Ethiopia’s Lemi Berhanu emerged as the unexpected champion at the 2015 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon, crossing the line at the IAAF Gold Label Road Race in a world-leading time and big personal best of 2:05:28 on Friday (23)
It was not a debutants’ triumph as has been the case for the past three years but it was definitely surprise as the 21-year-old Ethiopian – wearing a bib with his extended family name of Hayle on it – left behind some of the biggest names in long-distance running.
Lelisa Desisa, the 2013 Dubai and Boston Marathon champion, took second in 2:05:52 while Deribe Robi completed the all-Ethiopian podium with a time of 2:06:06.
Fourth was Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa in 2:06:35 followed by two more Ethiopians, Sisay Lemma in a personal best of 2:07:06 and Bazu Worku in 2:07:09. Indeed, the top 12 men were all Ethiopian runners.
Split times of 14:39 for 5km and 29:22 for 10km initially pointed towards a sub-2:04 finishing time.
However, the pacemakers could not sustain the pace and when a group of 15 runners reached the 25km mark in 1:13:57, none of them was left in the race.
Five more runners lost contact during the next five kilometres, among them Kenenisa Bekele.
It was Desisa who surged ahead at the 30km refreshment station to take his bottle. The Ethiopian kept going and five countrymen went with him: Robi, Lemma, Lelisa, Girmay Birhanu and Lemi Berhanu.
Five kilometres from the finish a duel between Desisa, who was also second in New York last November, and Lemi Berhanu developed and the latter was able to drop the much more experienced Desisa with about one kilometre to go.
Dream come true in Dubai
“I would never have thought that I could win this race,” said Berhanu, who had won his debut race in Zurich last year with 2:10:40. "It was my dream to do this in Dubai one day, but not this year! With around one kilometre to go, I sensed that I could succeed."
He has now improved by more than five minutes and is unbeaten in two races.
“If my federation selects me then I would really like to run the marathon in the World Championships in the summer,” added Berhanu, who said he had no idea what to do with the first prize cheque of US$200,000. “I never thought about the money. I really don’t know what I will do with it.”
By contrast, Dubai proved a tough and disappointing marathon experience for Bekele.
Ethiopia’s superstar, in his third marathon, dropped out just beyond the 30km mark, appearing to suffer from a leg injury. He had been in the leading group up to the 28km mark.
“Kenenisa suffered hamstring problems in both legs,” explained his coach Renato Canova.
“But I think the real problem is in his right achilles tendon. At the end of November, he had to reduce training because of this but then it got better and, actually, his final training sessions looked encouraging. A world record was never a realistic target, but a 2:04 time seemed realistic.
“However, when I saw him running today he did not look relaxed, he looked tight. I think this is the reason why he developed hamstring problems. Something must have happened in the final few days before the race,” added the Italian coach. “We now have to solve this tendon problem but for his future marathon career I remain very confident. I think he will do really well.”
Mergia a motivated mother
Making it a marvellous day for Ethiopian runners, other than Bekele, Aselefech Mergia produced a perfect comeback in the women’s race.
Having taken an extensive break from competition to have a baby, the 2011 and 2012 Dubai champion returned to run a marathon for the first time since her disappointing 42nd place at the 2012 Olympics and won in 2:20:02, just 31 seconds outside her course record from three years ago.
In a thrilling battle right to the line, Kenya’s world half marathon champion Gladys Cherono was beaten by just one second in what was the third-fastest marathon debut.
Another Kenyan, Lucy Kabuu, was third in 2:20:21 in a race which saw 10 women run faster than 2:24.
Ethiopia’s Tigist Tufa broke clear shortly after the start and maintained a daunting pace, leading a talented chasing group by a minute at 20km, which was reached in 1:05:23 and suggested a 2:18 finishing time.
However, Tufa paid the price in the end and was caught at 34km by a five-woman group consisting of Mergia, fellow Ethiopians Aberu Kebede and Shure Demissie, Kabuu and Cherono.
The group was reduced to three with just over three kilometres remaining after Kebede and Demissie were dropped, before Mergia eventually proved the strongest in the final kilometre.
“I told myself after having my daughter that I could win a marathon again,” said Mergia, who was watched by her husband and baby daughter. "We used the prize money from my first two wins in Dubai to begin building a hotel back home, now we’ll be able to complete the job."
Ethiopian runners took the next four places. Fourth was teenager Demissie in a world junior best of 2:20:59, and the fifth fastest debut on record; with Kebede in 2:21:17, 2014 Dubai champion Mulu Seboka in 2:21:56 and then Alemu Bekele in 2:22:51 the next three women across the line.
Jorg Wenig (organisers) for the IAAF