Kenyan distance runner Jonathan Maiyo (© Organisers / Gianfranco Colombo)
Although Covid-19 restrictions continue to weigh heavily on the staging of road events around the world, organisers of World Athletics Label marathons this weekend in Sofia and Bucharest have managed to attract limited elite fields while also providing local and regional runners opportunities to achieve the Olympic qualification standards.
Maiyo and Yamaguchi lead Sofia Marathon fields
Jonathan Maiyo of Kenya and Japan's Haruka Yamaguchi are the top names at the Wizz Air Sofia Marathon, a World Athletics Bronze Label race, in the Bulgarian capital on Sunday (11).
Maiyo is by far the fastest in the field, bringing a 2:04:56 career best from the 2012 Dubai Marathon to the line. That performance ranked him 11th on the world list that year, but the 32-year-old has raced sparingly since. He clocked 2:06:47 at the Eindhoven Marathon in 2014, finishing second, but hasn't raced in a high level event since 2015. He's dipped under the one-hour mark four times in the half marathon with a 59:02 best to his credit, also from 2012.
He'll face Youssef Sbaai of Morocco, who clocked a 2:09:53 lifetime best at the Seville Marathon in February at age 40. Kabede Wami of Ethiopia returns to action after clocking 2:10:04 at January's Mumbai Marathon where he finished eighth.
Kenyan Duncan Koech is the second fastest on paper, with a 2:07:53 best. But like Maiyo, that came back in 2012.
In the women's race, Yamaguchi will be running her third marathon of the year, a rarity in this Coronavirus-plagued season. The 33-year-old improved her lifetime best to 2:26:35 in Osaka in January where she finished seventh then returned to action in the Tokyo Marathon just five weeks later, clocking 2:30:31 to finish tenth.
A close race is expected.
Kenyan Naom Jebet, 26, will contest the distance for the second time this year, following up on a 2:27:57 run at the Castellon Marathon on 16 February where she finished second. She also has five sub-1:09 half marathon performances to her credit, topped by her 1:08:08 career best set in Copenhagen last year.
Viktoriya Khapilina of Ukraine, with a 2:28:03 personal best set last year, and Clementine Mukandanga of Rwanda, who has a 2:30:59 best from 2018, are also in the field.
The women's race record is 2:32:35 set by Kenyan Rebecca Chepchirchir Korir in 2015. The men's mark of 2:11:26 was set by Kristo Stefanov in 1997, which still stands as the Bulgarian national record.
Kiprop the favourite in Bucharest
Ezekiel Kiprop Koech will start as favourite at the 13th edition of Raiffeisen Bank Bucharest Marathon, another Bronze Label race, also on the slate for Sunday.
The Kenyan clocked his 2:10:02 personal best at the Dresden Marathon last October, a race he won by more than a minute.
He'll take on Belgian Mohamed Ali, who finished fourth in the one-hour race at the Brussels Wanda League meeting last month where he tallied 20,055 metres. He clocked 59:52.27 en route at 20km, closely in line with his 1:03:09 personal best in the half marathon.
The fastest entrant in the women's race is 25-year-old Kenyan Lilian Chemweno, who clocked 2:41:26 at the Padova Marathon in 2016.
The race also doubles as the Romanian national championships.
Meanwhile, Sunday's Rimi Riga Marathon, a Gold Label race celebrating its 30th edition, will have 800 runners taking part in the event in the Latvian capital. Primarily a local mass race this year, organisers have also welcomed a handful of local and international elites targeting the Olympic qualifying standards.
Bob Ramsak for World Athletics