As the 7am starting horn sounded on this pleasantly cool (13C) Friday morning in the UAE's northern-most emirate of Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), the sense of anticipation was almost tangible with world class elite fields gathered of unprecedented depth. At Thursday's pre-race press conference, the big names were very reluctant to give anything away, illnesses and injuries mentioned by several, and one got the clear impression that cards were being kept well up the sleeves of various tracksuit tops.
Come race morning, gone were the strong winds of last year which blew away any chance of record times and it was soon clear that the gloves were off, none more so than in the women's race where several athletes had talked privately of chasing world or continental records. All were keen to see a return from their mid-winter hibernation from racing and so it transpired; two marvellous races unfolded, each setting in-depth records along with fabulous winning times.
Unusually, it was the women who set off in most aggressive fashion, a group of eleven passing 5km in 15:35, under world record pace, and it was eventual winner Lucy Kabuu, who had complained of losing ten days' training due to a cold over the previous two weeks, who showed most prominently. That group whittled down to seven by 10km, only slowing marginally with a 31:18 split (15:43 second 5k).
Meanwhile the men had adopted a different approach, easing through 5km in a more cautious 14:02 with only recent winner of the Houston Half Marathon Feyisa Lilesa of Ethiopia, trying to make it quicker in the early stages. The pack of eleven included all the main luminaries and a steady 10k split of 28:12 (14:10 second 5k), saw only one athlete drop away. It seemed a sub-60 minute clocking was likely, but nothing prepared those following proceedings at the finish line for what was to come.
Behind them, the women were enjoying perfect pacemaking, but that near world record tempo for the first half took its toll and 15km, reached in 47:14, while it showed a marked slowing (15:56 third 5k), still reduced the group to four – Kenyans Kabuu, Priscah Jeptoo, and Rita Jeptoo along with Ethiopia's IAAF World Half Marathon Champion Meseret Hailu. Incredibly, despite the quartet operating at a net tempo that none had experienced before, a significant acceleration was to follow, as the speed was upped by Kabuu who established a small gap by 17km, hardly surprising as that fourth 5k split was as quick as the first, 15:35 for a 20k time of 1:02:49 (only 13 seconds outside Mary Keitany's world best, itself set during her world record run in RAK two years ago).
The men's contest was now unfolding in similar fashion, though their more cautious start gave them reserves which became apparent only in the latter stages. After 5k splits of 14:02 and 14:10 (28:12 – Feyisa Lelisa leading), they maintained optimum tempo with a 14:03 third 5k split. That took them to 15k in 42:15, by when just four remained, Kenyans Geoffrey Kipsang, Stanley Biwott and Geoffrey Mutai, with just as in the women's race, a sole Ethiopian in the figure of Feyisa Lelisa, who as it turned out, was hanging on.
Again as in the women's race, it was the 5k segment to 20k that saw real ferocity unleashed, as 20 year old Geoffrey Kipsang, IAAF World Junior Cross Country Champion in 2011, began to surge, dragging Stanley Biwott and 2010 RAK winner Geoffrey Mutai with him. Before long however, he forged a gap and charged through 20k alone in 56:03 (4th 5k in 13:48) and it was then apparent that he would likely dip under 59 minutes, joining only ten other men to have achieved the feat.
He maintained the surge, crossing the line to the roars of the crowd, in 58:54 just two seconds ahead of Stanley Biwott's 58:56, with in third place Geoffrey Mutai broaching significant new ground on 58:58. It is the first time three men had broken 59 minutes in the same race. For good measure, fourth and fifth placed Feyisa Lilesa (59:25) and Stephen Kibet (59:59) also came home under the hour mark.
A mile and a half behind, Kabuu was having to dig deep to maintain her lead, but lead she did; a five second gap ahead of Priscah Jeptoo at 20km, was reduced to just two seconds as she broke the tape, her fabulous time of 1:06:09 being the second fastest in history on a certified half marathon course. Only Keitany's world record here two years previously has been quicker, but that was a solo effort with a winning margin of over three minutes; by contrast, Kabuu was never safe in the latter stages but had sufficient strength to stay ahead of Olympic Marathon silver medallist Priscah of the Jeptoo pairing.
The women's place times were quite astonishing as the 1:06:11 in second by Priscah Jeptoo, the fastest ever losing performance, was a personal best by over four minutes and Rita Jeptoo in third on 1:06:27, improved by over 40 seconds; the previous fastest third place, was Derartu Tulu's 1:07:03 on the downhill Lisbon course in 2001. With for the first time ever in the same race, four women under 67 minutes, six under 68 minutes, ten under 69 minutes and the first twelve home under 70 minutes, the RAK Half Marathon has underlined its reputation as the must-do half marathon for distance runners intent on improving their personal best and keen to acquire a confidence boost with the big spring marathons less than eight weeks away.
Statisticians will assess the significance of the results at RAK 2013 more firmly when the big marathons of April roll by, but what is clear is that the RAK Half Marathon in 2013 was a great day of fast racing that will be long remembered as one that took many big names in to new territory.
Official result of 7th RAK Half Marathon, Friday 15th February 2013:
|1||Geoffrey Kipsang (KEN)||58:54||1 ||Lucy Kabuu (KEN) ||1:06:09|
|2||Stanley Biwott (KEN) ||58:56||2||Priscah Jeptoo (KEN)||1:06:11|
|3||Geoffrey Mutai (KEN)||58:58||3||Rita Jeptoo (KEN)||1:06:27|
|4||Feyisa Lilesa (ETH)||59:25||4||Meseret Hailu (ETH)||1:06:56|
|5||Stephen Kibet (KEN)||59:59||5||Florence Kiplagat (KEN)||1:07:13|
|6||Joel Kimurer (KEN)||1:00:02||6||Helah Kiprop (KEN)||1:07:39|
|7||Getu Feleke (ETH)||1:00:26||7||Meselech Melkamu (ETH) ||1:08:05|
|8||Edwin Kipyego (KEN) ||1:00:54||8||Paskalia Kipkoech (KEN)||1:08:08|
|9||Daniel Wanjiru (KEN) ||1:01:10||9||Feyse Tadese (ETH)||1:08:35|
|10||Pius Maiyo Kirop (KEN)||1:01:25||10||Ashu Kasim (ETH)||1:08:56|
Photos: Vic Sailer