2018 Dubai Marathon Men’s Preview: Tamirat Tola Aims to Become First Man to Repeat Since Haile G in 2010

By LetsRun.com
January 24, 2018

Are you ready for some Thursday night marathoning?

Since the great Haile Gebrselassie won his third straight Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon title in 2010, Dubai has mostly served as a chance for young Ethiopian marathoners to launch their careers while chasing the richest first-place prize in the sport ($200,000). The past seven years have seen seven different champions, two of whom (2013 champ Lelisa Desisa and 2015 champ Lemi Berhanu) went on to win the storied Boston Marathon after claiming victory in Dubai. But last year’s champion, Tamirat Tola, hardly entered as an unknown; he already had a 2:06:17 pb and was the reigning Olympic bronze medalist in the 10,000 meters and showed why, setting a course record of 2:04:11. Tola added another medal at Worlds last year (silver in the marathon) and returns to Dubai as the favorite in 2018 as he looks to become the first man to repeat since Gebrselassie eight years ago.

However, a repeat title is far from assured as the 2018 Dubai men’s field is full of talent. There are five more sub-2:07 guys in the field — including 2015 Tokyo champ Endeshaw Negesse (2:04:52 pb), 2:05:16 man Sisay Lemma, and 59:11 half marathoner Mosinet Geremew — plus four really interesting debutants: Yenew Alamirew (12:48/27:19 track pbs),  Birhanu Legese (59:20 to win New Delhi Half Marathon in November), Leul Gebresilase (59:18 HM), and Fikadu Haftu (59:22). And that’s just the guys we know about; Dubai is famous for producing unknown champions.

There are a couple of changes for this year’s race. First, there’s a new course, which is very similar to the old course; the only change is that runners will run two shorter loops of Jumeirah Beach Road instead of one longer one. The negative aspect of that from a time perspective is that there are now two extra 180-degree turns, which makes for a grand total of six turns in the straightforward course. The second change is that the elite field will now start one hour ahead of the mass race, a change prompted by last year’s race when Kenenisa Bekele fell at the start and was forced to drop out after being trampled.

We tell you what to watch for in Friday’s race (which will take place Thursday night U.S. Eastern Time) below.

What: 2018 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon

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When: Friday, January 26, 6:00 a.m. UAE Standard Time (9:00 p.m. ET, Thursday, January 25)

Where: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

How to watch: You can watch a free live stream on the race website here.

2018 Dubai Marathon men’s elite field

Name Country PB Comment
Tamirat Tola Ethiopia 2:04:11 Defending champ/course record holder
Endeshaw Negesse Ethiopia 2:04:52 Won ’15 Tokyo but has only finished 1 marathon since
Sisay Lemma Ethiopia 2:05:16 Ran his PR here in ’16 when he was 4th; 3rd in ’17
Girmay Birhanu Ethiopia 2:05:49
Tested positive for meldonium in ’16 and faced potential jail time in Ethiopia but now back racing again
Mosinet Geremew Ethiopia 2:06:12 3rd in Berlin in Sept. behind Kipchoge & Adola
Sisay Jisa Ethiopia 2:06:27 Finished 4th last year, his first sub-2:10 in almost 5 years
Ronald Kipkoech Korir Kenya 2:07:26 3rd in Madrid last year
Adugna Takele Ethiopia 2:08:31 7th in Shanghai last year
Asefa Mengstu Ethiopia 2:08:41 7th at ’17 London, then won Cape Town in Sept.
Mekuant Ayenew Ethiopia 2:09:00 2016 Beijing champ lowered his PR to 2:09:00 in Prague in ’17
Berhanu Teshome Ethiopia 2:09:03 Has run 2:09 twice
Seifu Tura Ethiopia 2:09:26 2nd in Seoul last year in his debut
Joseph Kiptum Kenya 2:09:56 This is his first marathon since ’13
Herpassa Negasa Ethiopia 2:10:17 Has run 2:10:17 in his last 2 marathons (’15 Lyon, ’16 Mumbai)
Ken-Ichi Jiromaru Japan 2:15:24
Yenew Alamirew Ethiopia debut Track stud (12:48/27:19, ’13 DL 5k champ) has never raced beyond 10 miles
Derara Desalegn Ethiopia debut 61:45 half pb from Shanghai last year
Birhanu Legese Ethiopia debut 59:20 HM man beat out Leonard Korir to win New Delhi Half in Nov.
Leul Gebresilase Ethiopia debut 6th in Ethiopian Oly Trials 10k in ’16; 59:18 HM pb
Fikadu Haftu Ethiopia debut Ran big PR of 59:22 HM to finish 4 secs behind Gebresilase in Valencia in Oct.
Kuma Terecha Ethiopia debut 62:40 HM pb
Armon Napuat Vanuatu ???

