Lemi Berhanu Hayle wins the 2015 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon (© Giancarlo Colombo)
Only Kenya’s Wilson Kibet and the Ethiopian living legend Haile Gebrselassie have managed back-to-back wins at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon but reigning champion Lemi Berhanu will hope to join this elite club at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race on Friday (22).
Berhanu, competing in what was then just his second marathon, out-thought and out-ran an experienced field in Dubai 12 months ago to win in 2:05:28, and the Ethiopian smashed his personal best by more than five minutes.
Later in 2015, Berhanu won his fourth consecutive marathon when he won in Warsaw in 2:07:57 but that impressive streak came to an end when he could only come home 15th at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 having been touted as a potential medal contender. His most recent appearance was a 1:01:38 clocking at the Valencia Half Marathon.
He will return to the Emirate for the 17th edition of a race that deservedly has the reputation as one of the fastest marathons in the world with a lot to prove.
Among Berhanu’s opponents in the elite field, with the race started by IAAF President Sebastian Coe who is visiting both the UAE and Qatar for talks with the IAAF Member Federations in both countries, will be his predecessor, 2014 winner Tsegaye Mekonnen.
Mekonnen’s 2014 win saw the then 18-year-old set a world junior best of 2:04:32 in what was his first official marathon, having run as a pacemaker in the 2013 race. However, his most recent marathon, in Amsterdam last October, was rather less auspicious and he failed to finish so, like his compatriot, he will be aiming to bounce back and prove his credentials once more.
Completing a trio of men who have won in Dubai, 2012 champion and course record-holder Ayele Abshero is also returning to the race.
Abshero ran 2:04:23 four years ago but since his fourth place at the 2014 London Marathon, when he ran 2:06:31, he has struggled to find his best form.
Among the strong Ethiopian contingent this year – and in 2015 the first 12 men home were from the East African nation – will be the well-known Tsegaye Kebede.
Competing in Dubai for the first time, Kebede won the London Marathon in both 2010 and 2013 and he has also won the Chicago, Paris and Fukuoka marathons.
Now 28, he can boast of a marathon best of 2:04:38 from when he won the 2012 Chicago race and has run faster than 2:08:00 every year since 2008.
The women’s field is led by three former winners from Ethiopia: Mulu Seboka (2014), Tirfi Tsegaye (2013) and Mamitu Daska (2010).
For Seboka, it will be a third straight appearance in Dubai. She followed her 2014 win with sixth place in 2015 and a personal best of 2:21:56.
Tsegaye, now 31, won the 2013 Dubai Marathon title in 2:23:23 and can boast of a personal best of 2:20:18, set when winning the 2014 Berlin Marathon, which makes her the fastest woman in the field.
Since winning in Dubai six years ago, Daska has lowered her marathon personal best to 2:21:59, which she set when winning the Frankfurt Marathon in 2011.
In 2015, she concentrated on shorter distances and finished eighth at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Guiyang 2015. She also won the half marathon title at the All African Games last summer.
A late addition to the women's race earlier this week was Ethiopia’s Meselech Melkamu, second in Dubai in 2014 when she just missed out on victory by 22 seconds to Seboka.
With a marathon personal best of 2:21:01, set in Frankfurt in 2012, Melkamu is the second-fastest woman in the field behind Tsegaye.
For all the Ethiopian runners in Dubai, fast times could also mean selection for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Olympic marathon gold medallists such as Abebe Bikila, Mamo Wolde, Gezahegn Abera, Fatuma Roba and 2012 women’s marathon champion Tiki Gelana.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF