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Dera Dida will be defending the Dubai Marathon women's crown on Sunday. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: A host of international runners from the African powerhouse nations of Kenya and Ethiopia will be out in force to start the year on a winning note in the 23rd edition of the Dubai Marathon 2024 on Sunday.

Ethiopians Workineh Tadese Mandefro and Kebede Tulu Wami will be aiming to clinch their first Dubai Marathon titles. A personal best of 2:05:07 from the Hamburg Marathon in 2022 was a major improvement on Tadese’s marathon journey, shaving more than two minutes off his previous best set at the Amsterdam Marathon six months earlier.

Another star of the fastest elitepack, Ethiopian Kebede Tulu has also been on a steady upward journey in his short marathon journey.

Since finishing eighth at the 2020 Mumbai Marathon, he has consistently lowered his personal best every time he has completed the marathon distance. Marathons in Slovakia, Italy, the Netherlands and Barcelona culminated in a new personal best of 2:05:19 and second place at the Seville Marathon in February 2023.

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In the women’s section, Ethiopia’s Dera Dida will have to fight a stiff challenge from Ruti Aga, who finished runners-up on the fast and flat roads around Jumeirah and the Burj Al Arab.

Also in the field are Rotterdam and Osaka Marathon winner Haiven Hailu Desse of Ethiopia and 2023 Rome Marathon champion Betty Chepkwony of Kenya looking to add to their title collection in the women’s field.

Fast and flat roads

Still only 25, Hailu has already excelled over the marathon distance with those victories in the Netherlands in April 2022 (2:22:01) and a year later in Japan (2:21:13), while her personal best of 2:20:19 came when finishing third in the Amsterdam Marathon of 2019.

Kenyan Chepkwony made her breakthrough on the international marathon scene by winning the Rome Marathon nine months ago in a personal best time of 2:23:02.

The return to the fast and flat roads around Jumeirah and the Burj Al Arab is set produce a sizzling battle between elite runners in both the men’s and women’s sections. The race gains immense prominence as the top runners will be eager to seal their Paris Olympics 2024 berths in advance in this first international marathon of the calendar year.

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Officials and elite runners at the Dubai Marathon 2024. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

Traditionally, runners from Ethiopia and Kenya have dominated the race with Ethiopians winning the race 29 times, while Kenyans have won nine. Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie leads the men’s honour-board with three titles along with Kenyan Wilson Kibet, while Ethiopia’s Aselefech Mergia has won three titles in 2011, 2012 and 2015.

“The athletes are excited about the event returning to the flat course around Umm Suqeim, the Burj Al Arab and the Jumeirah Beach Road, which is renowned for delivering fast times,” said Race Director Peter Connerton. “The elite field is looking strong, and our thanks go to the Dubai Sports Council and the relevant Dubai Government bodies who help us give the athletes a wonderful place to run.”

“Hopefully, we can have a course record. It’s great to be back on the new course, after being away for a few years. With a group of athletes, we have now we’re expecting them to push each other and get a fast time and course records, especially with it being an Olympic qualifying year. So if the whether holds up, not being too windy, I think we might have some surprises.”

Great marathon times

He added: “Dubai has made a name for itself as a city that produces great marathon times — with the field of elite athletes we have this year, I am looking forward to some exciting new stories being created this weekend.”

Looking back at the history of Middle East’s oldest international marathon, Ahmad Al Kamali, the Event General Coordinator, said he’s looking forward to an unique race and expects the women’s run to be closely contested with Ethiopian duo Dera Dida and Ruti Aga going head-to-head once again to grab the top honours.

“Starting from November 27, 1998 until today, I have been part of the race every single year. This Sunday race will be quite unique because we are in the beginning of January and the athletes would want to qualify for the Olympics early so that they could concentrate on their training programme during the later part of the year. So we have many athletes from the African continent with the sole aim of securing their places in the Paris Games, which could make this race faster. I feel the women’s run will be quite fast and break the 2:17:08 mark and bring it to 2:16 or 2:15, while in the top five will be competing for men’s title and better 2:03:34.”

Eleven months ago, it was Dida — wife of former Dubai Marathon winner and ex-World Champion Tamirat Tola — who stormed through with two kilometres remaining to take the women’s title in 2:21:11 just 13 seconds ahead of compatriot Aga in second.

Third visit to Dubai

This week the pair will be reunited again — and while Dida returns as reigning champion, it is Aga who is the fastest woman in the field with a personal best of 2:18:09, which she set when winning in Dongying China a few months ago.

For Aga, it’s a third visit to the Dubai Marathon after competing in both 2017 and 2023. Her record in major marathons is impressive, having won in Tokyo (2019), finished second in Berlin twice (2017 and 2018) and claimed third in the 2019 New York Marathon.

Saeed Hareb, Secretary General of Dubai Sports Council, said the organisers are aiming to take the $1 million gold standard Dubai Marathon higher in international rankings.

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Saeed Hareb addressing the details of Dubai Marathon 2024 at a press conference on Friday. Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

“The Dubai Marathon is an important part of the city’s sporting calendar, more so now that it is the first major event of 2024,” said Hareb. “The race has been very successful since the first event in 1998 but we always strive to be better. It is good to see so many wonderful elite athletes with us today. Now we are between sixth and seventh position in ranking, but we want to go further up and become the first or the leading marathon in the world.”

In the men’s field, Ethiopians Workineh Tadese Mandefro and Kebede Tulu Wami lead the way with the former’s personal best of 2:05:07 coming in Hamburg 2022. Tulu is only a few seconds slower, his best of 2.05.19 earned him second place in Seville nine months ago.

Hugely popular race

It will be the first time the area has staged the Dubai Marathon since January 2020 and is a part of the city considered as the marathon’s “home” by tens of thousands of Dubai-based runners. As well as the elite field competing in the marathon, the wheelchair marathon, the 10km Road Race and the 4km Fun Run will also take place over a route that hasn’t seen mass participation running on this scale in four years.

“Our target is to have approximately 20,000 runners from all categories, but are closing on the number and with two days left for the registration, we are confident of reaching the target,” he added.