The Favorite

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Tamirat Tola — Ethiopia, 26 years old, 2:04:11 pb (2017 Dubai), 59:37 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 1st 2017 Dubai (2:04:11), 2nd 2017 Worlds (2:09:49)

Tola only ran three races in 2017, but he performed magnificently in all three. He began the year by crushing the field here in Dubai, setting a course record of 2:04:11 to win by 2:35 as he was the only man to come close to holding on to the ridiculous early pace (61:33 at the half). Three months later, he traveled to Prague and crushed another quality field (which included Galen Rupp) to win the Prague Half Marathon by 61 seconds in 59:37. Finally, at Worlds he finished second, beaten only by Geoffrey Kirui, our 2017 World #1 in the marathon. If the 2017 version of Tola shows up on the start line in Dubai, he should win.

Another thing Tola has going for him is that he owns fast personal bests in the half (59:37) and the marathon (2:04:11, the fastest in the field). Why is that important? Because the Dubai Marathon plays out the same way every year, and the biggest key to winning the race is the ability to survive a near-suicidal first 13.1 miles. Check out the half marathon splits in the last four editions of the race (winning time and leader’s second half split in parentheses):

2014: 61:39 (62:53/2:04:32)
2015: 62:02 (63:26/2:05:28)
2016: 61:39 (62:45/2:04:24)
2017: 61:33 (62:38/2:04:11)

Last year, nine men hit 15k on world record pace and seven came through halfway in 61:36 or faster, but Tola was the only finisher under 2:06:30; everyone else either dropped out or positive-split by over four minutes. That’s hardly a surprise as most of the guys who run Dubai are not capable of running 2:04, especially considering the weather in Dubai is far from ideal for super fast marathon running. The low on race day this year is 61 degrees Fahrenheit with 54% humidity, and it will only warm up as it goes along (though the sun won’t rise until 7:04 a.m., over halfway through the race).

Of course it’s possible that one of the other guys on the entry list above could absorb a first half in the 61:30-62:00 range and go on to win the race, but given his commanding win next year and his sparkling credentials, Tola has to be favored to repeat.

Four Really Interesting Debutants

Since Dubai over the years has been known for Ethiopians winning big in their debuts, it makes sense to now focus on the guys making their debut this year in Dubai since many of them are very credentialed. There are a few credentialed marathoners in the field besides Tola who might win and whom we will get to later, but if Tola doesn’t win, we think a debutant is most likely the winner. We present the debutants to you in order of most likely to win to least likely to win.

Birhanu Legese — Ethiopia, 23 years old, 59:20 half

Legese was supposed to make his debut here last year but wound up scratching before the race. We were excited by his marathon prospects in 2017, and one year later, nothing has changed. The reason for our excitement? Legese is a half marathon stud. His PR is a quick 59:20, and he’s piled up  HM wins in many of the most prestigious half marathons in the world over the past three years, including Berlin, RAK, and New Delhi (twice). The win at RAK certainly stands out considering who he beat (Stanley Biwott and Wilson Kipsang, who both ran 2:03 for the full 26.2 later that year) and the track record of previous winners of that race (major champs such as Sammy Wanjiru, Patrick Makau, Geoffrey Mutai, Dennis Kimetto, Geoffrey Kamworor, and Lelisa Desisa).

Upon further analysis, the Delhi wins may be equally as impressive. Legese has won the race two of the last four years. The winners the other two years? Guys named Guye Adola and Eliud Kipchoge.

We know Legese is in shape as he enters Dubai off a win in New Delhi in November against a very competitive field — seven men (including American Leonard Korir) ran 60:06 or faster on the day, but Legese topped them all with his 59:46 winning time. His 2015 was even more impressive as seven men broke 59:40. The 7th placer in that race? Just a guy named Geoffrey Kirui — yes the guy who won Boston and Worlds last year. Half marathon success doesn’t always translate to the full distance, but Legese has shown everything you’d want from a guy making his debut.

Leul Gebresilase, Ethiopia, 24 years old, 59:18 half: 

Gebresilase owns solid track PRs (13:13/27:19) but looks better-suited to the roads, where he won 10ks in Okpekpe (Nigeria) and Ottawa last year. Most impressively, he ran a half marathon pb of 59:18 in Valencia in October so we know he’s in really good shape. 59:18 is really fast (he’s top 40 all-time according to tilastopaja.org, but it should be pointed out he didn’t win the race as he lost to Abraham Cheroben‘s 59:11) and in that race in Valencia he beat Sondre Moen by 30 full seconds. Moen then went out and ran a 2:05:48 European record at Fukuoka.

Yenew Alamirew — Ethiopia, 27 years old

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When a 12:48 runner debuts at 26.2, it gets your interest.

The problem is Alamirew has been almost exclusively a 3k/5k guy throughout his career, so it’s surprising to see him make his marathon debut in Dubai. He was a stud on the track — he was the 2013 Diamond League champ, and his 12:48 PR makes him the 10th-fastest 5k runner ever — but he hasn’t made an outdoor World Champs/Olympic team since 2013. That’s not to say he’s not good anymore — he ran 13:06 last year and finished 6th int he DL final — but it’s incredibly tough to make the Ethiopian team on the track these days. Muktar EdrisYomif Kejelcha, and Selemon Barega are all faster and significantly younger than Alamirew, so it makes sense that he’d want to move up in distance.

But to go directly to the marathon is odd. Alamirew had never run a 10,000 on the track until last year, and his longest race ever was the Dam tot Damloop 10-miler in the Netherlands last year. That’s right. He’s never even run a half marathon. As a result, we’re not particularly optimistic about his chances on Friday. It’s a myth that you need experience to excel in the marathon, but most athletes who succeed in their first try at the distance have at least one half marathon under their belts. Going straight from the track, as Alamirew is doing, will be an interesting experiment.

But mainly we have our doubts because if he was ideally suited for the 26.2 distance, we think he’d have at least run some 10,000s on the track. American fans know there are a lot of great 5000 runners who aren’t great marathoners — Matt Tegenkamp, Bob Kennedy, etc.

Fikadu Haftu, Ethiopia, 23 years old, 59:22 half: 

Haftu finished 4th in the Houston Half Marathon last year and was just four seconds behind Gebresilase in Valencia, running a PR of 59:22. Maybe someone should check Valencia to make sure it was actually 13.1 miles as the 59:22 for Haftu is a HUGE outlier from everything else in his career. While 59:22 is a huge outlier for Haftu, rest assured it is a legitimate time as Valencia is an IAAF Gold Label race. Valencia is also the site of World Half in 2018. He’d run nine half marathons in his career up to that point and never broke 61:02. His 5000 and 10,000 credentials aren’t impressive either – 13:30/28:09.

Two More Proven Marathoners 

Mosinet Geremew — Ethiopia, 25 years old, 2:06:12 pb (2017 Berlin), 59:11 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 2nd 2017 Xiamen (2:10:20), 3rd 2017 Berlin (2:06:12)

Geremew made his name as a half marathoner a few years ago, running 59:11 in New Delhi in 2014 before winning the perennially loaded RAK Half in 2015. In all, he’s broken 60:00 in the half four times and has broken 61:00 an additional four times. Last year, he moved up to 26.2, debuting with a 2:10:21 runner-up showing in Xiamen (winner Hayle Lemi ran 2:08:27) before taking third in Berlin in a big PR of 2:06:12 behind two studs in Eliud Kipchoge and Guye Adola. Given those results and his success in the half, he appears well-suited for the fast, flat Dubai layout.

Sisay Lemma — Ethiopia, 27 years old, 2:05:16 pb (2016 Dubai), 62:06 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 4th 2016 Dubai (2:05:16), 7th 2016 London (2:10:45), 4th 2016 Berlin (2:06:56), 3rd 2017 Dubai (2:08:04), DNF 2017 Boston, 4th 2017 Chicago (2:11:01)

Lemma is a consistent, quality marathoner and he’s had success the last three years in Dubai, placing 5th in 2015, 4th in 2016, and 3rd in 2017. Most recently, he was 4th in Chicago in October, and while his 2:11:01 time was his slowest since he won his debut in 2012 in 2:11:58, don’t let the result fool you. Remember, winner Galen Rupp only ran 2:09:20 on that day, and had the race gone out faster, we’re confident Lemma could have broken 2:10 — something he has done nine times in the last five years.

