Ethiopia’s Tsegaye Kebede and Kenya’s Martin Mathathi are the favourites for the fifth annual Gifu Seiryu Half Marathon on Sunday (17), with the IAAF Silver Label Road Race also known as the Naoko Takahashi Cup.
Although the defending champion and course record holder, Kenya’s Bedan Karoki, unfortunately withdrew from the race a week ago, the field is still a strong one. As well as sub-one-hour men Kebede and Mathathi, there are two more runners who have run faster than 61 minutes: the Kenyan pair of James Rungaru and Jacob Wanjuki.
Mathathi won this race in 2012 and was second in 2013. He has cracked 60 minutes for the half marathon twice: 59:48 at the 2010 Sendai Half Marathon and 58:56 at the 2011 Great North Run.
He has raced sparingly since winning the 2013 Fukuoka Marathon with a personal best of 2:07:16. His latest half marathon was more than a year ago in Marugame, which he won with 1:00:11.
Kebede is a truly world-class marathon runner with a best of 2:04:38.
He races at non-marathon distance sparingly, but early in his career, at the 2008 RAK Half Marathon, Kebede ran his best for the distance when he clocked 59:35 and finished a close second to Patrick Makau. He also won the 2008 Great North Run with 59:45.
His last race was at the 2015 Tokyo Marathon where he was only eighth with 2:07:58.
By comparison, Mathathi’s last race was over 10,000m on the track three weeks ago, when he won with a relatively modest time of 28:14.24.
On paper, the race looks to be between Mathathi and Kebede but there are some question marks over their current form.
If both co-favourites falter, then Rungaru, who just recorded a half marathon personal best of 1:00:12 at the 2015 Nice Half Marathon only three weeks ago, may rise to the occasion.
Next fastest in the field is Wanjuki, who has a PB of 1:00:32, which was recorded in Japan at the 2010 Nagoya Half Marathon.
This year, Wanjuki returned to form and ran 1:00:48 three months ago in Marugame, the second-fastest half marathon of his career. He also ran 1:01:05 in Yamaguchi earlier this year.
Four other runners in the field have gone faster than 1:02.
Australia’s Ben St. Lawrence may also surprise. Although his half marathon best is only 1:02:51, and is three years old, he recorded 27:44.24 for 10,000m on the track just two weeks ago.
The women’s field has two sub-1:08 runners and another who has run faster than 1:09.
The fastest runner in the field is Kenya’s Paskalia Kipkoech, who ran 1:07:17 in 2012 and won the bronze medal at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships that year.
She has run faster than 1:09 four times but has not raced internationally in almost 18 months, since the end of 2013.
Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa is a world-class distance runner with a marathon best of 2:22:03 from the 2012 Chicago Marathon and a half marathon best of 1:07:33 from the 2013 Barcelona Half Marathon, but has not been close to that sort of form since the start of 2014.
On the other hand, Bahrain’s Eunice Kirwa was the 2014 Asian Games marathon winner and has had much better marks in the past 12 months.
She ran 1:08:31 for the half marathon in 2014 and then won the 2015 Nagoya Women’s Marathon in a national record of 2:22:08 in March.
Gifu is the home town of the 2000 Olympic marathon champion and Japanese heroine Naoko Takahashi. The race runs along part of Naoko Takahashi road, where she used to train in her youth, and then finishes at the Gifu Memorial Center Nagara River Stadium, where a statue of Takahashi was erected after her Sydney victory.
The men’s and women’s course records of 1:00:02 and 1:10:03 are held respectively by Karoki from last year and Ethiopia’s Mestawet Tufa from 2013.
Ken Nakamura for the IAAF