Ethiopian marathon runner Dejene Debela (Getty Images) © Copyright
Preview Xiamen, China

Reigning champions Debela and Armino return to Xiamen

Ethiopia’s defending champions Dejene Debela and Medina Deme Armino will both return to China with the aim of retaining their titles at the Xiamen Marathon, the first World Athletics Gold Label road race of the year on Sunday (5).

The tall and long-legged Debela, who will celebrate his 25th birthday next Thursday, edged compatriot Afewerk Mesfin by just two seconds last year to take a second successive Xiamen victory in 2:09:26.

He went on to earn a runner-up finish in Chicago last October in 2:05:46, improving his personal best by 84 seconds, which suggests he has the ability to challenge the 2:06:19 course record set by Moses Mosop of Kenya in 2015.

Debela has an unbeaten record on Chinese soil, winning two titles in Xiamen and emerging victorious at the 2018 Beijing Marathon.

While Debela is eyeing a hat-trick, Shura Kitata is expecting third-time lucky in Xiamen.

The 23-year-old Ethiopian has progressed rapidly in recent years and is the fastest man on paper with a PB of 2:04:49, which was set from his second-place finish at the 2018 London Marathon. He came close to that mark last April when he returned to London to finish fourth in 2:05:01.

After a third-place finish in 2016 and a runner-up spot in 2017, Kitata will be keen to set his foot on to the top step of the podium and challenge the course record which also stands as the Chinese all-comers’ record.

Salah Eddine Bounasr of Morocco is another man to watch on Sunday. Although it will be his first outing in the southern Chinese city, the 29-year-old arrives in good form. He has been unbeaten since his Beijing Marathon title in September 2017. He clocked a winning time of 2:09:29 in Vienna in 2018 and reduced his career best to 2:07:52 in Otsu last March.

Kenyan duo Reuben Kerio and Kennedy Cheboror also renewed their lifetime bests in 2019. The 25-year-old Kerio clocked 2:07:00 in Eindhoven and won the Rock 'n' Roll Madrid Marathon last year, while Cheboror, 29, improved his PB to 2:06:59 when finishing fourth in Daegu and went on to win the Gyeongju Marathon in October, which was his third title in six races since debuting over the classic distance in 2016.

The 22-year-old Armino will also face a challenging title defence in the women’s race. Last year Armino trimmed almost two minutes off her PB to score an upset victory over a strong field in 2:27:25. And the field she will face on Sunday is even stronger.

Armino’s compatriot Yebrgual Melese leads the women’s elite list with a PB of 2:19:36, which was achieved from her third-place finish in Dubai two years ago. She is also the only woman in the field that has ever run faster than Mare Dibaba’s course record of 2:19:52 set in 2015.

The 29-year-old Melese has built a reputation for her consistency, having won titles in Houston, Prague and two straight victories in Shanghai.

Fellow Ethiopian Afera Godfay is also a serious title contender. The 28-year-old grabbed her first international marathon victory in Dongying last April and improved her PB to 2:22:41, which made her the second fastest entrant in Xiamen. More recently, she clocked 2:29:18 to finish 10th at the Ljubljana Marathon three months ago.

Ethiopian runners swept all 10 of the women’s titles in Xiamen over the past decade. Volha Mazuronak of Belarus would be the biggest hope to break such dominance this year.

Mazuronak’s PB of 2:23:54, which also stands as the Belarusian record, was set at the 2016 London Marathon. The 2018 European champion has maintained a high level of competitiveness in recent seasons, taking the top honours two years ago in Dusseldorf and last year in Hong Kong before finishing fifth at the World Championships in Doha last September.

The women’s field also includes local runner Li Zhixuan, the fastest Chinese woman in 2019 as she improved her PB to 2:26:15 last March, and Hiwot Ayalew of Ethiopia, a former steeplechase specialist who clocked 2:26:40 three months ago on her marathon debut.

Vincent Wu for World Athletics