts. Reaction this week included a transport strike encompassing metro, buses and taxis, which left Athenians emulating marathon runners, ie getting out and legging it. They would do well to take to the streets again on Sunday morning, and watching how the pros do it.
Leading the charge in the men’s race will be 2010 winner, Raymond Bett of Kenya, who reckons he is in much better shape than when he won two years back.
“Preparation for me is better than two years ago. I've done a lot of speed-work and hills, it's been good. You have to be strong in the hills here, that's why I've prepared with lots of hills”.
Bett trains in Iten (location of the famous St Patrick’s School), with what he describes as a ‘strong group,’ coached by Philip Singoei, twice winner of the Eindhoven marathon, in 2006 and 2007, clocking 2:07:57 in the latter race.
Bett is not quite at the level of his coach, having a best of 2.11.32 (Utecht 2009), and having won here in 2.12.40, then a race record; but which was improved last year by Abdelkerim Boubker of Morocco, with 2.11.39. The course record however belongs to Olympic champion 2004, Stefano Baldini of Italy, who ran 2.10.55.
These are relatively slow times nowadays, but thereby hangs a tale, not of course the only one related to the original marathon course.
If the lure of this event is its history, dating back to 1896, and the restoration of the Olympic Games, the downside is that it is one of the toughest courses in the world. After a relatively flat first 10k from the town of Marathon – taking in the burial ground of the soldiers killed in the successful battle against the Persians in 490BCE, which event backgrounds the marathon race – there is then approximately 21k (half the race) of undulating hills, mostly up, before a gradual decline into Athens, and the finish in the magnificent Panathenaiko, the marble stadium which hosted the 1896 Games.
Bett remains undaunted, citing the conditioning of his tough training group. “It's an advantage to train with very strong guys. If the weather is good, we can break the course record. In 2010 the weather was very hot, last year it was raining, but if conditions are good, we can break it”.
Bett also had an interesting ‘take’ on the legend which gave rise to the creation of the marathon, Philipides/Pheidippides, the Athenian messenger who brought news of the victory over the Persians before dropping dead in the agora, the ancient meeting place in central Athens.
“I like being in Athens,” says Bett, “the Olympics began here and I like that. When I'm on the start line, I think of the one who started it, but I don't want to emulate him. You know, the guy who collapsed. He never trained, that's perhaps why he died - me, I'm OK”.
We’ll see how OK Bett is at 9am on Sunday morning, for which there is a forecast of 15C, rising to 19C (59-66F) by midday. That may prove a little warm, but the possibility of a strong headwind could be worse.
There are several faster runners on paper; Kenyan colleagues Alex Kirui, with 2.09.38 in Reims 2008, and Japhet Korir, 2.10.50 at Gold Coast 2011. But Mesfin Hailu of Ethiopia, 2.09.50 in Xiamen 2011 might be the strongest candidate for victory.
There is also the interesting prospect of a debut by the younger brother of Abdelkader El Mouaziz, winner among others of London and New York, and 13 times a sub-2.10 marathoner. Hamid will have to go some to emulate big bro, but he did run a 61.15 ‘half’ in Holland last month.
Sviatlana Kouhan of Belarus has had three victories in five marathons, winning Brighton (UK) in a personal best 2.29.37 earlier this year. But after a 34th place at London 2012, in 2.30.26, she is hoping to better her third place debut here in 2010.
The band of Kenyans here will have a VIP supporter urging them on. The concurrent Association of International Marathons (AIMS) seminar in Marathon itself also celebrates its 30th anniversary. And at their Gala Dinner in central Athens on Friday evening, they will honour (among others) men’s world record holder, Patrick Makau, who promised at a press conference this morning, “to come back one day, and run the original course”.