Dereje Abera (l) outsprints Eliud Cheptei in Hong Kong (Organisers) © Copyright
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Abera and Mekonnin Demissie looking for repeat victories in Hong Kong

The final 100m of last year’s Hong Kong Marathon, an IAAF Silver Label Road Race, looked like a tag-team wrestling match, with four men sprinting to the line, arms and legs flying every which way.

Dereje Abera of Ethiopia emerged from the scrum at the last second to snatch victory and the $50,000 first prize. But, returning to defend his title in Sunday’s 17th annual Standard Charted Hong Kong Marathon, he still recalls the photo-finish with bemusement.

“I always thought I could win, but you can never be sure with the Kenyans. It’s the same this year; there are a lot of good Kenyans in there. Also there are no pace-makers here in Hong Kong, so a lot of people stay together, and the pace goes up and down. The weather is the same, one day it’s warm, one day cold.”

Race date is determined by Chinese New Year, which was earlier this year, so the race is three weeks later than 2012, and in this part of the world that means potential 20°C and humid conditions towards the end of the race, which begins at 7am local time (11pm GMT Saturday).

Abera set a course record of 2:11:27 last year, but Julius Maisei of Kenya was only a second behind in fourth place; and having finished second in 2011, would dearly love to carry off the increased first prize of $57,000 on Sunday.

“It helps to know the course, because it’s quite difficult,” said Maisei at the Friday press conference. “And the tunnel at the end (to get on to Hong Kong Island) is very long and very hot, and it’s also uphill at the end.”

On paper, there is a very evenly-balanced men’s elite field – six runners within a minute of one another between 2:08 and 2:09. But since James Mbugua ran his 2:08:05 at altitude in Mombasa, that might just prove to be an advantage here right beside the South China Sea.

In contrast to the men’s tight finish, the returning women’s winner, Ethiopia's Misiker Mekonnin Demissie win at the 2012 Hong Kong Marathon was a minute-and-a-half ahead of her pursuers. With Kenya's Winfred Nyansikera returning also, last year’s top trio could well be in the frame again.

Standard Chartered currently have eight events on their calendar, but at 17 years, Hong Kong was the first and is one of the longest sponsorships in the Marathon world. Close to two decades have seen competitor numbers rise exponentially, from 1000 at the inaugural event to more than 14,000 for this Sunday’s race (72,000 altogether, including the Half-marathon and 10km). The race is now an IAAF Silver Label event, and prize money this year has also increased to more than a quarter of a million dollars.

The concurrent 14th Asian Championships (previously held here in 2002 and 2008) have made for an even more exotic collection of nationalities, with runners from Kirghizstan and Uzbekistan in the West, to the Philippines and East Timor in the East, by way of Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, North Korea, Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia, among others.

Kim Kum Ok of DPR Korea should also be a contender for the open race. According to her coach, Kim is in good form and eager to repeat her victory from 2008.

As for the men, Ser-Od Bat-Ochir’s first marathon was here in Hong Kong in 2002, but with around 30 races under his shoe leather since then, and a best of 2:11:05 in Japan last year, he is favourite for the Asian title. But whether he can combat the East Africans remains to be seen.

Pat Butcher (organisers) for the IAAF