Two course records, a world record and a very near miss were a very solid return on a day of more superb running and riveting racing at the 12thedition of the RAK Half Marathon today. Record-size mass fields and enormous depth to the elite groups, meant a special day was more or less guaranteed, but how often do things not go the way one would wish?
The sea-mist that blanketed the emirate’s capital provided near idyllic conditions, and while the perfectionists mumbled about high humidity, the lack of wind, the temperature in the low teens and perfect pacemaking in both men’s and women’s contests, did indeed present a setting that enabled supreme performances for the elite athletes.
The much anticipated clash of world record holders Joyciline Jepkosgei (half marathon) and Mary Keitany (women-only marathon), almost went to script, though the former dropped away shortly after half way, to an eventual 5th, as we later found out, suffering the residual effects of a bout of flu over the last two weeks; under that circumstance, her 66:46 clocking was quite miraculous.
But for Keitany, it was as last year, a case of so near, yet so far; she was outsprinted by Peres Jepchirchir’s world record run last year, and this time, found yet another 23 year old Kenyan colleague just too good. It was Fancy Chemutai, the second placer in Jepkosgei’s world record last October, who had the greater speed over the last 100 metres. Frustratingly, the surge from both ladies was delayed by a vital few seconds till they saw the finish line clock, otherwise Chemutai’s brilliant time of 64:52 might have gone 1 second under the world record, not 1 second over it.
Perfect pacing by a trio of Kenyan men, each brought in by Jepkosgei, Keitany and Chemutai, laid the foundation for an epic closing struggle. With 5km reached in 15:15, already the pattern for a world-record assault was set, the only surprise presence along with the “big three”, was that of Caroline Kipkirui, herself fresh from a PB in Houston on 14th January. When 10km was reached in 30:34 (15:19 second 5km), the metronomic dial was confirmed but all four looked comfortable and ready to maintain the tempo. That Jepkosgei was the first to falter, quite suddenly, at around 13km, was quickly forgotten, as the tempo up front slackened only marginally and at 15km (46:07/15:33) the world record was very much “on”.
Kipkirui was the next to weaken, though not before she’d nosed in front through ten miles to set a new world record of 49:29, and her final few kilometres were still sufficiently strong to remain comfortably third. Which brought it down to the contrasting figures of tiny Keitany and the long, rangy stride of the powerful Chemutai. At 20km (61:34/15:27) they were inseparable, though Keitany momentarily looked to be the one applying the pressure. However, while relatively new to the sport – she’d have been just 14 when Keitany was lifting the world half marathon title in 2009 – Chemutai is a shrewd racer, delaying her surge till within perhaps 100 metres of the finish line. Keitany battled gamely, but ran out of road as her towering, pony-tailed rival breasted the tape – and the time? At 64:52, it was tantalisingly, just one second outside Jepkosgei’s world record in Valencia.
The consolation for London Marathon bound Keitany, was yet another personal best (64:55), and at the age of 36, this mother of two, successful business woman and perhaps the greatest marathon runner in history, shows little sign of slowing.
The men’s race, starting 15 minutes after the women, was of almost equally momentous proportions. With eleven sub-60 minute performers on the line and a stated 10km target time of 27:50, the ambitions were not far off another world record assault. While that might remain the ambition for another day, when the large pack of twelve reached 10km in 27:48 (5km was 13:53), clearly another big performance was in the offing.
Again, excellent pacing did its job and it was long in to the third quarter of the race that the pack began to thin-out, prolific racer Alex Kibet in particular, pushing alongside the leaders. With 15km reached in 41:43 (13:55 split), it was down to four and at this sub-59 minute tempo, as in the ladies contest, it had become a war of attrition. Slowly but surely however, the reigning champion Bedan Karoki, began to impose himself and at 19km, he nosed to the front and injected a testing surge; there was no response. He surged again and daylight formed, and that gap grew further, through 20km (55:55/14:11) when it became a loosely grouped threesome.
The surprise of the men’s race was 21 year old Ethiopian Jemal Yimer, making his debut; he had excellent pedigree, having placed fourth in last year’s World Cross Country Championships and fifth over 10,000m in the track World Championships, but that is different to coping with the high pressure of a road race at over twice that distance. None the less, he chased gamely as Karoki, one of the unsung heroes of the sport after so many near misses in major championships, simply got faster and faster. While well beaten, Yimer’s eventual runner-up time of 59:00, was the fastest debut ever, by fully 12 seconds.
The reigning champion was going to retain his title, and all eyes were on the clock again. Patrick Makau’s 58:52 event record from 2009, was shattered, as Karoki almost danced through the line in 58:42, making him fifth fastest in history, smiling broadly in the knowledge that he’d beaten a fabulous field, and that his own preparations for the London Marathon, were so perfectly on course. His final km was calculated at not much outside 2:30 – fittingly a track-racer’s closing speed, and with an 18-second winning margin, there is clearly more to come.
With the first seven men under the hour, and the first seven women under 67-minutes, RAK had done it again – providing everything these highly-tuned performers could require, not something to be taken lightly. The reputation of the race goes from strength to strength and with both course records having nudged significantly close to the respective world records for women and men, the ambitions of the 2019 RAK Half, don’t take a lot of working out. It might be a lucky 13 for next year’s edition, but for now, the elite fields can relax on the beaches of this glorious corner of the UAE, in the knowledge of a job well done.