x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Canny Kenyans ones to beat at RAK Half Marathon

Dennis Kimetto and Priscah Jeptoo are favourites to win at the RAK Half Marathon tomorrow to continue their country’s dominance, writes Ali Khaled.

Dennis Kimetto went on to win the Chicago Marathon in October last year. David Banks / Getty Images / AFP
Dennis Kimetto went on to win the Chicago Marathon in October last year. David Banks / Getty Images / AFP

Year after year, they have run away with the top prizes. The race is in danger of being perceived a procession. Kenyans, it would seem, own the RAK Half Marathon.

However, as they look ready to dominate the eighth staging of the race, on Friday, such a casual generalisation ignores the competition between the individual runners and the hours of training that allows them to leave the rest trailing in their dust.

Many theories have been put forward as to why the Kenyans are so good at distance running. Some credit the rarefied air at the high altitudes at which they train, which increases lung capacity. Others the fact that from an early age many Kenyans are exposed to a running culture, especially among the Kalenjin tribe, which provides almost 75 per cent of the country’s top athletes.

To the Kenyans, it is far simpler.

Their success is no more a secret than is Brazil’s knack for producing footballers, New Zealand’s for developing rugby players or Canada’s for finding ice hockey stars.

Sociopolitical, economic and cultural reasons all play a part. Above all, success in running, as in any walk of life, comes down to hard work and dedication. And competition. When it comes to running long distances, few in the world can compete with the Kenyans, aside from their neighbours from Ethiopia.

The Kenyan domination of Ras Al Khaimah’s streets is near complete, with victories in six of the seven races since 2007. The trend is likely to continue.

Step forward Dennis Kimetto, winner in RAK two years ago.

His victory in 2012 did not come without a somewhat farcical epilogue. Running as Dennis Kipruto Koech, he was hailed as an 18-year-old prodigy only to later transpire that an inaccurate passport was the reason behind the incorrect name and age. The confusion could not have helped those looking for that secret formula.

Still, having aged 10 years overnight, Kimetto, now a quite experienced 30-year-old athlete, went on to win both the Chicago and Tokyo marathons last year, coming very close to a world record in the former.

His main threat on Friday will come from Stanley Biwott, runner-up in RAK last year and winner in four of his past five half marathons.

Outside of his Kimetto’s countrymen, the biggest challenge will come from a pair of Ethiopians: Feyisa Lelisa, who finished fifth in RAK two years ago and fourth last year, and another runner familiar to UAE fans, Lelisa Desisa, winner of the 2013 Dubai Marathon and the terror-marred 2013 Boston Marathon.

The top-20 finishers in the RAK Half Marathon is almost a closed shop.

In last year’s race, you had to go all the way down to 19th place, and the Moroccan Ihya Ben Youssef, for a name outside of Kenya (15 runners) or Ethiopia (three). It was similar story in 2012: only Ben Youssef (19th again) and Fabiano Joseph of Tanzania (sixth) disrupted the Kenyans (12 runners) and Ethiopians (six) in the top 20.

It is not only Kenyan men who feel at home on RAK’s streets. The country’s female runners have dominated, too, winning four of the seven races, including the past three.

This year, the focus is on Priscah Jeptoo and Rita Jeptoo, who are not related. They finished second and third, respectively, in RAK last year.

Improvement in RAK looks likely for Priscah, 28, but there is little doubt as to her favourite city at the moment. Last April, she won the London Marathon, after having taken the silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012.

To the list of her full marathon victories in Paris, Turin, London and, in November, New York, she is now expected to add the half in RAK.

Her time of 66 minutes, 11 seconds in last year’s race was the third-quickest half marathon in history, but not enough to beat fellow Kenyan Lucy Kabuu.

Priscah’s training partner Rita, the winner in Boston last year, is expected to run her close, as will the Ethiopian Mare Dibaba, so do not be surprised to see the half marathon record go this weekend.

It is easy to see why the RAK Half Marathon is such a favourite with racing aficionados, as in a few short years the event has established a reputation as an astonishingly quick one.

The mostly ideal weather conditions are part of it. But more than anything, it is thanks to the supreme quality of the fields.

Especially those incomparable Kenyan and Ethiopian runners.

akhaled@thenational.ae