Defending champions Ines Henriques, Omar Zepeda and Ana Cabecinha are the top names ready to shine tomorrow (23) in Chihuahua as the 11th edition of the annual IAAF Race Walking Challenge will kick off in northern Mexican city.
Except for her first visit in 2007, Portugal’s three-time World Championships finalist Henriques has always claimed a podium finish in the Mexican leg of the challenge, including two consecutive wins in 2011-2012 and a bronze medal at the 2010 World Cup.
“I am very happy to be here. I have always been treated very well here. I like Chihuahua and I will keep coming back as long as they have the event here,” said Henriques, who arrived here on Wednesday.
“Despite the fact that I did not train much last year after the Olympics as I was finishing my nursing studies, I just a set 3000m personal best at the National Championships. So that says I am in good shape,” she added.
In Chihuahua, she will be joined by 2012 Challenge runner-up and two-time Olympic finalist Ana Cabecinha, who went four seconds faster at the National Indoor Championships last weekend to set a Portuguese record of 12:21.56.
Other top contenders are 2007 World and 2008 Olympic finalist Tatyana Sibileva, the fastest in the field with her 1:25:52 from 2010, as well as the Polish duo Agnieszka Szwarnóg and national record-holder Paulina Buziak
Third here in 2012, Mónica Equihua Solórzano carries Mexico’s best hopes for a medal as Arabelly Orjuela does for Colombia.
With 2009 World Championships bronze medallist and two-time defending champion Eder Sanchez out as he recovers from a recent cyst removal surgery, the men’s 20km is wide open.
Mexico’s best hopes are centred on the Palma brothers – Isaac Antonio and Ever Jair, both coached by 1996 Olympic medallist Bernardo Segura.
Colombia’s Fredy Hernández, Poland’s 50km specialist and two-time Olympic finalist Grzegorz Sudoł and Mexico’s Pedro Daniel Gómez should also be contending for the top positions.
The 50km to crown the first winner
Twice a winner of the Mexican leg of the Challenge, including last year with the best time in Chihuahua (3:48:38), Omar Zepeda is ready to shine in the longer distance, the first race to be contested on Saturday.
“I have competed at six World Championships. No one has had that opportunity in Mexico and my mind is set in Moscow,” commented Zepeda.
But he should face a strong challenge from Poland’s Rafał Sikora, a 3:46 performer, and 2008 Olympic fifth-placer Erick Tysse. Third at the 2009 Challenge, the Norwegian is back in Mexico, where he has performed consistently in the opening leg of the Challenge, including a third-place finish in 2008.
Mexico also counts on Clemente Iván García, Cristian David Berdeja, Juan Emilio Toscano and Luis Amauri Bustamante, all sub-four-hour performers. Belarus’ Andrei Stepanchuk, familiar with the circuit here, hopes for better luck tomorrow after being disqualified on his two last trips to Chihuahua.
Between the 50km and the 20km, juniors will battle over 10km. Top names include Mexico’s Alejandra Ortega and Jesús Tadeo Vega, both medallists at the 2012 World Race Walking Cup.
Local hero and 2010 World Cup silver medallist Horacio Vega is a notable absentee this weekend. Forced to take full rest during three months to treat a pubis injury, Vega is back in training but not fully fit to compete in front of his home crowd.
With Chihuahua being a qualifier for the Pan American Cup in Lima in June and the latter serving as the Mexican trials for the World Championships, Vega is still hopeful to be considered for the World Championships if he is fully recovered.
More than 100 walkers from 11 countries will contest three distances on a new 2km loop course on Paseo Bolívar. Other countries represented are Canada, Sweden, Costa Rica, Chile and Puerto Rico.
The Challenge will start at 7:00am with the 50km, followed by the women’s junior 10km at noon and the men’s junior 10km at 13:15. Women will contest the 20km at 14:20 and men will follow at 16:20.
Host of the Mexican stop of the Challenge since 2008, including the World Cup in 2010, Chihuahua will kick off a 14-leg series that will travel to Asia and Europe.
It will visit traditional Challenge hosting cities like Rio Maior in Portugal, Sesto S. Giovanni in Italy, Lugano in Switzerland, La Coruña in Spain, before ending at the World Championships in Moscow.
The Challenge will stop in Africa for the first time in its 10-year old history when it visits Maurice, Mauritius for the continental championships on April 6.
The most consistent athletes throughout the season will stand higher chances of sharing the $202,000 prize purse, including $30,000 for the winner.
All races will be streamed live streamed on the Mexican Athletics Federation website - fmaa.mx.
Javier Clavelo Robinson for the IAAF