Athletics: Okayo puts pressure on O'Sullivan with marathon prediction

Sonia O'Sullivan may have to join the exclusive club of women who have run under two hours and 20 minutes if she is to win the marathon here tomorrow.

The prediction came from one of the world's top distance coaches, Dr Gabriele Rosa, the Italian who works with the Kenyan defending champion Margaret Okayo. With O'Sullivan eager to cover the first half of the race in 71 minutes, Dr Rosa is adamant Okayo – who specialises in running the second phase at a much faster pace – will cover that stretch in under 69 minutes.

Predictably the response that anyone can better 2hr 20min on what is deemed to be the toughest 26.2 mile course in the world has been dismissed – even by Allan Steinfeld, the race director.

"We would love it if Sonia or anyone else could run under 2:20," Steinfeld said. "But this is a difficult course. As good as the women are, I would expect the winning time to be in the region of 2:21 to 2:22."

However, Dr Rosa insists the 26-year-old Okayo has arrived for the race in the best shape of her life and will run far faster than the course record 2:24:21 she set 12 months ago. Proving her credentials, Okayo reduced her personal best to 2:20:53 when decisively defeating Catherine Ndebera in Boston – by almost half-a-minute. That success saw Okayo become the first woman to hold both prestigious titles since Germany's Utta Pippig won the New York and Boston races in 1993 and 1994. It is an accolade she eagerly wishes to retain.

Dr Rosa feels Okayo will take the New York course record into a new dimension when running against O'Sullivan and Joyce Chepchumba and Lornah Kiplagat, two fellow Kenyans with the credentials for victory.

"If Sonia is looking for 71 minutes that will suit us perfectly," Dr Rosa said. "Okayo will run the second half in under 69 minutes. That is our plan," the Italian insisted. "Also remember last year's race," added Dr Rosa, referring to when Okayo beat fellow countrywoman Susan Chepkemei by 49 seconds. Victory that day was sealed with a second-half run of 71:10. In Boston, she was a minute faster.

"Okayo is ready in every respect for this race. The faster the pace from the beginning the more it will suit her," Dr Rosa said.