Worknesh Degefa prevails again at the Dubai Marathon (© Giancarlo Colombo)
For tenacity, Worknesh Degefa was the star of the show in the 21st anniversary race of the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, a World Athletics Gold Label road race on Friday (24), the Ethiopian enduring mid-race physical problems to clock 2:19:38 and win the women’s race. But for sheer opportunism, debutants Olika Adugna of Ethiopia and Eric Kiptanui of Kenya carried the day, outwitting the tried and tested marathoners, to finish first and second in the men’s race, in 2:06:15 and 2:06:17.
Degefa won by half a minute from compatriot Guteni Shone, with another Ethiopian Bedatu Hirpa further back in third; but the measure of the blanket finish of the men’s race was that Beshah Yerssie ran 2:06:34, which would have been a world record two decades ago, yet his 11th place meant he got zero prize money.
The mass sprint was more reminiscent of a track event. And sure enough the sprinters won; or rather the former track men. The experienced marathoners were keeping a close eye on one other and ignoring Adugna and Kiptanui, but when it came down to speed rather than staying power, Adugna followed the initial sprint of Kiptanui from 500 metres out, then whizzed past him after another 100 metres, and took the victory and the $100,000 first prize. Two more Ethiopians followed on 2:06:18, with Tsedat Abeje getting the nod over Lencho Tesfaye.
Degefa won this race on her own debut in 2017, and finished fourth the following year, yet though she could only finish second to Ruth Cheongetich last year, she said that her national record of 2:17:41 followed by victory in Boston last April meant that she now felt "really confident as a marathon runner".
Accordingly, she set out to underline her status as world’s sixth fastest woman. She asked for a fast pace, and approaching halfway, with a lead of over a minute, she was on course for a 2:16 clocking. But then a back injury that has blighted her training and caused her miss New York in November flared up, and looking distinctly uncomfortable, she dropped off the pace.
With her lead reduced considerably by the end, she only just managed to cross the line before collapsing and needing medical attention. But she revived soon enough to say, "I’m really proud that I managed to keep going when my back was giving me so many problems. I want to sort them out, because my aim is to represent my country in the Olympic Games (Tokyo in August)." That would be after defending her Boston title in April.
Degefa also won $100,000, out of an overall prize pot of a million dollars. And after expressing his surprise that the leaders should have followed a relatively sedate pace - "At 40k, I realised that, with my speed I could win," - Adugna underlined the financial primacy of road running, and marathons in particular nowadays when he completely dismissed the idea of returning to track. Then again, a hundred grand is a powerful argument for sticking to the roads.
Of the several runners from across the world who were seeking an Olympic qualifying time, the best was Kenyan-born Mexican Risper Biyaki, but her 2:30:59 for tenth place was ten seconds off her best, and still over a minute outside the Tokyo qualifying time. As for late entrant, Japanese men’s record holder, Suguru Osako, it turned out that he only wanted to run to 25k against a class field, and demonstrate to the national selectors that despite his third place in the Olympic Trial which should qualify him for Tokyo anyway, he is still maintaining quality form. The way he was dropping off the pace and then surging back to the front suggests that are no problems in that department.
Pat Butcher (organisers) for World Athletics
1. Olika Adugna, ETH 2:06:15
2. Eric Kiptanui, KEN 2:06:17
3. Tsedat Abeje, ETH 2:06:18
4. Lencho Tesfaye, ETH 2:06:18
5. Yitayal Atnafu, ETH 2:06:21
6. Yihunilign Adane, ETH 2:06:22
7. Aychew Bantie, ETH 2:06:23
8. Seifu Tura, ETH 2:06:26
9. Chalu Deso, ETH 2:06:29
10. Zewudu Hailu, ETH 2:06:31
1. Worknesh Degefa, ETH 2:19:38
2. Guteni Shone, ETH 2:20:11
3. Bedatu Hirpa, ETH 2:21:55
4. Tigist Abayechew, ETH 2:22:45
5. Dera Dida, ETH 2:22:52
6. Hawi Feysa, ETH 2:23:36
7. Bezunesh Deba, ETH 2:26:59
8. Obst Abdeta, ETH 2:29:30
9. Buze Diriba, ETH 2:30:18
10. Risper Biyaki, MEX 2:30:59