Hong Kong, Friday, February 22, 0900gmt
The final 100 metres of the Hong marathon last year looked like a tag-team wrestling match, with four men sprinting to the line, arms and legs flying every which way. Dereje Abera of Ethiopia emerged from the scrum at the last second to snatch victory and the $50,000 first prize.
But, returning to defend his title in Sunday’s 17th annual Standard Charted Hong Kong Marathon, he still recalls the photo-finish with bemusement.
“I always thought I could win, but you can never be sure with the Kenyans. It’s the same this year, there’s a lot of good Kenyans in there. Also there’s no pace-makers here in Hong Kong, so a lot of people stay together, and the pace goes up and down. The weather is the same, one day it’s warm, one day cold”.
Race date is determined by Chinese New Year, which was earlier this year, so the race is three weeks later than 2012, and in this part of the world that means potential 20C and humid conditions towards the end of the race, which begins at 0700 local time (2300GMT Saturday).
Abera set a course record of 2.11.27 last year, but Julius Maisei of Kenya was only a second behind in fourth place; and having finished second in 2011, would dearly love to carry off the increased first prize of $57,000 on Sunday.
“It helps to know the course, because it’s quite difficult,” said Maisei at the Friday press conference. “And the tunnel at the end (to get onto Hong Kong Island) is very long and very hot, and it’s also uphill at the end”.
On paper, there is a very evenly balanced men’s elite field – six runners within a minute of one another between 2.08 and 2.09. But since James Mbugua ran his 2.08.05 in Nairobi, at 1500 metres altitude, that might just prove to be an advantage here right beside the South China Sea.
In contrast to the men’s tight finish, the returning women’s winner, Misiker Demissie was a minute and a half ahead of her pursuers in 2012; and although her colleague Shitaye Gemechu has run four minutes faster, Gemechu was well behind in second place last year.
With Winfred Nyansikera of Kenya returning also, last year’s top trio could well be in the frame again.
Standard Chartered currently have eight events on their calendar, but at 17 years, Hong Kong was the first, and is one of the longest sponsorships in world marathoning. Close to two decades have seen competitor numbers rise from a thousand at the inaugural event to over 14000 for the marathon on Sunday, and 72000 altogether, counting the ‘half’ and 10k.
The race is now an IAAF Silver Label event, and prize money this year has also increased to over a quarter of a million dollars.
The concurrent 14th Asian Championships (previously held here in 2002 and 2008) have made for an even more exotic collection of nationalities, with runners from Kirghistan and Uzbekistan in the West, to the Philippines and East Timor in the East, by way of Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, North Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia, among others.
Kim Kum Ok of DPR of Korea should also be a contender for the open race. According to her coach, who rejoices under the name of Kim Il Sung (although the interpreter insisted it is pronounced slightly differently to that of the defunct Dear Leader), Ms Kim is on good form, and eager to repeat her victory here in 2008.
As for the men, and with apologies to Geordies the world over, it’s not very often you travel to Hong Kong and hear the words, “Newcastle is very nice”. Not having visited Ulaan Bator, I can’t compare it with Ser-Od Bat-Ochir’s normal hang-out.
But when the Mongolian was preparing for the Olympic Games last year, he spent four months living with his wife’s sister in Gateshead, even becoming a member of one of the local clubs, Morpeth Harriers. Nowadays, he trains in an equally exotic, but rather more polluted city, Beijing.
Bat-Ochir’s first marathon was here in Hong Kong in 2002; but with around 30 races under his shoe leather since then, and a best of 2.11.05 in Japan last year, he is favourite for the Asian title; but whether he can combat the East Africans remains to be seen.