It may have been his first sight of Singapore’s pristine clean streets with super smooth surfaces that underlined Haile Gebrselassie’s view here today that technical innovation as much as Kenyan-Ethiopia rivalry was going to lead to the first sub-two hour marathon in a decade or so. But at the tail-end of a career which has already lasted 22 years at the top, the Little Emperor conceded that that was terrain for younger rivals.
Gebrselassie was still the main attraction at today’s press conference for Sunday’s Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore. But, in keeping with the admission that he is all of two kilos over his usual racing weight, “too much business affairs,” he is running the 10k on Sunday, and leaving the marathon to (mainly) Kenyan neighbours.
But the perennial question of the two-hour marathon got him musing. “Remember back in 1960 (Rome Olympics), Abebe Bikila ran barefoot, but by 1964 (Tokyo), he was wearing shoes. Since then, there’s been better tracks, better nutrition, better everything. And look at the shoes now,” he said, indicated his long-term sponsor’s latest model. “This heel really helps running, it’s so comfortable. It’s things like this. The marathon is already under 2.03; I think it will be 1.59 by 10 or 12 years”. As for whether it will be a Kenyan or Ethiopian, the sure-fire answer was, “One or the other”.
Since losing his marathon world record to Kenyan, Patrick Makau in 2011, Gebrselassie has suffered as many drop-outs as finishes, including a retirement after 19mins of a half-marathon in early October, then a withdrawal from another two weeks later, both in the UK. “But I promise, I won’t drop out on Sunday,” he said, before turning his attention to the Kenyan marathoners.
One man quietly soliciting Geb’s opinion on the switch from 10,000 metres to marathon was Nicholas Kemboi, Kenyan-born and based, but running for Qatar since 2005. Kemboi is the fourth fastest 10,000 metres man in history, just four seconds behind Geb, but after three marathons, his best remains his debut 2.08.01 in Valencia 2011.
Kemboi’s principal rivals are the Kenyans, Kenneth Mungara, a winner here in 2010, and Jairus Chanchima. Mungara is unusual in taking up serious running so late, in his mid-30s, after telling the ‘little guys’ coming to his barber shop for a shave after training that he could beat them. Proving that, and that will-power is the key to success as much as anything, Mungara, now 42, has won eight of his 15 marathons, with a best of 2.07.36, from Prague 2011.
Women’s favourite is Albina Mayorova (Ivanova) of Russia. Mayorova was, to say the least, disappointed that she wasn’t invited back recently to defend the title she won in Yokohama last year, so comes back to Singapore, where she won in 2009. Her best time came in winning Nagoya the following year, in 2.23.52, and regular sub-2.30 time since then should ensure the edge over Lyudmilla Kovalenko of Ukraine and Ethiopian, Alemeyu Lemma.
Multiple winner of the local title, Mok Ying Ren has forsaken the triathlon, where he won SE Asian gold in 2007, for the marathon, where he won the same title in 2013. Now training on either side of practising medicine while doing his army service, Mok is looking to Rio 2016, to better his 2.26.34 from 2011. Despite those super-smooth surfaces that appeal so much to Gebrselassie, the high temperatures, 25C even at the 5am start, and pervasive humidity in Singapore mean that the elites will have to work well together to approach twice world champion, Luke Kibet’s course record, 2.11.25 from 2008; likewise Commonwealth Games champion, Salina Kosgei’s 2.31.55 in 2006.