The days when a sub 2:10 marathon time created headlines are long gone. However, one case where this still applies is the Athens Classic Marathon and its 31st edition which will be run on Sunday. This is the original race where the history of the classic distance began. Since the first Olympics in 1896 the route has snaked its way from the small town of Marathon over the hills and into the Greek capital, where the Panathenaikon Stadium provides a spectacular finish. It's a course which has yet to produce a sub 2:10 performance. The record was set by the man who won the Olympic title in 2004: Stefano Baldini, a consummate performer in championships, ran 2:10:55 to win gold for Italy. This was, of course, at the height of the Athenian summer. On Sunday it will be significantly cooler, although temperatures slightly above 20 Celsius could still prove to be too warm. But Kenya's defending champion and event record holder Raymond Bett thinks he is ready to break that mark. The Elite Race Coordinator Rachid Bin Meziane has set his sights on even higher targets. He finally wants the 2:10 barrier to come down in Athens this Sunday.
A record number of more than 11,000 marathon runners from around 100 nations have entered the latest edition of this legendary race. The birth of the marathon dates back to 490 BC with the story of a messenger: Pheidippides is said to have run from Marathon to Athens, bearing news of victory against the invading Persians, but collapsed and died on arrival, crying out: "Rejoice, for we have conquered." It was this story that led to the inclusion of the marathon in the 1896 Olympics.
"I hope to run faster this time," said Raymond Bett, who has already won the Athens Classic Marathon twice and broke the course record on both occasions. In 2010 he clocked 2:12:40, a year ago he ran 2:11:35. "It is a very, very tough course with plenty of hills and then a descent into Athens. But I am in better shape than a year ago, I have done more hill running and good speed work," said the 29 year-old defending champion, who improved his personal best to 2:10:50 earlier this year in Duesseldorf.
Raymond Bett has brought his own pacemaker to Athens. David Kisang's PB of 2:08:54 is almost two minutes faster than Bett's. The two know each other very well. "We have trained together in Iten," said Bett, who expects Kisang to match him stride for stride to 30 k. This would be just short of the highest point of the course at 32 k. "Last year we were a bit too slow in the first half. If we pass this point in around 65 minutes then it will be possible to break Baldini's record," explained Bett, who admits that there is an extra inspiration because the record was set in winning the Olympic Marathon.
Kisang's personal best was set at the 2010 Chunchon Marathon, where he was supposed to drop out after completing his pacemaking duties but had a change of heart and continued to finish third. Asked if he might be tempted to stay in the race once more after his designated pacing role was played out, he replied: "No, I am definitely here as a pacemaker. I'm running a marathon at the beginning of January, and I'm in training for that."
Back in Kenya some fellow-athletes wondered why Raymond Bett returns to run the tough Athens marathon course time and again. "They asked me how is it that I end up running here. Then I tell them: I like to run where the marathon started. The Olympics began here. That is why I like Athens and come back again. This is a legendary marathon."
A runner who knows the course well and produced a sensational performance nine years ago is back in Athens as a guest of honour: Meb Keflezighi. The American's silver medal in the Olympic marathon 2004 had come out of the blue and after a long bout of soul-searching. "I remember I had sleepless nights deciding between the 10,000 metres and the marathon. Then I chose the marathon because of the history," recalled Keflezighi, who was not at his best when finishing 23rd in last Sunday's New York Marathon. "It's a great honour to be back in Athens. I respect the history of the marathon so much," added Keflezighi, who ran 2:11:29 back in 2004.
The women's course record should be out of reach on Sunday. Japan's Mizuki Noguchi clocked 2:26:20 when winning the Olympic gold in an epic contest with Paula Radcliffe in 2004. This time round, Ethiopia's Gishu Mindaye Tilahun is among the favourites on Sunday. The 27 year-old established her PB of 2:28:30 when she won the Rotterdam Marathon in 2006. Fellow-Ethiopian Bayush Abebe Shferaw (2:36:16) could also do well.
On Friday night the inaugural AIMS Best Marathon Runner of the Year award will be presented to a male and female athlete at a gala dinner. The candidates are rich in talent and honours, reflecting also the continued African dominance over the classic road distance: Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) is the Olympic Champion and this year's World gold medallist and the world record holder Wilson Kipsang (Kenya) are the candidates for the men's award while the women's duo from Kenya is equally impressive: Edna Kiplagat, who retained her world title this year and Priscah Jeptoo, winner of both London and New York Marathons in 2013.
More information is available at:AthensClassicMarathon.gr.
Kenyans Paul Kiprop, Raymond Bett and David Kisang (left to right) during a press conference in Athens. Photo: ACM / Marathon Photo