Deriba Merga and Aselefech Mergia made it a sweep for Ethiopia in the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon here on Sunday (9). In pleasant, but hazy weather conditions over a flat course, both clocked personal best times in the IAAF Gold Label Road Race.
Merga timed a world season lead equalling 59:15 while Aselefech had a 68:17 run to win the women’s race. Both were course records by long margins, bettering the 60:43 set by Rwanda's Dieudonne Disi and 70:30 clocked by Ethiopia's Deriba Alemu last year.
Over 25,000 participants lined up at Vinay Marg on Sunday morning to compete in the main half marathon event as well as the shorter Delhi Great Run. Political and film personalities apart from veteran sportspersons joined the occasion to pep up the runners.
But for the smog, the weather was, as expected, ideal for distance running and predictably, some fast times were returned.
The initial pace itself indicated at least course record records with Merga leading a pack of more than 20 runners in 2:39 through the first kilometre. The pace never slackened through the 3km and 5km marks, with Merga and Kenyans Kiplimo Kimutai and Wilson Chebet in the front pack at the 7.5km mark.
Through the magnificent Central Vista that took the runners around India Gate, Merga had the company of countryman Regassa Tilahun and Kenyans Chebet and Wilson Kipsang.
At the 10km mark, passed in 27:27, Merga was hotly pursued by Kipsang and Chebet, who were to eventually finish second and third respectively. The pace slackened a little on the return leg, though 15km was passed in 41:45. Chebet and Kipsang changed leads with Merga for brief spells before the Ethiopian took charge with about 3km to go to the finish.
As Merga came through the final kilometre, relentlessly pursued by Kipsang, there looked the possibility of a repeat of the Ethiopian’s Beijing Olympics misfortunes, though that did not happen as the 26-year-old Ethiopian held on to breast the tape and proudly posed for the cameramen. Kipsang came second in 59:16.
Merga had led much of the time in the Olympics marathon only to go out of the medals bracket towards the end, missing the bronze by a mere 0.21 seconds. Today he equalled Haile Gebrselassie's world season leading time, which was incidentally a personal best also for the small-built Ethiopian, to pocket the top prize of US$25,000.
Merga admitted that he panicked a little through the final 50 metres when Kipsang was surging through. "Kipsang was pushing hard, but I managed to keep my lead and am happy to win," said Merga.
Kipsang was happy to have improved his PB from 60:25 to 59:16. "I gave him a strong challenge in the last kilometre and nearly caught him. My first visit to India is a memorable one as I ran my fastest time," said the 31-year-old Kenyan who had won in Rotterdam last April.
A blanket finish also marked the women's race with Aselefech Mergia being separated from the second-placed Genet Getanah, her countrywoman, by a second. Kenyan Peninah Arusei, the silver winner at the World Road Running Championships in Rio, who led at the 10km mark (31:23), eventually came third in 68:20.
Mergia's furious sprint nearing the finish ensured her the gold in a huge personal best that bettered her 69:57 at Rio last month. The Ethiopian said that she had been nursing a leg injury and was in pain.
"I was patient and cautious at the beginning" said Mergia, pointing out that she was wary of her injury. The 23-year-old Ethiopian said that she did not know what to do with the prize money of US$25,000.
In the midst of such pace in a classy field, defending men's champion Disi could manage only the sixth place in 60:47.
In the favourable conditions, Indian runners also returned personal bests. Sandeep Kumar won the men's race in 1:04.48 while Kavita Rau retained her women's crown in 1:17.12.
The Lt Governor of Delhi, Tejendra Khanna and the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dixit, were among those who flagged off the races and gave away the prizes.
Other dignitaries at the start-finish point included Indian Olympic Association President and IAAF Council Member, Suresh Kalmadi, former Olympic Heptathlon champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, former Test Cricketer Richard Hadlee of New Zealand, Indian cricketing legend Kapil Dev, film stars Ajay Devgun, Saif Ali Khan, Rahul Bose, Kajol and Kareena Kapoor.
By an IAAF Correspondent
1. Deriba Merga (Eth) 59:15;
2. Wilson Kipsang (Ken) 59:16;
3. Wilson Chebet (Ken) 59:34;
4. Regassa Tilahun (Eth) 1:00:28;
5. Tadesse Tola (Eth) 1:00:45;
6. Dieudonne Disi (Rwa) 1:00:47;
7. Kiplimo Kimutai (Ken) 1:00:58;
8. Joseph Maregu (Ken) 1:01:03;
9. Eshetu Wondimu (Eth) 1:01:04;
10. William Chebon (Ken) 1:01:17.
1. Aselefech Mergia (Eth) 1:08:17;
2. Genet Getanah (Eth) 1:08:18;
3. Peninah Arusei (Ken) 1:08:20;
4. Atsede Habtamu (Eth) 1:09:37;
5. Ashim Kasim (Eth) 1:10:19;
6. Tiki Gelana (Eth) 1:10:22;
7. Pauline Njeri (Ken) 1:10:23;
8. Mare Dibaba (Eth) 1:10:28;
9. Pauline Wangui (Ken) 1:10:36;
10. Tigist Tufa (Eth) 1:10:41.
Men: 1. Sandeep Kumar 1:04:48; 2. Kashinath Aswale1:04:52; 3. Deep Chand 1:04:56; 4. Irrappa Akki 1:05:07; 5. Surendra Singh 1:05:28; 6. Lengoi Binning 1:05:28; 7. Soji Mathew 1:01:33; 8. Sonatan Singh 1:05:34; 9. Angad Kumar 1:05:40; 10. Neeraj Singh 1:05:42.
Women: 1. Kavita Raut 1:17: 12; 2. Preethi L Rao 1:17:20; 3. Sudha Singh 1:17:39; 4. Vivek Suba 1:18:02; 5. Kiran Tiwari 1:21:51; 6. Manjusha C. A. 1:23:21; 7. Anuja Bijagare 1:23:57; 8. Pramila Devi 1:25:07; 9. Jyoti Bisht 1:25:15; 10. Sarabjeet Kaur 1:26:07.