London Marathon: Martin trusts in caution to keep title: An Englishman is wary of the opposition but an Australian woman aims to dominate. Mike Rowbottom reports

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FITTINGLY enough for someone who is being sponsored by a condom company, Eamonn Martin is playing safe as he attempts to retain his Nutrasweet London Marathon title tomorrow.

Martin's personal agenda may have changed since last year - three days before he won his wife, Julie, produced their third child, Eamonn junior - but his strategy remains the same. He intends to be in the leading pack at half-way - where Gary Staines, running in his first marathon, is being paid a around pounds 9,000 to pace Martin through in a time close to 64 minutes. He hopes to join serious battle with whoever is still around at 20 miles, and then rely on the kick which has brought him the British record and Commonwealth title at 10,000 metres to move ahead, just as he did in seeing off the last remaining challenger last time round, Isidro Rico of Mexico.

That is the theory. And although Martin's recent performances have been less than startling - he admitted he was disappointed at finishing only 95th in last month's World Cross-Country Championships in Budapest - he maintains that he has been training more thoroughly than last year for what is his primary target. Becoming the first man to win the London twice would, he says, be worth more than any subsequent success he might have on the track in this summer's European Championships.

But this year Martin has to reckon with another Mexican who is likely to prove even tougher opposition than Rico. In Dionicio Ceron, the 35-year-old Basildon runner faces the man who is the leading marathon runner of the moment following three victories out of three last year at Rotterdam, Mexico City and Fukuoka. In the last of those three races he set the fastest time of the year - 2hr 8min 51sec.

His form this year appears to be equally impressive - in January he ran a half-marathon in 60min 28sec, just five seconds behind the world champion, Vincent Rousseau of Belgium.

Ceron talked this week of completing the first half of the race in around 63 minutes, a minute faster than Martin's intends. 'What's the problem?' he said, with an ominously relaxed grin.

The problem for him might be the wind, which is forecast as gusting up to 20mph from the north-east. But there are other problems for both Martin and himself in a strong field.

Ceron's fellow countryman, Martin Pitayo, the Brazilian Valdenor Dos Santos, who beat Ceron over 15 kilometres in Florida seven weeks ago, and Salvatore Bettiol of Italy, who finished fourth in London last year, represent serious threats.

The Portuguese pair of Artur Castro, who won last year in Venice in 2:10:06 and Fernando Cueto - who finished 61 places ahead of Martin in Budapest - are also to be reckoned with.

So much for the coming men. But there may yet be a flourish from coming-back men. Douglas Wakiihuri, Kenya's former world champion and Olympic silver medallist, is back to something approaching the form which brought him this title five years ago after a knee operation in this country in September. 'I am in better form than I have been for two years, and I am looking forward to running a good race,' Wakiihuri said.

And the 31-year-old South African, Peter Tshikila, is aiming for a place in the top five just eight months after having a bullet removed from his left knee following an incident in which he was shot by a robber.

Britain's main hopes beyond Martin lie with Paul Evans, whose predicted breakthrough last year was ruined by a stomach upset which forced him to drop out, and Mike O'Reilly, a hardened competitor who paced the race to 11 miles last year. Andy Green, a consistent runner in recent years and a selection for the forthcoming European Championships, could well improve his personal best of 2:12:12.

In the disappointing - and baffling - absence of the Chinese, the women's race has a thin feel to it. There are only 11 elite runners, although the leading two are the best that last year's event could offer - Katrin Dorre of Germany and Lisa Ondieki of Australia, the respective winner and runner-up.

Ondieki plans to run more cautiously than she did last year, when Dorre let her break the challenge of Liz McColgan before passing her in Birdcage Walk. The German runner is obviously keen to become the first woman to win the event three times in succession.

(Map omitted)