With the London Olympics just months away, some of the world's elite distance runners will be competing for glory at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon on Friday.
The iconic Burj Khalifa will provide a magnificent backdrop to the biggest ever gathering of athletes in the 13th running of the Dubai marathon.
Emaar Boulevard will be converted into a 'Marathon City' with traffic being closed to the public between 5am and 2pm as a record number of over 15,000 runners are expected to compete in the 42km marathon, 10,000km and 3km fun race.
With the weather expected to remain at 18 or 19 degrees celsius and no forecast for rain, the organisers are keeping their fingers crossed for the elite field to set a fast pace in one of the flattest marathon courses in the world.
Headlining the quality field for the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) Gold Label race will be Kenyan Martin Lel who is gradually getting back to his best after a two-year spell on the sidelines through injury.
Runner-up at last year’s London Marathon, the 33-year-old is one of the greats of the discipline having five major titles to his name thanks to a record-equalling hat-trick of victories in London (2005, 2007 and 2008) and a double in New York (2003 and 2007).
With a personal best of 2:05.15, Lel has the credentials to win on his debut in the world’s richest marathon this week. But he won’t have it all his own way in a race that offers both the men and women’s champion a cheque for $250,000 and is held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, and staged under the aegis of the Dubai Sports Council.
"Thank you to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed for giving us this opportunity of holding this great event in the shadow of Burj Khalifa in Downtown Dubai. It's a fantastic setting and we really appreciate in having the start and finish in Boulevaard here," said Event Director Peter Connerton at press conference held on Thursday to launch the event.
He also made special mention of the support given by the Dubai Sports Council and its vice-chairman Mattar Al Tayer in particular for the event over the years.
Such is the quality of the field, last year’s men’s champion David Barmasai returns to defend his crown against 13 athletes who have all run quicker than the 2011 winner’s personal best at the classic 42.195km distance.
Apart from Lel, a dozen other men have bettered Barmasai’s 2011 mark of 2:07.18, including Ethiopian’s Bazu Worku (2:05.25), former World Youth Champion Markos Geneti (2:06.35) and 2009 Boston Marathon champion Deriba Merga (2:06.38).
Not to be outdone, great rivals Kenya also have title ambitions in the shape of Lel, Gilbert Yegon (2:06.18) and Elijah Keitany (2:06.41).
“The men’s field is incredibly strong with twelve runners who have all run below 2:07.00,” said Event Director Peter Connerton. “We are delighted to have a five time Major winner in Martin Lel with us this year but he is just one of many men who can win the event and the women’s field is very similar with some incredible talent in the line-up.”
In the women’s field, last year’s champion Asselefech Medessa will be looking to defend her crown but, like Barmasai in the men’s division, she does not have the top personal best.
Although Medessa won in 2:22.45 last year, her personal best is just seven seconds quicker making her the fourth fastest in the field behind 2010 Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon champion Mamitu Daska of Ethiopia who set a best of 2:21.59 in Frankfurt last year, Ethiopian Atsede Baysa (2:22.04) and Kenya’s Lydia Cheromei who set a course record 2:22.34 when winning in Prague last year.
“The elite fields are very strong and we are all set for two wonderful races in our new setting in Downtown Dubai,” said IAAF Council Member Ahmed Al Kamali, President of the UAE Athletic Federation and General Coordinator of the event. “In total there will be over 15,000 competitors spread across the marathon, the 10km and the 3km Fun Run so there will be a carnival atmosphere when we start the races opposite Dubai’s iconic Burj Khalifa on Friday morning.”
"This is the first time over 85 elite athletes are taking part with a lot of countries sending single athletes for qualification. I feel until 30km if there are 10 athletes together, anything can happen. With this type of elite athlete anything can happen," said Kamali when asked whether the world record would be broken.
He also thanked the Ethiopian community for their support with provision being made for extra seating since they had arranged 7,000 people to come for the event.
"The are very keen on whole thing. This is what we need from different communities. We are very happy for that," he said.
All three races will start and finish outside The Pavilion, Downtown Dubai with the marathon runners getting underway at 7am. The 10km field will hear the start gun at 7.15am, while the Fun Run is scheduled for a 10.30am start.
