Race Report: Bekele’s start-line stumble scuttles Dubai marathon world record bid
In top-level sport, fortunes can change in an instant. Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele - the leading marathoner of the moment after a win in Berlin in September that was just six seconds outside the world record - was all set for a fresh assault on the world record in the Dubai marathon on January 20th. Bekele told the pre-race press conference in Dubai that he was planning to run the world record there, settling earlier speculation that his plan was to use the Dubai race merely as preparation for a tilt at the world record in the London marathon in April. Bekele did concede that the conditions in Dubai could be a factor in his record attempt, with race-day temperatures in Dubai typically being several degrees higher than in Berlin, which is also where Dennis Kimetto set the world record of 2:02:57, in 2014. On race-day in Dubai, it wasn’t the weather that derailed Bekele’s plans. Rather, Bekele fell to the ground in the first few meters of the race, after being tripped in what the race referee said was unintentional contact. Unofficial and indistinct video footage posted on Twitter seemed to show Bekele falling immediately after a crowded start in which - unusually for this kind of event - elites were not separated from mass runners and no warning was given that the start was imminent.
Bekele got up and continued running, but struggled to regain contact with a leading pack that had set off at the promised world record pace. Bekele never fully recovered from the fall, and dropped out at around 23km. In a statement published later by his PR agency Bekele said that after a hard fall his body was out of balance and he had cramp in his left calf. Photos showed him being treated for grazes.
At the halfway mark in the race, a leading group of half-a-dozen runners was about 45 seconds ahead of world record pace, but was unable to sustain that speed. Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola pulled away and won the race in a new course record time of 2:04:11, ahead of fellow Ethiopians Mule Wasihun and Sissay Lemma, who finished in 2:06:46 and 2:08:04 respectively. Tola had finished fourth in Dubai in 2015 in a time of 2:06:17. And in 2016 he won a bronze medal in 10,000 meters in the Rio Olympics, and came fifth in the world half-marathon championships, demonstrating his versatility as a distance runner, as well as his recent good form. Wasihun had run the Dubai marathon twice before, and Lemma has had three previous runs in Dubai. In the 2016 Dubai marathon, Wasihun was fifth and Lemma was fourth.
Another Ethiopian, Worknesh Degefa, was the first woman to cross the finish line, in a time of 2:22:36. Degefa is a successful half-marathoner but this was her first competitive marathon. Pre-race favorite Shure Demise claimed second place, and Yebrgual Melese was the third-placed woman.
The first, second and third male and female runners in the Dubai marathon win cash prizes of $200,000, $80,000, and $40,000. But the bonus of $250,000 that the Dubai marathon offers for setting a new men’s or women’s marathon world record remains unclaimed.
For many local runners, training for and taking part in the Dubai marathon is the centerpiece of the annual running season. It is an opportunity to test oneself as well as to train and race alongside one’s peers. The Dubai marathon’s status as an IAAF Gold Label Road Race also means that it gives runners a chance to take part in the same event as top-level international athletes.
And this year at least three Dubai-based male runners made it into the first 25 finishers. Ismail Ssenyange was the 16th-placed man, crossing the line in 2:21:36. Ssenyange had run the Houston half-marathon just five days earlier, in a time of 1:05. Jeremy Curran was 24th man home in Dubai, in 2:42:41; and Paul Muturi was 25th, in 2:43:18.
Among the Dubai-based runners in the first 25 women was Anne-Mari Hyrylainen, who was the 10th woman in the Dubai race, in a time of 2:32:19. Hyrylainen ran for Finland in the marathon at the Rio Olympics last year. Gerda Steyn was 14th woman in Dubai, in 2:57:01; Aline Vacheron was 17th, in 3:08:31; and Katy Hallside, 18th in 3:10:58.
In the club competition, which is based on the times of the first three runners home from each club, Dubai Creek Striders had the winning men’s team, and Desert Road Runners had the winning women’s team.
These achievements - and those of many other runners that day - were no easy feat. Although January is the coolest time of year here in Dubai, and the 6:30am start time for the marathon is designed to take advantage of the lower temperatures in the early morning, it was about 20 degrees centigrade at the start of the race this year, and the temperature rose steadily through the morning, which was particularly tough for those out on the course for a long time.
Although the course is regarded as fast and is almost entirely flat - the main exception being the new road-bridge over the canal, which the marathon route crosses twice - the seemingly never-ending straight stretches can be psychologically difficult. No marathon is easy.
