Six years after narrowly missing victory in an exciting sprint finish, James Kwambai returns to the NN Rotterdam Marathon on Sunday (12) for a second chance to win at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
Kwambai and Duncan Kibet both crossed the line in 2:04:27 in 2009, but Kibet was awarded the win after coming from behind in the closing stages. At the time, their clocking in Rotterdam was a Kenyan record. It still stands as the course record, but it could come under threat in the 35th edition of the race this weekend.
“It was a long time ago,” said Kwambai about missing the victory in 2009 by just 0.6. “Since then I’ve learned so many things and I’m a much more experienced athlete now.”
His performance on that day remains his PB. “I’ve run a lot of other marathons, but I know the course here very well, as I was the pacemaker in 2005 and 2006,” added the 32-year-old Kenyan. “So when I was looking for another place where I could run 2:04, I decided to come to Rotterdam.”
Kwambai showed in Seoul that he has what it takes to win big races, having won the marathon there three times between 2011 and 2013. He has run faster than 2:07 on five occasions and has also won in Beijing and Brescia. “I’m capable of doing what I need to do,” he added at the pre-event press conference. “So I don’t feel any pressure for Sunday.”
Like Kwambai, 27-year-old Kenyan Bernard Koech knows how it feels to finish second in Rotterdam.
Last year, under difficult circumstances, Eliud Kipchoge won in 2:05:00 and Koech finished runner-up in 2:06:08. It was his second-fastest performance to date after the 2:04:53 PB he set on his debut at the distance in Dubai in 2013.
After his second-place finish in Amsterdam, Koech went on to finish fifth in Chicago in 2:08:30. “But that wasn’t a good race for me,” said Koech. “At the end, I felt stitches in my stomach and I couldn’t run as fast as I wanted.”
Koech has been training with 2011 London Marathon champion Emmanuel Mutai and 2014 Amsterdam Marathon champion Bernard Kipyego to prepare for his second marathon in Rotterdam.
“I know that I cannot rule anybody out, but I also know that I’m better than last year,” said Koech, who warmed up for the race with a third-place finish at the Marugame Half Marathon in Japan, running 1:00:09. “With a few good pacemakers, we can make it a good race here.”
Like his fellow sub-2:05 Kenyans, Jonathan Maiyo has competed in Rotterdam before, making his marathon debut in the Dutch city in 2010. He set his PB of 2:04:56 when finishing fourth in Dubai three years ago, and he finished second in Eindhoven last October in 2:06:47.
In preparation for Rotterdam, he finished third at the RAK Half Marathon in February in 1:00:07. “That was a strong half marathon for me and I’m feeling goood,” he said, looking forward to the race on Sunday. “I didn’t have many problems during my preparations and I think I can run 2:04 again. I have been training with Abel Kirui (the two-time world champion), who will start in Boston, and we both run at the same pace on our long runs.”
Aside from the leading Kenyan trio, there are several other runners with promising PBs, including Ethiopia’s 2011 world bronze medallist Feyisa Lilesa (2:04:52), former world 5000m and 10,000m finalist Abera Kuma (2:05:56) and Megersa Bacha (2:06:56), as well as Kenya’s 2009 Amsterdam winner Gilbert Yego (2:06:18) and 2012 African 5000m champion Mark Kiptoo (2:06:16).
Race director Eric Brommert is expecting a large group of runners in the leading pack at the beginning of the race.
“We have made two changes that will help us to improve the course record,” said Brommert. “The start will be at 10am, half an hour earlier than in the past. There will be less wind and better temperatures for the top field at that time of the day. On Sunday it will be 12-14C.
“We have also made some improvements to the course. We have fewer curves than in previous years. The only problem could be the wind in the first 10 kilometres. That’s why we want to run a bit conservative, hoping for 1:02:30 at halfway and then a negative split. That should lead us to another finishing time faster than 2:05.”
The race doubles up as the Dutch Championships. Michel Butter is the fastest Dutch runner in the field with his PB of 2:09:58, but he is playing down his chances as he comes back from a long period of physical problems. Butter dropped out of the World Championships marathon in Moscow in 2013 with a hip injury.
“Last year I wanted to return in time for the European Championships in Zurich, but I had to conclude that I needed more time to build up for a complete marathon,” said Butter “I’m still not at the level where I want to be, but I need to run another marathon to regain my inspiration.”
Abdi Nageeye will be the main contender for the national title. He made his marathon debut last year in Enschede with 2:11:33, and based on his recent 1:02:40 half-marathon PB, he looks set to run faster than 2:10.
In the women’s field, Miranda Boonstra from the Netherlands has the fastest PB with her 2:27:32 clocking in Rotterdam three years ago, but the 42-year-old hasn’t run faster than 2:31 since 2012.
Canada’s Krista Duchene finished three places behind Boonstra in Rotterdam in 2012, but then went on to improve her PB to 2:28:32 in Toronto two years ago. This will be her first marathon since then.
Asami Kato has a slower PB than Boonstra and Duchene, but is more than a decade younger and has improved with each of her marathons to date. Her most recent one was a victory in Brisbane last year, clocking 2:28:51.
Cors van den Brink for the IAAF