Los Angeles, Ca.- The Honda Los Angeles Marathon presented by K-Swiss will stage its 26th running this Sunday morning in what are forecast to be rainy, cool conditions. This will be the second year L.A. holds its marathon on their “Stadium to the Sea” race course which begins at Dodger Stadium near downtown and finishes in Santa Monica along the shores of the Pacific Ocean.
But for the eighth year the L.A. Marathon will feature its unique Gender Challenge format pitting the professional men chasing their female counterparts for a $100,000 bonus going to the first racer of either gender across the finish. Since The Challenge was inaugurated in 2004 the women hold a 4-3 edge over the men. This year’s time differential has been set at 17:03, and was released to the runners this morning at the marathon press conference held at Dodger Stadium.
“I think it is a good time,” said two-time L.A. Marathon men’s champion Wesley Korir, the Louisville, Kentucky- based Kenyan who is going for an unprecedented third straight L.A. title. In 2009 Korir set the event record of 2:08:24 and won The Challenge as well in the final year of the old downtown loop course. Last year, his 2:09:19 on the new course was good enough to secure the men’s win, but not fast enough to overcome the 18:47 differential given the women. Fellow Kenyan Edna Kiplagat began her sensational 2010 – which concluded with a win at the ING New York City Marathon in November- with a 2:25:38 win and $100,000 Challenge victory.
Korir, who place fourth in Chicago last October in 2:08:44, is one of only five runners in L.A. history to win back-to-back titles. None managed a three-peat. Korir hopes to end that streak Sunday.
“I am prepared for a very fast race,” the University of Louisville grad told the assembled reporters. “Last year we were hoping for a fast race, too, but it became tactical. This year my agent told me she would give me a laptop computer if I ran a certain time. So I am very motivated.”
Agent Karen Locke of Oakland has Wesley anxious to post a 2:07 in L.A. If he does, she promises to buy him a new Apple computer. When reminded that a $100,000 plus payday might make buying a new I-Mac an easy reach for his own wallet, Wesley smiled then replied, “It’s the principle of the thing, not the cost.”
“He’s ready,” Karen Locke told me. “He’s been working with Ryan Hall to build a hospital in Kenya. His brother, Nicholas, died about ten years ago after being bitten by a snake. There was no hospital within 20 miles, and he didn’t make it.”
Though he’s the favorite in the race, and even named his daughter McKayLA, adding the LA to his wife’s maiden name in honor of his first win here, there are no guarantees. Among his challengers will be intriguing debutant Markos Geneti of Ethiopia. Best known for his track exploits where he holds PRs of 3:33 at 1500m, 7:32 for 3000m, and 13:00 over 5000meters, Geneti has been training for his marathon debut for four months. In that time he upped his training volume from 80 kilometers per week to 180-200 km while training with such talents as ING New York City Marathon champion Gebre Gebremariam, 2008 Boston champion Deriba Merga, and 2011 Houston Marathon winner Bekana Daba. Their coach Haji Adillo has also prepared two former Boston Marathon women’s champions, Dire Tune and Teyba Erkesso.
When I asked Haji if Geneti was ready to run a 2:08 in his opener, he replied, “2:08, 2:07 even. If he is patient till the end, nobody will be able to stay with his speed.”
University of Oregon grad Shadrack Biwott, brother of 2:04:27 marathoner Duncan Kibet, is also debuting in L.A. Shadrack ran a sparkling half marathon debut last year in New Orleans at the Rock `n` Roll Mardi Gras. His impressive 61:40 followed behind three-time London Marathon champion Martin Lel and Olympic and two-time Chicago Marathon king Sammy Wanjiru. Biwott prepped for his L.A. debut with tempo-valued wins at 10km and the half-marathon in Bermuda in mid-January.
2008 L.A. champion Laban Moiben of Kenya has returned for the first time since his `08 win. Though he speaks of wanting a 2:08 or 2:09 performance on Sunday, he also talked down his chances. “I have a different manager now, and I’m not in good shape. I’ve been having some problems. Also, I am not good in the rain.”
Rain and low 50 temps are forecast for Sunday. Laban ran 2:10:48 in Chicago last fall on a slightly warm day, good for seventh position. He was an early add to the L.A. field according to elite athlete coordinator Bill Orr, “because he has a valuable P1 visa.” Ever since 9/11 it has been ever more difficult to secure travel visas for foreign athletes to race in America.
Two other paper favorites are 2:07:09 man Ben Maiyo and consistent 2:08-2:09 man Benson Barus, both of Kenya. But Maiyo has not been the same man who ran second in L.A. in 2005, then went on to take runner up positions in Chicago `05 and Boston `06. Injuries have hampered him for the last several years. His last marathon was a desultory 2:15:52 last December in Singapore.
