The marathon road to the Paris Olympics this summer will be strewn with obstacles – illness, injury, failure to set a qualifying time. But a return for the 2024 Dubai Marathon on Sunday to the fast, flat Jumeirah Beach Road course. Mean there will be few excuses for those seeking a relatively trouble-free take-off toward Paris. The great Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie once described it as the ‘smoothest surface’ he’s ever encountered. 

Dera Dida of Ethiopia is equally interested in finding out how fast she might run if she repeats her victory of last year (2.21.11), which for administrative reasons was held on a more challenging course outside the town at Expo City, a latterday venue for the COP 28 climate conference. “I was very happy to win last year,” said Dida at Friday morning’s press conference, “but I’m told that this course is much better, and with the new shoes, which I haven’t used before, I hope to run much faster.”

Her colleague Ruti Aga, who finished just a dozen seconds behind her last year has since run a minute and a half faster than Dida, so there are high prospects for another intriguing head-to-head.

Dera Dida in Dubai, photo credit: Giancarlo Colombo

It’s a pity Dida’s husband isn’t along to advise, since he’s no slouch; Tamirat Tola is an Olympic track medallist, has taken silver and gold in the World Championships marathon, and won in New York for good measure last Autumn. His brother Abdisa won Dubai last year, but he’s injured this year, so we won’t be getting another ‘golden family foto’ with his sister in law.

Abdisa continued something of a Dubai tradition on the men’s side, that of debutant’s winning in fast times, probably the best of the bunch being Ayele Abshero winning in 2012 in 2.04.23, then one of the fastest times in the world. And that made for another historic photo, because the four men behind him all finished within 30sec, making it the first time that five men had cracked 2.05 in the same race. 

The introduction of carbon fibre midsole super-shoes in recent years have made times like that commonplace, and there’s high expectancy that a combination of the fast course and the fast shoes, and a dozen men and women eager to chase Olympic qualifying means that the course records of 2.03.34 and 2.17.08, set pre-pandemic in 2019 are in grave danger.

An intriguing late entry in the women’s race is Melat Kejeta, formerly of Ethiopia but now running for Germany in whose colours she finished sixth in the Olympic marathon in Tokyo two and a half years ago. Meleta came to Germany as a refugee from Ethiopia over ten years ago, and as soon as she got her citizenship, she rewarded her hosts by winning silver for Germany in the world half-marathon champs in 2020. But taking time out to have a baby after her Olympic exploit, she needed to qualify for Paris. Temperatures in Budapest for the world Championships last summer precluded that, and an overzealous start in the Valencia Marathon last month caused her drop out. Since three of her colleagues have already qualified, she needs a time of 2.24. Her best is just three seconds better. ‘This is my last chance to qualify, but both my daughter and I have not been well the last few days, I’m not sure how it will go.’

Gerda Steyn of South Africa is equally intriguing. She has quietly won the concurrent 10k race for the last four years, and is overwhelming favourite to win a fifth title in Sunday. She only took up running when she moved to Dubai to work ten years ago. But well versed in the history of ultra-distance running back home, she went back to race, unsuccessfully at first in the famous Comrades Marathon (88k) and the Two Oceans Marathon (56k). But her progress was such that she has now won the Comrades twice and the two Oceans four times in succession. She also finished 15th in the Olympic marathon, and recently set a SA women’s record for the marathon of 2.24.03. She said yesterday, ‘I’ve run the Dubai10k every year (it’s been held) since 2018, and my aim is to win it again. Even though I won’t be running the full marathon, I get to be part of the iconic event’

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