Zersenay Tadese winning at the 2012 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships
Wilson Kipketer, official ambassador to the IAAF/AL-Bank World Half Marathon Championships, has described the flat and scenic course in Copenhagen, which starts and finishes in front of the National Parliament, as “the perfect setting for making personal bests.”
If Denmark’s former 800m world record-holder and champion is right, there could be a world record to celebrate on 29 March, given the participation of the man who has become this event’s paramount performer in the space of the past decade – Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese.
Having earned his first gold medal in 2006 when the event switched – for one year only – to a 20km race (and took the title of the IAAF World Road Running Championships, which it kept for one more year when the event reverted back to the half marathon distance in 2007), he has now amassed an unprecedented five individual titles.
To put that achievement in context, the list of winners since the event began in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1992 includes Olympic champions such as Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia, Khalid Skah of Morocco and Stefano Baldini of Italy, as well as former world 10,000m champion Moses Tanui of Kenya, the first man to run a half marathon in less than an hour.
But other than Tadese, only one man has won more than one individual gold medal – Kenya’s Paul Tergat, who was victorious in 1999 and 2000.
If Tadese is to rise to Kipketer’s verbal challenge, it will mean eclipsing the mark of 58:23 he ran in Lisbon four years ago to beat Sammy Wanjiru’s then world record by 10 seconds.
Should he slip off that testing schedule, however, the championship record of 58:59 he set in winning the second of his five golds in 2007 could still be under threat.
However, the defending champion himself will be under threat in Copenhagen from the presence of the Kenyan who interrupted his run of victories by beating him into second place four years ago in Nanning – Wilson Kiprop.
To date, that victory in China remains Kiprop’s greatest achievement in the sport, but he has gone on record as saying he is “very determined” to win the gold again in Copenhagen, and “confident” about his training.
Kiprop – who at 26 is six years younger than his Eritrean rival – believes that he has three other reasons for confidence.
Firstly, 2010 marked the first year he ran the distance faster than an hour, something he has since managed five times, with a best of 59:15. Secondly, he is a more experienced runner. And thirdly, well, he already knows what if takes to win this title, doesn’t he?
Kiprop commented recently about Tadese’s dominance in this event: "Sometimes much attention is given to other athletes and then a new one emerges during the race and wins it." It holds true for himself, of course.
Behind the two leading men, there will be an eager pack of contenders waiting to emerge, with Tadese’s Eritrean colleague Nguse Amsolom looking particularly dangerous given his performance in last month’s event in Ras Al Khaimah, where a record eight men ran faster than an hour. His second-place finish in 59:39, three seconds behind winner Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and six seconds ahead of Kiprop, is also the second fastest of 2014.
A third Eritrean runner, Samuel Tsegaye, has huge experience, having finished fifth at the 2010 championships, where he helped his country earn the team silver medals.
Kenyan team looking for seventh successive team gold
Kenya, as ever, has talent in depth. Alongside Kiprop, they will field Robert Kwemoi Chemosin, Simon Cheprot, Geoffrey Kipsang and Kenneth Kiprop Kipkemoi, all of whom have broken the hour for the half marathon. Even their reserve, Cyprian Kimurgor Kotut, has run faster than 60 minutes.
The 21-year-old Kipsang, winner of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships junior men’s title in 2011, was the fastest man in the world at the distance last year thanks to his 58:54 win in Ras Al Khaimah.
Japan’s Kenta Murayama, second at Marugame on 2 February, may also fancy his chances of making the podium.
With Desisa absent, Ethiopia’s challenge could be led by Guye Adola, who won at Marrakech on 26 January in 1:01:26. Ethiopia, too, boast strength in depth with a squad which includes Adugna Tekele (a personal best of 1:00:35), Tebalu Zawude (1:00:33) and 18-year-old Bonsa Diba (1:01:53).
US hopes will rest with the Kenyan-born Josphat Boit, who ran a personal best of 1:01:41 at this year’s US Championships, and Tyler Pennel, who finished eight seconds behind him.
While Kiprop will be seeking to extend the Kenyans’ historic domination of the individual race – where they have won 10 titles – he is also aiming to help his country earn a seventh successive team gold, with Eritrea and Ethiopia looking the most likely challengers to that ambition.
"We want it just to be like the 2010 outing where we won both the individual as well as the team gold medals," he said.
Kipketer, meanwhile, is preparing to race alongside huge numbers of his fellow countrymen in the mass participation race that will take place as part of the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships men’s race, involving about 25,000 runners in temperatures predicted to be about a favourable 9°C.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF