RAS AL KHAIMAH // It seems to be becoming the regular refrain for Ethiopia-born athletes competing in the top road races in the Emirates: "There is always next year." For the past three years, Haile Gebrselassie, the greatest of them all, has trotted the words out through gritted teeth, after seeing his prospective world-record bids miss the target at the Dubai Marathon.
Yesterday it was the turn of Elvan Abeylegesse, the Addis Ababa-born woman runner, who landed the Ras al Khaimah Half-Marathon title at her first attempt, yet was left wanting more. "I tried to set a world record," said Abeylegesse, an Ethiopian who became a naturalised Turk through marriage. "It didn't happen but I will try next year." The race organisers had predicted a fast time ahead of yesterday, and they were proved correct. Abeylegesse may have missed out on the world record - a time of 1hr 6min 25sec set by the Kenyan Lornah Kiplagat in Italy in 2007 - but she did set a course record at 1hr 7min 7sec, 11 seconds quicker than Dire Tune's record last year.
It was also personally satisfying for the 27-year-old runner as it confirmed her return to full fitness. Abeylegesse claimed silver medals in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, yet 2009 campaign was hindered by an injured Achilles. However, she showed few visible effects of that problem in RAK. The triumph in the Emirates, which earned her US$20,000 (Dh73,460), will add further fuel to Abeylegesse's European Athletics Championships hopes. She will go for gold in the 5,000m and the 10,000m in Barcelona in July.
Mare Dibaba, a former Ethiopian national teammate of Abeylegesse before yesterday's victor became a naturalised Turk, finished second, six seconds off the pace. Aselefech Mergia, another Ethiopian, was next home in the women's race, a further nine seconds back. "It's the first time I ran against these opponents," added the winner, who is a track specialist and was running her first half-marathon. It's good, I'm happy. Ethiopians, when they challenge, they are all marathon runners."
The Kenyan marathon specialist, Geoffrey Mutai, hung on at the death of the men's elite race to come home seven seconds in front of Ethiopia's Tadese Tola with compatriot Titus Masai following another second behind in third. The 29-year-old Mutai's victory over the shorter distance continued Kenya's stranglehold over the RAK title: an athlete from the East African country has won every year since the race began in 2007.
Six runners contested the lead, but Mutai began to step up the pressure on his rivals in the final stages of the 20.96km contest, coming home in 59min 43sec. Mutai is capable of being faster. He clocked a 59min 30sec course record in November's Valencia Half Marathon last year. But he was content with his performance here. "I'm feeling happy," he said after picking up US$20,000 for his win. "The humidity is there, but the course is a good, nice course. At 18Km I started pushing, pushing, pushing. We were six strong guys so I tried to push and push."