Portuguese race walker Ines Henriques (© Getty Images)
The spotlight will fall firmly on hometown heroine Ines Henriques at the Grande Prémio Internacional de Rio Maior em Marcha Atlética, the fifth stop of the 2018 IAAF Race Walking Challenge, on Saturday (7).
In a tribute to the 50km world champion and world record holder, organisers in the Portuguese capital of race walking will give bib No. 1 to Henriques, who'll face a strong field in the women's 20km which includes 2012 Olympic silver medallist Qieyang Shenjie of China, her compatriot Xiuzhi Lu, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, and Brazil's Erica de Sena, the current Challenge leader.
The two Chinese are strong candidates for the victory. Qieyang, who has already won in Rio Maior back in 2016, has a personal best of 1:25:16 and took a strong win at the Chinese National Grand Prix meeting in Huangshan clocking 1:27:36, the third fastest in the word this year. In the same competition Lu, who also took world silver in 2017, was seventh in 1:31:04.
Another Chinese walker, Wang Yingliu, who clocked 1:28:37 for third in Huangshan, will also be in Rio Maior, where Brazil's de Sena is also expected. The South American record holder who was seventh at the 2016 Rio Games, is a regular presence in Portugal, where her best finish was second in 2014. She arrives this year as the leader in the IAAF Race Walking Challenge, thanks to her second place in Monterey in February and her victory at the South America Championships in Sucua, Ecuador, last month where she clocked 1:30:22.
The list of potential winning candidates continues with Italian Antonella Palmisano, the 2017 world bronze medallist who was fourth at the 2016 Olympic Games and comes armed with a 1:26:36 personal best set last year.
Of course, despite her dedication to the 50km event, Portugal's Henriques has to be considered among the leading contenders. She will be attempting to finish her 105th 20km race, a distance over which she has dipped under 1:30 on nine occasions and under 1:31 on 24. She was third in Monterey in February after winning national titles over 35km (2:45:51) and 20km (1:30:08).
The Portuguese 20km record holder Ana Cabecinha is also in the race. The fourth place finisher at the 2015 World Championships and sixth place finisher at both the 2016 Olympic Games and 2017 World Championships began her season after a six week delay due to injury. She was second in 20km national championship behind Henriques.
Spaniard Laura Garcia-Caro, who was fourth at the 2014 World U20 Championship over 10,000m, and ninth at the World Championships last year, will begin her 2018 season in Rio Maior. But another local star, Vera Santos, the winner in Rio Maior in 2010 and 2014, will not. She’s expecting a child this weekend.
Chocho heads strong men's field
The Challenge leader on the men's side, Ecuador’s Andres Chocho, is among the strong favourites on Saturday. He was this year’s 50km winner in Monterey and champion over 20km at the South American Championships in 1:22:51. He was third in Rio Maior in 2016.
Another candidate for the win is Argentina’s Juan Manuel Cano, with a 1:22:10 PB, who was fifth last year and ninth at the South American Championship. Brazil's José Bagio, who has a 1:21:46 lifetime best, was fifth in Rio Maior in 2014 and 2016.
From the other side of the Portuguese border comes Alvaro Martin. The Spaniard, with a 1:19:36 lifetime best, was eighth at the 2015 World Championships, won in Rio Maior in 2016, and is the reigning Spanish champion. He'll be joined by compatriot Diego Garcia, who has 1:20:34 credentials.
The field also includes Mexican’s Ever Palma, a 1:19:38 man, who was sixth in Rio Maior in 2016, and this year fifth at both Monterey and Castellon; Swede Perseus Karlström (1:19:11 PB), the winner in Adelaide and sixth in Monterey; Alexandros Papamihail (1:21:33) of Greece, eighth in Rio Maior last year; and Tunisian Hassanine Sbai (1:20:32), the 2010 African Champion and third last year in Rio Maior.
Three Chinese walkers are also expected: Xiangqian Jin, who has a 1:19:12 lifetime best and was fourth in Huangshan; Jiaxing Yin (1:20:56 PB), seventh in Huangshan; and Wenbin Niu (1:21:41).
António Manuel Fernandes for the IAAF