Now we hope a representative of Lemma is reading this as we think Lemma only has one chance to win the race on Friday. He absolutely must not go with the lead pack. Lemma has proven himself to be a solid marathoner over the years — he’s broken 2:07 three times. But we don’t think he is suited for the ridiculously fast starts in Dubai (most humans aren’t). Tilastopaja.org lists one career half-marathon performance for him (62:06) and zero track performances. So he’s a true 26.2 specialist – not a speed demon. If we were him, we’d hire our own set of rabbits and go out at 62:15. Try to run 2:04:30 (that time would have won three of the last six races) and hope everyone else blows up.

If he’s going to win an unofficial major like Dubai, he’s got to be smart as his track record shows he’s unlikely to win otherwise. Since earning the biggest win of his career in Frankfurt in 2015 (2:06:26), Lemma has consistently racked up a bunch of 3rd and 4th place finishes in some of the world’s most prestigious races (4th in 2016 in Dubai and Berlin, 3rd in 2017 in Dubai and 4th in 2017 Chicago). If he wants to win a race of the caliber of Dubai, he needs to try to outsmart everyone rather than hope that two or three people who are better than him are off their games. Of course, our strategy of running your own pace isn’t easy to do (and it’s expensive if you have to pay for rabbits) and still won’t produce a victory if others hold on (the winning times the last two years have been 2:04:11 and 2:04:24).

Both These Guys Tested Positive For Meldonium; Now They’re Back

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Endeshaw Negesse — Ethiopia, 29 years old, 2:04:52 pb (2013 Dubai)
Marathons since start of 2016: DNF 2017 Lake Biwa

Only once in the past six years has the winning time in Dubai been above 2:05. And considering Negesse is one of only two men in this year’s field to have broken 2:05 in his career, he has to be considered a serious contender.

Two caveats. First, the fact that Negesse has run 2:04 in the past doesn’t mean much in Dubai; of the 14 men who have broken 2:05 in Dubai over the past six years, only one — Tsegaye Mekonnen — entered the race as a sub-2:05 guy. It’s really hard to run 2:04 more than once. Second, Negesse hasn’t finished a marathon since November 2015. He was popped for meldonium in January 2016, and though he was not banned by WADA or the IAAF (and for good reason — meldonium was only banned by WADA on January 1, 2016, and Negesse claimed he last took the substance before that date), he was suspended by the Ethiopian federation while he waited for his case to be adjudicated and did not race at all that year. He paced Dubai last year but dropped out of Lake Biwa in March and did not race a fall marathon. Negesse still has some big results to his name (2:04 in Dubai five years ago, 2015 Tokyo champ), but that version of him may be gone forever. If that’s the case, he can’t win on Friday.

Girmay Birhanu — Ethiopia, 31 years old, 2:05:49 pb (2014 Dubai), 61:08 half
Marathons since start of 2016: 2nd 2017 Beijing (2:11:26)

Birhanu, like Negesse, tested positive for meldonium in 2016, and last year it was reported that Birhanu was facing up to three years in prison back home in Ethiopia as a result of the positive test. We haven’t seen any updates on the case and have not seen an agent listed for Birhanu, making it difficult to contact him, but it appears that the case has either stalled or been dismissed as he raced in Beijing in September and is entered in Dubai, site of his 2:05:49 PR from 2014. Birhanu enjoyed a strong 2015 season (wins in Daegu and Ottawa plus a 4th in Chicago) but hasn’t done much since.

Best of the Rest

Because Dubai attracts so many quality runners — many of whom are relatively unknown, even to serious fans of the sport — it would take forever to run through all of them in detail. Instead, we’ll highlight a few more guys below and apologize in advance if we leave out the winner.

  • Asefa Mengstu, Ethiopia, 33 years old, 2:10:01 pb: Mengstu has only run three career marathons, none under 2:10. He flashed potential by taking 7th in London last year and winning Cape Town in September. Could be in line for a big PR if he paces it properly, but if he gets sucked in by the hot early pace, he could also be susceptible to a blowup.
  • Seifu Tura, Ethiopia, 20 years old, 2:09:26 pb: Tura has limited experience — All-Athletics lists no results for him longer than 15k until last year — but he ran 60:47 for the half marathon and was second in Seoul in his 26.2 debut on November 5. If he’s recovered since then (he’s had 12 weeks), he could be dangerous.
  • Sisay Jisa, Ethiopia, 35 years old, 2:06:27 pb: 4th last year.

And the winner will be…. To get our prediction for men’s race, you have to go to our fan forum and check out the following discussion on our messageboard: Official 2018 Dubai Marathon Discussion Thread – Who you got? In that thread, we want to get your predictions as well.

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