RAK Half confirmed as the Place to Race
February 19, 2010
LRC Race Photos
A windless and sun-bathed spring morning in Ras Al Khaimah greeted the record field of over 2,000 entrants on Friday for the 4th edition of the RAK Half Marathon, but although the 7.20am start was designed to suit the massed elite ranks, it was a day of "merely" fast times, not records.
That's actually not strictly true, as in a stunning half marathon debut, Turkey's double Olympic silver medalist Elvan Abeylegesse tore through the last 6km, after a stuttering first 15km, to set a new course record of 1:07:07 defeating a stellar field of top road racers including several more fancied former compatriots from Ethiopia. The first eight women dipped under 69 minutes confirming the strength in depth.
In the men's contest, the expected challenge of Deriba Merga (ETH) faltered as the prolific racer and regular front runner inexplicably stepped off the road at 18km when the pack had reduced to four, opening the way for yet another Kenyan win, this time Geoffrey Mutai taking the honors in 59:43. The first four men broke the hour however, strengthening RAK's reputation as a venue for lightening quick times.
For Abeylegesse, her post-race comments suggested a hidden frustration, "If the pace had been faster and steadier, my time could have been a lot quicker. I felt easy at 15km (48:03) and it was only then I decided to start pushing the pace."
After working under Croatian coach Nicola Boric for just ten weeks, this was an important career move for the tiny 27 year old who understands and speaks better English than her naturally shy demeanor lets on. She insisted after the race that her marathon debut would still have to wait till after the 2012 Olympics, but did admit to being excited by what more she can do over this new distance.
The early pace (16:02 for 5km) was disappointing in the perfect conditions (18C at the start), but hopes rose of something special as the big pack passed 10km in 31:54 (a 15:52 split). However, 15km in 48:03 meant a 16:09 split and any chance of a shot at the targeted world record (66:25, Lornah Kiplagat, Udine 07) was gone. At that point, the group of six included the winner, and five Ethiopians, Teyba Erkesso, Aselefech Mergia, Koren Yal, Mare Dibaba and defending RAK champion Dire Tune.
Just as Tune had turned the screw in the late winds that spoiled last year's record attempts, firstly Erkesso then Abeylegesse, the only track specialist in the group, picked up the pace with the latter ripping a 15:44 split to 20km to test her far more experienced rivals. Surprisingly while Tune dropped back quickly, it was Dibaba and Mergia who hung on the longest, though even they couldn't live with the withering home straight surge from the Turk.
While Abeylegesse's winning time is the quickest debut ever, Dibaba improved her own best to 1:07:13 as runner up, with ever consistent Mergia third place breaking new ground in 1:07:22, beating her personal best from last year's RAK runner up performance. Teyba Erkesso - also a lifetime best - and Dire Tune followed through under 68 minutes, with Atsede Habtamu (ETH), Hilda Kibet (NED) and Agnes Kiprop (KEN) all under 69 minutes. Ten miles had been passed in 51:28, only twelve seconds outside Colleen de Reuck's 51:16 world best.
Such has been the quality of the men's running in each of the three previous years at RAK, that Mutai's performance seemed almost anti-climactic, but as in the women's race, the early pace did the main protagonists no favours and a sense of "what might have been" prevailed. In 2007, the unheralded Sammy Wanjiru won in 58:53; in 2007 Patrick Makau took the first of two consecutive titles, in 59:35, followed by a 58:52 course record twelve months later - still the No.2 performance all time
And now this - a 59:43 clocking, though not a personal best for Mutai, seen as a relative failure in only the fourth year of the event; how so? Well conditions were perfect, but the pack chose to ignore the pace making and as in the women's contest, started cautiously, with Jairus Chanchima (59:43 in Lille last September) leading a pack of thirteen through 5km in 14:04 - already 14 seconds outside of schedule. Thirteen became seven at 10km (28:11) by which time all thoughts of a world record had gone, the 14:07 split for that 5km continuing the theme. At this stage, an unusually restrained race from Deriba Merga meant no-one was prepared to push on and the subsequent splits times of 42:33 at 15km (a 14:22 5km, six in contention) and 56:52 at 20km (14:19, four left in it) made even the one hour mark look precarious. Almost unnoticed en route, ten miles had been passed in 45:45
For 28 year old Mutai however, this was a further indicator that he's a man to watch. Last November he won the Valencia Half in 59:30, and here he had the confidence to be the first to start pushing the pace at around 18km. Complaining afterwards that the humidity was high, he none the less controlled the last mile, burning up the last 1.097km in 2:51 for a six second win from debutante - though established marathon runner - Tadese Tola, who's 59:49 is some debut! Titus Masai (KEN) with 59:51 set a personal best, having run 60:00 exactly in Nice last April, and the fourth man under the hour was Getu Feleke (ETH) with 59:56, another lifetime best.
The temperature climbs rapidly in RAK on spring days and the window of opportunity at the start of the day is narrow. In both races this year, the sense of an opportunity missed was almost tangible, yet the tiny Emirate served up two great races, fast times, a thirty percent increase in the overall field size, and over a quarter of a million dollars in prize money. No wonder its reputation amongst the global elite as "the place to race" is enhanced; without doubt, a number of records in RAK, are living on borrowed time.