However, spectators are advised not to head to the start/finish line to avoid congestion.
"We are advising people not to come to the area of the start. Obviously if you get 20 or 30 thousand people coming at the same start area, it's going to be congested. There's fantastic facilities all around the area on the approaches to both sides of Sheikh Zayed Road. It's very easy to pick some area familiar where you can park and walk a few kilometres," said Connerton who recalled how he would walk five or six miles to watch a football match in England instead of being stuck in the traffic and being late for the game.
"The same applies to any marathon around the world. I know the difference here is there are three races whereas in lot of races only marathon itself. We have three starts within two hours which is unusual but we have grown as a result of that. we don't have 40,000 in a marathon like in London or Boston, but we are growing especially in the 10km. with those sort of numbers, we advise people to give themselves lot of time to make it easy for yourself by parking some distance away," he said.
“This is our eighth consecutive year as title sponsor and we are delighted to play a part in promoting health and fitness in the UAE,” said Jonathan Morris, CEO of the UAE at Standard Chartered Bank. "This world class event gives us an opportunity to maintain our active role in the community as part of our commitment to be ‘here for good’.”
“This is one of the key highlights of the sporting and social calendar in the region. We are excited to host some of the world’s best elite runners who will undoubtedly strengthen the UAE’s position on the international marathon circuit and help drive the development of sport in the region,” he added.
He also welcomed the participation of visually impaired Henry Wanyoike, world record holder of the 5,000m and 10,000m events at the Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 Paralympics, in the 10km road race with his long-time running partner Joseph Kibunja.
The duo are also participating as Goodwill Ambassadors for ‘Seeing is Believing’, Standard Chartered Bank’s global programme to raise USD 100 million to eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020.
Running while connected to Joseph by a tether on the wrist, Henry is completely dependent on Joseph to help him identify possible obstacles and challenges along the route without breaking stride.
Commenting on the participation of these inspiring runners, Morris said: “Henry and Joseph’s participation at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon is a celebration of partnership, courage and trust. Their efforts embody the Bank’s values and are a great way of championing our goal to help eliminate avoidable blindness by 2020. I would like to take this opportunity to wish them good luck at the race and hope their participation and school visits will inspire UAE community in general and young people in particular.”
Henry and Joseph will visit schools in Dubai and hold motivational sessions where Henry will share his story of overcoming adversities while Joseph highlights how partnership is key to achieving the impossible dream. They will also be giving students running tips for their participation at the Dubai Marathon.
Henry Wanyoike said: “Armed with courage and determination, we have participated in many of the Standard Chartered Marathons globally since 2003 and we are really excited about the upcoming Dubai Marathon. We will continue our efforts to raise awareness about avoidable blindness and the ‘Seeing is Believing’ programme and are committed to share our story to inspire people around the world.”
Also running the 10 Km race at the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon 2012 are three visually impaired Lebanese runners from the School of Blind and Deaf in Baabda- Lebanon. While each runner's reason to run is unique, this team has a common goal: to prove that teamwork, coordination and commitment will overcome all obstacles. The Lebanese team also plans to raise funds for ‘Seeing is Believing’.
"We are trying to show even with this disability someone can still make it and also want everybody to come and support us so that they can restore sight to millions of people who cannot be able to see the world," said Henry who feels the Dubai marathon will be an ideal preparation for the London Olympics.
"This year's Dubai Marathon a very important competition for us because it is helping us to prepare ourselves for London in September," he said.
"The partnership shown between these two outstanding individual mirrors the successful partnership the bank has built with the local community here in Dubai," added Morris.
"It's all about perseverance, commitment and inspiration to make a positive impact to environment and the society we live and work," he said.
As well as the sporting side of the $1 million event, the Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon will also feature a Marathon Village on the Burj Park with food and beverage stands, sponsor tents and entertainment throughout the day. Entrance to the village and to watch the event is free of charge.
The Standard Chartered Dubai Marathon is supported by The Dubai Sports Council, Dubai Holding, “Official Outfitter” adidas, Emaar, Dubai Eye 103.8 FM, Sport 360, TNT, Fitness First, Plan B and by government departments Dubai Police, RTA, Dubai Municipality DHA and the Dubai Ambulance Services.