Los Angeles, CA. — Last year the men dawdled through the early stages of the Asics Los Angeles Marathon, and it cost them a chance at the $100,000 Gender Challenge bonus that goes to the first runner across the finish line in Santa Monica. This year defending men’s champion Simon Njoroge of Kenya (2:12:11) promises to engage early and bring that bonus back to Nyahururu, his home base in the Rift Valley province.
“Last year there was no push because we feared each other,” explained Njoroge at the marathon press conference in the LA Convention Center downtown. “Maybe this year we will push because I would like to get that bonus.”
There are only two problems with Njoroge’s desire to cash that check. First, the bonus is no longer $100,000; it’s been cut in half. Second, there are at least three women in the small seven-woman professional field who have every intention of beating Njoroge and all other men to the Santa Monica finish line.
Now in its tenth year, the LA Marathon’s Gender Challenge has become the competitive signature of the event. The women lead in the head-to-head battle, 5 -4, the genders flipping wins every year. The time differential was announced at yesterday’s press conference, also site of the marathon expo. The men will have to make up 18:35 on the women to win the $50,000 bonus that attends each gender’s $25,000 first place prize. That time is the difference between the women’s and men’s event records in L.A., 2:25:10 for women (Lydia Grigoryeva, 2006) and 2:06:35 for men (Markos Geneti, 2011). 18:35 breaks down to 42.55 seconds per mile over the popular 26.2 mile layout from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica.
“I train with men in Mammoth Lakes (California) all the time,” said Deena Kastor, the American record holder in the women’s marathon (2:19:36, London 2006) who is making her hometown debut in the marathon – Deena was brought up in nearby Augora Hills. “My coaches have always sent me out first on training runs, then had the men try to catch me. So, I’ll be saying catch me if you can at the start on Sunday.”
For Deena, L.A. will be her first marathon in over a year. In January 2012 she finished sixth in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston after which she turned her attention to making the 10,000 meter Olympic team on the track. However, the dream of qualifying for a fourth Olympic squad was shattered when she developed back spasms in training, which she thought might derail her career for good. But she found an accupuncturist who helped her make a full recovery, and though she watched from her home in Mammoth Lakes, California as the London Games went on without her, she is back in fine fettle for Sunday’s L.A. Marathon.
“It’s when I began focusing on the marathon here in Los Angeles that I got that old spark back,” confided Deena, who turned 40 on Valentine’s Day last month. “I remember watching the first L.A. Marathon with my dad when I was still a skinny soccer player and poor gymnast. And as we watched he said, ‘one day I want you to win me a Mercedes’. Well, I can’t win him a car anymore, but maybe I can win him a pair of Asics shoes.”
Her two biggest fans outside husband Andrew (coach of the LA Roadrunners team which has 700 runners in the LA Marathon) and two year-old daughter Piper, Deena’s parents won’t be on hand to root on their daughter as they are away on a Caribbean cruise. Speaking of cruising, to take home the $50,000 Gender Challenge bonus Deena will have to find confederates among the women’s elite field to overcome the much deeper men’s field. With only seven invited women versus 16 men, the women have a distinct disadvantage in pure mass. The case was similar last year, but a group of mostly Ethiopian women got after it from the starting gun, forming a single file and exchanging the lead to share the work load. They hit the halfway mark in just over 1:12 on the way to Ethiopian Fatuma Sado’s convincing 2:25:39 win, the fourth fastest time ever run in the L.A. Marathon.
This spring Ms. Sado has opted to race in Paris, but there is a fellow Ethiopian with the resume and the training to make her mark in L.A. on Sunday. 28 year-old ZemZem Ahmed has only run one marathon, a sixth-place 2:27:16 at the 2012 Frankfurt Marathon. But the 3000m steeplechase specialist from Addis Ababa, seventh in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, had taken 2010 and 2011 off before returning with a renewed focus to longer distance racing in 2012.
So while her debut in Frankfurt was solid last September, she didn’t have a long accumulation of distance training beneath her to hold with the lead pack past a 1:11 first half split. For L.A. she has ramped up her training, and feels more than ready to set a good tempo and then hold all the way home.
“There has been a three month focus,” explained the mother of two on her L.A. preparation. “This time I train much more. “
Hailing from Asella, Ethiopia, the same hometown that brought us the legendary runner Haile Gebrselassie, Ahmed is also married to her coach, Haji Adillo. Coach Adillo is one of the best in the business, having ushered four men to 2:04 marathon times in the last year alone. With impressive long runs in the very high altitude outside Addis Ababa — 40k in 2:29, 38k in 2:25 — the foundation for success has been well built for Sunday’s race.
The third woman to consider is a debutant from Belarus, Aleksandra Duliba. Besides the Gender Challenge bonus and first place prize, 27 year-old Duliba is motived by the need to run sub-2:30 to qualify for the Belarus World Championship team going to Moscow this summer. She also has her eye on the Belarus national marathon record, 2:26:23, which was set here in Los Angeles in 1992 by countrywoman Madina Biktagirova in what was then a course record.
While Duliba finished third in the Belarus National Championships last year over 5000 meters on the track, she has recently made a coaching change, and is now under the careful eye of Igor Osmak, a man who has coached Irina Mikitenko of Germany to a sub-2:20 marathon, and prepared Tetyana Gamera-Shmyrko of Ukraine to a fifth-place at the London Olympic Marathon in 2012 and a win at the Osaka Women’s Marathon in Japan this January.
With the experience and homefield advantage of Deena Kastor, the improved training of Ahmed, and the motivation of Duliba, the women will control their own fate on the streets of Los Angeles March 17th. OK, men, catch ‘em if you can.