So there can’t be a runner who was not hugely relieved to reach the final section of the return leg on Jumeirah Beach Road, and find that they were getting progressively closer to the Burj Al Arab, which marks the approximate point of the finish. And then to make the last turn onto Umm Suqeim Road, and see the finishing arch just a few hundred meters ahead.
Every runner had their own hopes for the race - perhaps to break three hours, 3:30, or four hours; to set a PB; to get a Boston-qualifier time; or just to finish. Each was embroiled in their own drama as the race unfolded. And happily many emerged triumphant from their efforts - there are too many individual tales to tell them all here, but among my regular running partners, Grant Beerling stormed home in a phenomenal 2:50; Hasan Chichakli shrugged off illness to claim a six-minute PB of 3:06; and Aref Abdulrazaq, Ali Amiri, Abbas Juma and Jenna Wilkinson recorded 3:09, 3:17, 3:19 and 3:33 respectively in their first marathons. Aref was the fastest Emirati national in the race. Janice de Wijs ran the Dubai marathon for the tenth year in a row.
As is often the case, alongside triumph there was some disappointment. My own training in the fourth quarter of 2016 was based around preparation for the Dubai marathon, and by late December, with 3-4 weeks to go to race day, I was feeling pretty confident. But then I caught a cold that led to a chest infection, and I skipped a lot of training as I struggled to shake off that problem.
The time off training took its toll on my conditioning, and on the day I limped over the finish line in a disappointing 3:47. But whether individual races go well or badly, our ethos remains the same: Never stop running.
Need-to-know facts about the Dubai Marathon:
The Dubai marathon has been held annually, in January, since the year 2000. This year - 2017 - race day was January 20th. The date for the 2018 race had not been published at the time of writing, but will almost certainly be in late January.
The event website, www.dubaimarathon.org, is the place to go for official information and for registration.
As well as the marathon, there is a 10km race and a 4km fun run. Entry fees for 2017 were $120 for the marathon, $75 for the 10km, and $50 for the 4km.
About 2,400 runners took part in the marathon in 2017. The organizers said that about 30,000 had registered across the three events, with most having signed up for the 10km.
Aside from some age criteria - runners registering for the marathon must be aged 18 or over, and 10km runners must be aged 15 or over - there are no significant restrictions or qualification requirements. We are not aware of the event ever having sold out of entry places, and registration is generally open until shortly before race day (registration for all distances was still open on the day before the 2017 race).
This year, as in the past few years, all the races started and finished on the Umm Suqeim Road, close to the Madinat Jumeira and the landmark Burj Al Arab and Jumeira Beach hotels. As in 2016, marathon runners started with an out-and-back section on Al Sufouh Road, followed by a longer out-and-back stretch on Jumeira Beach Road. Although the course is almost entirely flat, the new flyover on Jumeira Beach Road over the canal extension provided a new feature.
Race-pack collection for the 2017 races was at the Meydan race-track complex. Maps of the race routes, start/finish area, and race-pack collection venue were all published on the event website.
A couple of weeks before race day, the official website briefly showed a map with a new route, taking in Al Wasl Road as well as Al Sufouh and Jumeira Beach Road. However, this alternative route map was taken down without explanation.
The IAAF has designated the Dubai marathon as a Gold Label Road Race, which means that it is considered by the IAAF to be one of the leading road races around the world, meeting strict organizational criteria and including a field of elite international runners. There are three tiers of IAAF Label Road Race, with Gold being the top tier, followed by Silver and Bronze.
The Dubai marathon regularly attracts a strong field of top-level international runners, because it is recognized as a top-tier IAAF race, with a fast course, offering good prize money, and coming at a good time in the international race calendar to make it attractive for elites preparing for the Boston and London marathons.
The cash prizes for the first, second and third male and female runners in the Dubai marathon are $200,000, $80,000, and $40,000 respectively. A bonus of $250,000 was on offer in 2017 for setting a new men’s or women’s marathon world record. The Dubai marathon organizers say that the prize money makes the Dubai race the “richest marathon in the world”.
In some past years, the Dubai marathon organizers have offered a bonus of $1 million for either a men’s or women’s world record in the marathon.
Race times in Dubai are valid for applications to run in the prestigious Boston marathon.
The number of people who turn out to watch the Dubai marathon is not on the scale of that of some big-city marathons, so spectator support on the route can be spotty - but spectator numbers do seem to be on the rise.
Official drink stations provide water every 2.5km after the 5km mark, and isotonic drinks every 5km after the 10km mark.
Local running groups such as Super Sports Abras, Dubai Creek Striders, and Desert Road Runners, set up support stations with drinks, snacks, and enthusiastic encouragement for runners.