Mumbai: African athletes are expected to continue their dominance with runners from Kenya and Ethiopia likely to battle it out for top honours from among 2475 participants at the 9th Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon on Sunday.
Despite the absence of defending champions Girma Assefa and Koren Yal, both Ethiopians, the IAAF Gold Label status event, which is offering an enhanced prize money of USD 3,40,000, has attracted several top athletes like ex-world champion Luke Kibet (Kenya), Ethiopia`s Siraj Gena and Kenya`s Laban Moiben.
While the men`s field has 17 Gold Label athletes, with personal bests of below 2 hours and 10 minutes, the women`s event has seven such athletes, with personal best of below 2:30.
Athletes from the two African nations will renew their rivalry here once again, with Gena leading a talented bunch of Ethiopians. The Kenyan challenge will be spearheaded by Moiben, former world champion Kibet, William Kipsang and Bernard Kosgei.
Moldovan Iaroslav Musinschi, who has a personal best of 2:08.32 clocked in May 2010, is expected to be the dark horse. The women`s field, in which a clean medal sweep was made by the Ethiopians last year, will see strong representation from that country with Makda Harun and Fatuma Sado leading the charge. The Kenyan challenge will come in the form of Lydia Rutto, while Namibia`s Hilalia Johannes will also be a name to look out for.
The fastest in the men`s field is Kenyan Kipsang, with a personal best of 2:05.49, set in 2008. But the athletes in current form are Ethiopians Gena, who clocked 2:08.31 in Frankfurt in October 2011, Gela Hailu, who clocked 2:10.17 in Italy in November 2011 and Gemedu Haja, who clocked 2:09.20 in Korea in April.
Among the current Kenyans who are in form are Moiben Laban, who clocked 2:10.18 in May in Ottawa, Nixon Machichim, who ran 2:09.37 in Linz in April, John Kyui, who clocked 2:09 in Zurich in April and Luke Kibet.
Among the women, Makda Harun has run a fast 2:27.30 in Venice in October 2011, while Sado Fatuma has clocked 2:28.01 in Istanbul, also in October.
The Ethiopians can expect to be challenged by Turkey`s fast improving Sultan Haydar, Namibia`s Johannes Hilalia, who clocked 2:30.35 in Dublin and Russia`s Tatyana Vilisova.
From the Indian perspective, the best positive aspect is that the Athletics Federation of India has buried its hatchet with the event organisers, which will allow the country`s athletes to try and qualify for the London Olympics.
Besides, the financial gratification for the Indian athletes has been increased by USD 10,000 from last year, which now stands at USD 52,000. The top Indian male and female finishers will now stand to gain USD 7,500 each.
Defending Indian champions -- Binning Lyngkhoi and Jyoti Gawate -- will lead the country`s challenge in the men`s and women`s field respectively.
Veteran long distance runner Ram Singh Yadav and KC Ramu are among the other male hopefuls, who are aiming to attain the magic time of sub 2:18 to seal a berth for London.
"We have been practising a lot. The marathoners were training at Ooty in high altitude conditions which have helped increase their endurance levels. I and even the athletes are sure that they will get a ticket for the Olympics," said Army coach K S Matthews.
Shastri Devi, Preeti L Rao and Lalita Babar, who has made a switch to the full marathon this year, are among the other Indian female marathon runners.
This time around, the route has been altered and instead of the usual 7:40 am start, the 42-km marathon will begin at 7.25 am to allow runners to run more in cool climate and attain better timings.
As per the new changes, athletes will have to take a left turn at the Vinayak K Shah Marg towards Maker Chambers from where they will have to take a U-turn to reach the Marine Drive.
From Marine Drive, they will have to turn towards the NCPA and again take a U-turn to reach the Marine Drive from where they will have to march towards Chowpatty.
Following the changes, the landmark Mumbai-Worli Sea Link, considered the toughest route of the course, which the athletes used to reach after reaching the 24km mark earlier, will only be 14km away this time around.
"With the qualification events for Olympics decreasing with time, we are trying to provide the athletes a platform to run faster," Race Director Hugh Jones said. With the route and timing being changed and the city blessed with a pleasant climate this time around, organizers are hoping that the course record -- set by Assefa (2:09:54) and Yal (2:26:56) last year -- will be broken.
"Weather conditions are good. If similar conditions prevail on the race day, we may see the 2:10 hours mark being broken. Also, several Indians will have a chance to qualify for the Olympics," said IAAF race referee Dave Cundy.
"Also, several Indians will have a chance to qualify for the Olympics," he added.
"This year is the strongest field ever in men`s category. Change in course will hopefully be beneficial to the athletes and if the weather gods are kind to us, we will see some good records," said Ian Ladbroke, Elite Athlete coordinator.