Berlin: World marathon record holders Haile Gebrselassie and Paula Radcliffe fight age and increasing susceptibility to injury as well as the clock and a host of younger opponents in Sunday`s Berlin marathon.
Sunday`s race is the third time only that both the men`s and women`s world holders have started the same race.
Gebrselassie and Radcliffe want to crown their careers with victory in next year`s London Olympics and by Sunday evening it should be easier to establish whether either or both can defy time and remain realistic contenders for Olympic gold in 2012.
Gebrselassie will be 39 at the start of the London Games, a year older than Radcliffe. Although Carlos Lopes and Constantina Dita won the men`s and women`s Olympic titles respectively at the age of 38, recent form and performances do not encourage optimism about Gebrselassie and Radcliffe`s prospects on the streets of London.
The Ethiopian dropped out of his first New York City marathon last November through injury and promptly announced his retirement, an uncharacteristically impulsive decision he eventually rescinded.
Briton Radcliffe has not run a marathon since finishing fourth in New York two years ago, during which time she has given birth to a second child. She has suffered back and thyroid problems this year and was visibly upset after finishing third in a 10 kms road race in a mediocre time.
Both runners voiced radically different approaches this week to Sunday`s race on the flat, fast Berlin course which has yielded four men`s world records, including two to Gebrselassie, and two women`s.
"The goal is just to go out and run well and win the race," Radcliffe said. "The Olympic qualification time is something I need to do, for that reason the time needs to be ticked off but I`m not going out and running with a time in mind."
Gebrselassie, by contrast, said he was concentrating on setting a fast time rather than winning the race to ensure he made the Ethiopian team for London in the face of fierce competition from his national rivals.
Since Abebe Bikila, a member of Emperor Haile Selassie`s imperial bodyguard, won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic titles the marathon has held a special place in Ethiopian folk lore and Gebrselassie yearns to complete a glittering career with gold in London.
"The marathon (gold) medal is the most important medal for Ethiopians," he said. "The marathon medal is just special."
Radcliffe said the marathon was "not necessarily a young person`s thing."
"It is something where maturity and patience and just being a little bit wiser, you can never learn enough. Every marathon is different and you always learn something from it and the more you run can be an advantage as well," she said.
The Berlin organisers have billed the race as a battle between Gebrselassie and last year`s champion Patrick Makau of Kenya for the men`s title with Radcliffe going head-to-head with Germany`s twice champion Irina Mikitenko in the women`s race.
Mikitenko, who was born in Kazakhstan, is a year older than Radcliffe.
"Sometimes you get up in the morning and you don`t feel very good but age is not a factor," she said.
Race director Mark Milde said on Friday he was still holding discussions with the pacemakers in a race which places an emphasis on fast times.
He said six pacemakers would take the field as far as the 30 kms mark in the 42.195 kms race after reaching the halfway stage in an estimated 62 minutes.