Defending champ Geoffrey Mutai scratched just before the start.
The sixth edition of the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in the U.A.E. on Friday morning saw Kenyan winners in both men’s and women’s contests, but the runners were buffeted by strong south-easterly winds throughout, with mixed effects on the elite fields of Kenyans and Ethiopians.
After her global mark here 12 months ago, no better than a “solid run” was expected of Kenya’s Mary Keitany, so it was all the more surprising when the winner of last year’s Virgin London Marathon followed the pacemaking of Ethiopian Sulti Gure Timbre and her own husband of six weeks Charles Koech. Tucked well behind them, she tore through 8K in 24:48, a full 8 seconds inside world record tempo.
After passing 10K in 31:09 (30:45 in 2011 but WR pace would be 31:10), and with a lead of 1:14 from Georgina Rono, Gladys Cherono and Feysa Tadesse, hopes were raised by the fine form of the diminutive Olympic hopeful. Soon after half way however, the combination of headwind and overly optimistic early pace, brought on shades of her New York Marathon demise last November; that third 5K segment took 16:03, but her pursuers actually lost even more ground and her 15K split of 47:12 (46:40 in her record run one year ago) saw her exactly two minutes up on the trio, still locked together.
A clocking of 16 minutes exactly for the fourth 5K section confirmed that it was a race of two halves for Keitany (first half 31:09, second half 32:03), but perhaps the strength of the wind was best underlined when splits showed that same 5K (to 20K) took the chasing group 16:32 although there was perhaps an element of watching each other therein. For her part, with the finish in sight, the light-as-a-feather mother of 3-year-old Jared Kipchumba pushed hard for the line, but even that last 1.1K took 3:37 (3:24 in her record run last year), as she crossed the line in 1:06:49, a time bettered by only three others in history.
Her winning margin of 2:24 over an outstanding field, only emphasized her extraordinary ability, but the 30-year old displayed all the post-race nonchalance for which so many great Kenyan runners are renowned. Asked immediately after the race if she realized she was on world record pace, the simple answer was “No, but the wind was very bad in the second half.” suggesting that a run of something at least close to last year’s 65:50 may have been possible in a kinder breeze. In second, Georgina Rono (1:09:13) was only 5 seconds off her best ever, with Gladys Cherono a further second back.
The surprise of the day was triple-edged for the men; firstly just minutes before the start, came the news that Geoffrey Mutai, winner here in 2010 and of the Boston and New York Marathons last year, would not start. A sore foot had been nagging apparently, a legacy of the tough course negotiated at last week’s San Blas Half Marathon; the suggestion was that the withdrawal was a precaution. The second shock was that a field boasting 9 sub-one hour runners cruised its way through the first half of the race – in stark contrast to Keitany’s approach – passing 10K in a relatively slow 28:45. And the final unexpected event unfolded when 18-year-old Dennis Kipruto Koech, in his first race outside of Kenya, eased away from his rivals at around the 12K mark to build up an unassailable lead.
Despite the best efforts of Wilson Kipsang Kiprotich, second here in 2009 and spectacular winner of the Frankfurt Marathon last October in 2:03:42, the youngster from Eldoret – who is ironically a member of the Geoffrey Mutai-led training group – could not be reeled in, crossing the line in an untroubled 60:40. Although this was by 48 seconds the slowest winning time ever in RAK, it was a personal best by 40 seconds for the farmer’s son with all the shyness of the uninitiated but with a smooth and deceptively effective gait.
Much damage had been done soon after half way when the Ethiopia’s noticeably muscled Feyisa Lelisa, so strange a sight amidst the linear Kenyan frames, upped his work rate and the all too comfortable pack of 12 running together to 10K (including the 3 pacemakers), quickly disintegrated. Only young Koech was able to absorb the surge of the year’s fastest man and return it with interest, rapidly opening a gap before 15K.
A late surge by Azmeraw Bekele, but coming from too far back – he was 14 seconds down on the pack at 10K – saw him draw to within 8 seconds of Koech at 20k, but he got no closer and the 9-second winning margin showed the maturity and strength of the teenager when meeting such a high quality field for the first time. Indeed, only four pursuers could stay within a minute of his finishing time, such was the power of his sustained closing pace.
Unaware of where his next race might be, young Koech has never broken 14 minutes for 5,000m even though his third 5K segment was covered in 14:11 — fully 13 seconds faster than any of his rivals – and most of that damage was done in the space of 3K (12K to 15K).
With 86 nations participating and 122 relay teams of 4 taking in the near dead flat RAK circuit, the day represented yet another growth spurt to reward Race Director Nathan Clayton’s endeavours. The awarding of the IAAF Gold Label plaque after the race, to the Chair of the Executive Organising Committee Colonel Nasser Mradad, was an appropriate way to acknowledge the progress made in such a short space of time. The very first RAK Half Marathon in 2007 saw a world record by the late Sammy Wanjiru; wouldn’t it be appropriate if in Olympic year, the race witnessed the emergence of another future Olympic star in Dennis Kipruto Koech. He might have to wait longer than the 18 months that saw Wanjiru go from RAK Champion to Olympic Champion, but at 18 it is clear that time is very much on his side.