Mule Wasihum will defend his title at the Marseilles-Cassis 20km on Sunday (26), but the Ethiopian will be up against a quality field at the IAAF Silver Label Road Race.
Wasihum was something of a surprise winner last year, clocking 1:00:09 on a course which begins in Marseilles and ends in the port of Cassis, with a 327-metre incline at half way.
Since then, Wasihum has improved his half-marathon PB to 1:00:08 when winning in Paris earlier this year, beating world and Olympic marathon champion Stephen Kiprotich. More recently, he finished second over 10km in Rennes, clocking 28:14.
In the 35-year history of the race, just six men have won back-to-back titles. The field for this year’s race is even tougher than 12 months ago too.
Based on current form, Kenya’s Titus Mbishei starts as the favourite. The 2008 world junior 10,000m silver medallist has twice broken his half-marathon PB this year, first with 1:01:14 in September, then improving to 59:55 last week in Valencia.
The Marseilles-Cassis course isn’t known for being a fast one, but if conditions are ideal, then the course record of 58:11, set by Ethiopia’s Atsedu Tsegay in 2011, could be under threat.
Luke Kibet, the 2007 world marathon champion, is also in the field. The 31-year-old Kenyan is not as fast as he once was, but he is still capable of winning big races, as shown by his recent victory at the Zagreb Marathon in a season’s best of 2:14:11.
Fellow Kenyan Nicholas Togom could also be a danger. The 22-year-old has won over various distances this year, including five miles, 10km, 10 miles and the half marathon.
Although perhaps better suited to cross country, Solomon Yego is still a strong contender on the roads. The 27-year-old Kenyan finished fourth at the prestigious African Cross Country Championships earlier this year and has a half-marathon PB of 1:01:34.
Others in the men’s field include Kenya’s Silas Ngetich, winner of his two most recent half marathons, Ugandan international James Kibet, Kenyan teenager Isaac Langat, Moroccan veteran Abdelhadi El Mouaziz, Commonwealth Games marathon fourth-place finisher Solomon Mutai of Uganda, 2011 World University Games half marathon champion Ahmed Tamri, and Ethiopia’s Azmeraw Mengistu, who will be stepping up in distance having never contested a race farther than 10km.
Daba takes on strong Kenyan duo
Last year’s winner, Josephine Chepkoech, will not return to defend her title, so this year’s event will have a new winner. And while the women’s field is smaller than the men’s, it is just as closely matched.
Kenya’s Sarah Chepchirchir will be the most experienced woman on the start line. She represented Kenya at the 2010 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships and as a PB of 1:08:07, set in 2011.
She has cracked the 70-minute mark this year, clocking 1:09:38 when finishing third in Paris, but she was a few minutes slower over the same distance in Lille last month.
By contrast, fellow Kenyan Peris Jepchirchir is a relative newcomer. In her first ever half marathon last month in Montbeliard, she pulled off a surprise victory in 1:09:12.
Ethiopia’s Bekelech Daba has also been in good form this year. She came within 17 seconds of her PB when winning the Casablanca Half Marathon earlier this year in 1:11:11, then three weeks later set a 10km PB of 31:58.
Host of special guests
A handful of France’s top athletes will be making a special appearance at the race, including European marathon champion Christelle Daunay, world indoor long jump champion Eloyse Lesueur, European 10,000m silver medallist Clemence Calvin and two-time European 1500m champion Mehdi Baala.
European 50km race walk champion and world record-holder Yohann Diniz had planned on walking the course, as he has done in previous years, but has had to cancel his appearance.
But former world 400m hurdles champion Stephane Diagana and 2003 world 4x400m champion Marc Raquil will both line up for the 20km race on Sunday.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF