Tiki Gelana takes a 2:22:08 win at the 2011 Amsterdam Marathon (Orange Pictures) © Copyright
Preview Yokohama, Japan

Gelana looks to get back to winning ways in Yokohama

More than two years after striking gold at the London 2012 Olympics, Ethiopia's Tiki Gelana will aim to end a marathon victory drought on Sunday (16) at the Yokohama International Women's Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race.

Gelana’s slump can be traced back to a freak accident at the 2013 London Marathon, where she fell and suffered a foot injury after colliding with a wheelchair racer at a drinks station and finished in 16th place.

She followed that by dropping out in the early stages of the marathon at the World Championships in Moscow in August on a day she described as being “too hot”, and then finished ninth at this year's London Marathon in April in 2:26:58, eight minutes off her personal best.

“I ran those races, but I had pain because of the accident at the London Marathon,” Gelana said through an interpreter during a visit Thursday to Yokohama’s Byobugaura Elementary School with fellow runners Philes Ongori and Marisa Barros. “After London, I ran with only one good leg. Now I can run with full power in both legs, so it's no problem at all.”

With strong showings in several recent road races, Gelana said she’s ready to be the first to break the tape at the finish in bayfront Yamashita Park.

“I have prepared very much for this race,” said Gelana, whose Ethiopian record of 2:18:58 set when winning the 2012 Rotterdam Marathon puts her fifth on the world all-time list. “Before I had pain in my foot, but I have recovered.”

Gelana heads a field that includes Ongori and Kenyan compatriot Caroline Rotich, who share personal bests of 2:23:22, among the 14 invited runners in the sixth and final edition of the race in the port city about 30km south of Tokyo.

The other invited foreign runners are Russia’s Alina Prokopeva, who won her third career marathon this summer in Nagano in 2:30:56, along with Ukraine's Olena Shurhno, Lithuania’s Zivile Balciunaite, Barros of Portugal and South Africa’s Irvette Van Zyl.

Leading the host nation contingent will be last year’s runner-up Azusa Nojiri, the cross-country skier-turned-marathoner who won the Hokkaido Marathon in August. The 32-year-old, who was 19th at the 2011 World Championships, ran a career best of 2:24:57 when finishing third in Osaka in 2013.

For the Japanese runners, the race is also serving as the first of three domestic qualifying races for next year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing. The other invited entries are Tomomi Tanaka, who was fifth in her debut in Nagoya in March, Mayumi Fujita, Nanami Matsuura, Kumi Ogura and teenager Reia Iwade, who will be making her marathon debut after setting the Japan junior record in the half-marathon of 1:09:45 last December.

The race, which originally started in Tokyo in 1979 and was moved to Yokohama in 2009 following the launch of the mass participation Tokyo Marathon, will be discontinued after this year, reportedly for financial reasons. It is also speculated that it is a victim of a trend of moving away from elite, single-gender races to the mass participation events. The JAAF is working to add a mass race in Saitama, north of Tokyo, to replace the Yokohama event.

“It’s a shock, because I like to race in women-only races,” said Ongori, who attended high school and spent her early years as a pro in Japan.

Gelana, who spent half a year in Japan competing for Denso in 2007, has had success here since leaving. She won back-to-back titles in the Marugame Half Marathon in 2012-13.

“I like Japan. I come year by year. I’m happy to run here,” said Gelana.

This autumn, over a month-long span from 7 September, Gelana showed she was back on a healthy track by finishing third in a pair of half-marathons in Britain and second in a 10-mile race in the Netherlands.

Gelana, who broke Naoko Takahashi’s Olympic record in London to add to her race mark in Rotterdam, says she anticipates a winning time of 2:22-23, which would eclipse the Yokohama course record of 2:23:07 set in 2012 by Kenya’s Lydia Cheromei.

The main factor will be the intensity of the ever-prevalent winds that come off the bay and sweep across the loop course.

“I don’t know about the weather, I don’t know the course,” said Gelana. “High pace is good, but the wind is a problem.”

Ongori won her debut marathon in Rotterdam in 2011 and clocked her personal best in April in Boston, where she placed ninth in her fourth career marathon. After suffering from a leg cramp and finishing fifth last year in Yokohama, she says she’s primed for a first marathon title in her second homeland.

“This year everything is good,” said 2009 world half-marathon silver medallist Ongori, whose track PBs for 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m have all been set in Yokohama. “I didn't get any injuries. Sunday I am going to do something, if the weather is going to be good.”

John Ondari, her husband and coach, said Ongori is well prepared.

“Hopefully, this time around things are going to be on our side,” he said. “In spite of the competition from the Olympic champion, we are optimistic. The training has been good, the speed work and everything.”

Rotich, whose PB of 2:23:22 came while finishing fifth in Chicago in 2012, finished fourth at the Tokyo Marathon last February. The Kenyan has two victories in 10 career marathons, in Las Vegas in 2010 and Prague in 2013, the latter on the day before her 29th birthday.

Shurhno, who failed to finish the 2013 Tokyo Marathon, will be looking to emulate last year's winner, Albina Mayorova of Russia, as a former pace-maker who later entered and won the race. She ran a career best of 2:23:32 at the 2012 Berlin Marathon, where she finished third.

Barros has twice finished third in Yokohama, in 2011 and 2012, but might be hard-pressed to better that performance after suffering a left knee injury at the European Championships in Zurich, where she placed 20th. She said she is not at the level of preparation as she was two years ago.

If experience plays a factor, then Balciunaite has a step on the competition, although she has not run faster than 2:30 since 2008. Among her 30 marathons dating back to 2000, her personal best of 2:25:15 came at the Yokohama race's predecessor in Tokyo in 2005, when she finished second.

Ken Marantz for the IAAF