Hall out to break Kenyan hold on pain road

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The Independent Online

Business folk taking their customary coffee in the foyer of the capital's Tower Hotel were distracted yesterday by a succession of unusual visitors conveying a common message – the London Marathon was in town.

Eyes wandered as six Masai warriors bearing shields, staves and sparkling metal discs filed obediently through the revolving door, followed by cameramen and reporters.

Soon afterwards, a similar entourage surrounded a capped, full-bearded, track-suited figure who moved with shuffling steps along the same route – at 101, Buster Martin will be the oldest person to have attempted this particular 26 miles 385 yards challenge.

And here was former referee Graham Poll, ready to go the distance with a yellow card in his hand to admonish any potential heckler.

As the annual event which has become an integral part of the nation's sporting fabric gets itself underway for a 28th time tomorrow morning, it can boast its usual epic congregation of strivers and high achievers, but the toe injury sustained by three-times winner Paula Radcliffe earlier this year, and the subsequent withdrawal of Kenya's former world record holder, Paul Tergat, have robbed it of its highest points of profile.

What remains is the prospect of two intriguingly open races with the subtext of a British Olympic trial race which could see the likes of Dan Robinson and naturalised Ethiopian Tomas Abyu pressing their claims for Beijing, while Liz Yelling and Hayley Haining are effectively disputing the only remaining place in the women's team. No Briton is likely to be visiting the podium given the international quality of the men's and women's fields.

While Kenya's defending champion Martin Lel is favourite to retain his title, that task could be severely complicated by the presence of fellow countrymen Luke Kibet, the reigning world champion, Felix Limo, who disencumbered Lel of his defending title status in 2006, and 21-year-old Sammy Wanjiru, holder of the world half- marathon record.

The main challengers to the Kenyan dominance are likely to be Morocco's double world champion, Jaouad Gharib, and the rapidly rising US runner Ryan Hall, who finished sixth here on his debut last year and won the Olympic trial race in New York in some style last November.

Speaking this week Italy's 36-year-old Olympic champion Stefano Baldini, who will use tomorrow's race to prepare for one final Olympic hurrah this summer, offered a striking assessment of Hall's potential, saying: "This is an athlete who can win a lot of medals because he is able to read a race and react. So he is the future."

The comment raised no more than a faint smile from the unassuming American from Big Bear Lake, California, but he is likely to have to react to a long, killing drive for the line by the Kenyan contingent tomorrow, and the future may have to wait a while.

If the bookies are right, the women's race will go to Ethiopia's Berhane Adere, winner of the last two Chicago marathons, who began the year with victory in the Dubai Marathon in 2hr 22min 42sec, exactly two minutes outside the national record she set two years ago. However, Adere will be pushed hard by her compatriot Gete Wami, assuming the woman who inflicted Radcliffe's most demoralising track defeat when taking the world 10,000m title in 1999 has recovered from the hamstring problems which troubled her late last year after she had finished runner-up to Radcliffe in New York just five weeks after winning in Berlin.

The Ethiopians will by no means have the race to themselves, however, given the presence of the experienced Russian pair of Lyudmila Petrova, eighth in the last Olympics, and Svetlana Zakharova, a former Boston and Chicago winner.

Romania's 38-year-old Constantina Tomescu-Dita can bring even more experience to bear, having run more than 30 marathons, with a second placed finish to her credit in London three years ago.

Kenya's chances of managing a possible double will rest with 31-year-old Salina Kosgei, who finished second in last year's Tokyo marathon.

Like a number of her compatriots, she has had her preparations severely affected by the ethnic violence that broke out in Kenya before and after the recent elections, being unable to train for three weeks when she was confined to her house 20km away from the epicentre of the trouble at Eldoret, where her fellow countryman Kibet was knocked unconscious and former Olympic athlete Lucas Sang was killed.

The most mercurial gains in the women's race could come from Germany's naturalised Khazak runner, Irina Mikitenko, who marked her debut at the distance last September by finishing second to Wami in Berlin in a time of 2hr 24min 51sec which she looks ominously capable of improving in this year's race. One to watch out for.