Toronto, CanadaNo Ethiopian male has ever won the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon and, judging by the excellent field assembled for this year’s IAAF Silver Label Road Race, the odds are stacked against Siraj Gena becoming the first.
That suits the 27-year-old from Addis Ababa just fine as he carries Ethiopian hopes against a formidable group of Kenyans. On paper he gives up more than two minutes to his East African rivals - his personal best is just 2:08:31 though he is a strong competitor.
He famously won the 2010 Rome Marathon in 2:08:39, crossing the finish in bare feet to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the legendary Abebe Bikila’s achievement at the Rome Olympics.
"I would love to be the man who brings the Toronto marathon title to Ethiopia," says Gena.
"I want to win in a fast time. Yes, the bonuses are very nice for a fast time but the money is not what really motivates me. I really want to run much faster than my personal best as I am capable of doing and I want to really show my talent this year."
But for a clerical error, which saw his passport temporarily lost in the post, Gena would have raced in Toronto three years ago. He will have been briefed on what lies ahead in Canada’s largest city as several members of his training group have competed here. No doubt he will be encouraged by the city’s large Ethiopian population who fete their heroes each year.
Sunday’s weather forecast is calling for wind, rain showers and temperatures between 10 and 15 degrees celsius. An army of pacemakers will tow the field towards a 2:07 clocking on this relatively flat course. The course record of 2:07:58 - which is also the Canadian All Comers record - set in 2010 by Kenneth Mungara, is a realistic target if the weather cooperates.
Gena’s Kenyan opponents include Gilbert Yegon who ran 2:06:18 three years ago in his debut, John Kiprotich (2:07:08 personal best), Charles Munyeki (2:07:06) and the most experienced man in the field, Felix Limo.
Limo, of course, was the man who electrified the marathon scene between 2004 and 2006 winning Rotterdam (2004), Berlin (2004), Chicago (2005) and London (2006). His personal best remains 2:06:16 from Rotterdam.
Now 32, he understands his best days may be behind him but a 2:10:38 in last year’s Berlin Marathon - which earned him a credible 4th place - has given him confidence he can challenge the Toronto course record and Canadian All Comers’ record. Scotiabank has put up a $25,000 bonus for such an occasion.
"I think it's our best ever men’s field," says race director Alan Brookes. "So we are excited to have a great race Sunday morning and hopefully see a course record.
"We’ve worked really hard to build the quality of the race. The women’s race has always been very good and some of our winners, like Sharon Cherop, have gone on to win the majors such as Boston. The men’s race has always been competitive but we’d like to see a step forward this year."
Women's race - sub-2:23 the target
Despite the fact Netsanet Achamo was forced to scratch, due to a minor injury suffered earlier in the week, the women’s race remains very competitive. Several contenders have expressed their hopes for a course record. The current record was set last year by Ethiopia’s Koren Yal at 2:22:42.5.
Agnes Kiprop of Kenya has the fastest personal best time with 2:23:54. She ran that in the 2011 Frankfurt Marathon. Earlier this spring she won the Prague Marathon and at the post event dinner was introduced to Brookes. An invitation to compete soon followed.
"I wish to improve my personal best in Toronto and run below 2:23," Kiprop declares. "Hopefully my time is fast enough to win the race. I know my contenders’ value, but I don't know their current shape.
"So I'll do my best to run as fast as possible. The bonuses for course records ($35,000 for the women’s record) and fast times are nice awards and a motivation for not giving up."
Kiprop a single mother of two young children moved to Iten a few years ago to train with Italian coach Gabriele Nicole. The move has obviously agreed with her as she has both 2012 Boston champion Sharon Cherop, who won Toronto in 2010, and Mary Keitany, the 2012 London champion and current world leader, for training partners.
The Kenyan will be challenged by Eyerusalem Kuma of Ethiopia (2:24:55 in the 2011 Amsterdam Marathon) and Russian stalwart Silvia Skvortsova (2:26:24 personal best).
Scotiabank has also put up a Canadian women’s record bonus of $27,000 - $1,000 for every year Silvia Ruegger’s time of 2:28:36 has stood. Two ladies in particular believe they have a chance, Lanni Marchant and Krista Duchene.
Marchant, a lawyer based in Tennessee, was 5th in the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon in a time of 2:31:51 while Duchene finished 7th in 2:32:06. Both will benefit from the hometown crowd. Indeed, Marchant has six siblings in and around the Toronto area.
Brookes has his fingers crossed that the weather cooperates. Clearly, he is not the only one.