DUBAI // The Olympic dreams of some of marathon's greatest names will be decided in the shadows of the Burj Khalifa early tomorrow morning when the Dubai Marathon's biggest field takes the starting gun.
Last year's champions - the men's winner David Barmasai of Kenyan and Asselefech Medessa of Ethiopia - are back to defend their crowns. They will face a stiff challenge from a field of 85 elite marathon runners, including Martin Lel, who has three victories in London and two in New York.
"This year is special because it is the Olympic year," Peter Connerton, the event director, said. "So we've got a lot of athletes still attempting to make those three places on their national teams for the London Olympics.
"The men's field is incredibly strong with 12 runners who have all run below two minutes, seven seconds. The women's field is very similar with some incredible talent in the line-up."
More than a dozen men have a better personal best than Barmasai's 2:07:18, including Kenya's Lel (2:05:15), Ethiopia's Bazu Worku (2:05:25), the former World Youth Champion Markos Geneti (2:06:35), the 2009 Boston Marathon winner Deriba Merga (2:06:38) and the Kenyans Gilbert Yegon (2:06:18) and Elijah Keitany (2:06:41).
"I don't know what will happen in the race," Lel said. "I can only say I am feeling good and I am very grateful to be here."
Among the women, Medessa's best of 2:22:38 is the fourth fastest in the field, with the 2010 Dubai champion Mamitu Daska (2:21:59), Atsede Baysa (2:22:04) and Lydia Cheromei (2:22:34) all have better times.
Medessa has been working hard to improve her times and is hoping she will finish among the top three tomorrow to book her ticket to the London Games.
"I am ready to give my best and try to retain my title," she said. "But the race field is not the same as last year. It is very, very strong.
"The best runners from Ethiopia are here and if I can finish in the top three here, I believe I will qualify for the Olympics.
"I am ready. I have been running better times in training. I won last year in 2:24, but this time I want to run under 2:22 and improve on my personal best. I have already done a personal best in the New Delhi half-marathon and I hope to do the same here."
Ahmed Al Kamali, the president of the UAE Athletic Federation and General Coordinator of the event, said the race has never had so many elite competitors.
"There are countries who are sending their runners here for qualification. We have athletes from Algeria, Tunisia, Angola, Cameroon, Kazakhstan, Russia, from everywhere," he said. "To have such a group together is amazing."
This year's event has attracted record entries in the 10km and 3km Fun Run as well and more than 18,000 runners will be at the starting marks tomorrow morning.
"This is the highest number of participants we've had," Al Kamali said. "We closed the 3km at 5,000. We have already got 11,000 for the 10km till now and we've got 2,000 for the marathon and the registration is still open for those two events. So we are talking about 18,000 to 19,000 participants."