While Benson Barus has run sub-2:09:24 eight times in his career, he only has one win to show for it in Torino 2009. He also talked down his expectations, saying he had moved his training back home to Nakuru, Kenya from his normal base in Eldoret where he used to train with Sammy Wanjiru, Martin Lel, James Kwambai, and Robert Cheruiyot under the guide of Rosa Associates coach Claudio Berardelli.
2010 women’s champion Edna Kiplagat is not returning to L.A. to defend as she is currently tied for second in the World Marathon Majors points standings from her win in New York City last November. She will take her talent, as Lebron James would say, to London next month.
In her stead, the roll of favorite falls to 21 year-old Ethiopian Mare Dibaba, no relation to the famous Dibaba sisters Tirunesh and Ejegayehu. Also coached by Haji Adillo, Dibaba is the Ethiopian national record holder in the half marathon at 1:07:13. She has run two previous marathons, third place in Rome last March in 2:25:38, and fifth place in Frankfurt last October in 2:25:27. A good showing in L.A. could put her in position for selection to the Daegu World Championships team representing Ethiopia later this year. Painfully shy, afraid not only to talk to the press, but to actually look out at us (we ain’t pretty, but come on), Mare allowed coach Adillo to do all her talking.
She will be challenged by prolific countrywoman Buzunesh Deba, who has lived in New York City since 2005. The best runner in metropolitan New York, Deba won her last outing, the Cal International Marathon last December in 2:32. She gave up a chance to run her hometown New York Half this weekend to come west to L.A.
“Last year my best friend, Tebya Naser, ran here (2nd place),” explained Buzunesh in her very serviceable English. “I watched her on TV. So I wanted to run here, too.”
Two late additions to the field hold special meaning. Eri Okubo of Japan and Albina Mayorova of Russia were to have competed March 13th at the Nagoya Women’s Marathon in Japan. But that race was cancelled to the day before its scheduled start in the aftermath of the devastating 8.9 degree earthquake and subsequent tsunami.
“I come from Tokyo,” said Eri who holds a marathon PR of 2:35:24. “It is far from the epicenter of the earthquake, but even there we had aftershocks. And Tokyo has been affected by a shortage of power and groceries. It had no effect on my training, but emotionally I was wondering whether I should run or not, or do something else? But running is what I do, and I can convey the situation back home to everyone. That is what I can do.”
The other racing casualty from Nagoya is 2:23 Russian Albina Mayorova. Fortunately for her she still carried a current U.S. visa from her race in Boston last year. She and her agent, Andrej Baranov had to scrap their initial flights out of Tokyo last Monday, and instead made their way through China then on to New York City.
“We were at a store when the earthquake hit,” recounted Mayorova through Baranov’s translation. “The floor began shaking a little. At first we didn’t know what was happening. Then back at the hotel we saw. I’m in great shape. I’ve prepared for three months for the race, but everything has changed. I felt sorry I couldn’t compete, but then luckily, we called L.A. and asked, and they approved my invitation in less than 24 hours.”
While Albina maintains she is in top form, and that one week’s difference in her racing schedule shouldn’t matter that much, the emotional toll taken in the frightful days following the earthquake and tsunami could be a strain that’s difficult to measure until late in the race Sunday.
On the other hand, L.A. has been good to Russian women. Eleven have won the race over its first quarter century. Three have hailed from the Russian women’s marathon mecca of Cheboksary: Lidiya Grigoryeva in 2006, Tatyana Aryasova in 2008, and Tatiana Petrova in 2009, with Grigoryeva and Aryasova also taking home the $100,000 Challenge bonus, too. Mayorova hopes that streak holds through 2011.
Mammoth Track Club runner Amy Hastings will make her marathon debut in L.A. Driving up from the Olympic Training Center inChula Vista, Ca. south of San Diego with her coach Terrence Mahon, Amy has been training with Terrence’s wife Jen Rhines who has been rolling in 2011, winning both the U.S Half-Marathon and U.S. 15Km road championships this year.
“My goal is to run 5:40s (pace),” Amy told me while driving to the press conference. “My original plan was to run the Houston Marathon (January 30th), but I had an Achilles problem. I ran the half-marathon in Houston instead. It didn’t go well. I ran 1:14. I’ll try to run that twice here.”
Amy grew up in Leavenworth, Kansas before attending Arizona State where she won the NCAA indoor 5000 meter title in a NCAA record 15:30.
The professional women will begin the day’s racing Sunday morning at 7:11:30 a.m. Pacific time (TV time requirements). 17:03 later the pro men and the 25,000+ entrants will go out after them.
You can watch the race on KTLA-TV in L.A., or live streaming on the KTLA website. Universal Sports will air a full-length simulcast of our KTLA coverage. Joining me on the coverage will be my old broadcast mates Ed Eyestone on the men’s lead and Juli Benson on the women. Derrin Horton of KTLA will anchor the coverage.