Although in good form, Martin's results are not as impressive as they were last year. His explanation is that his shorter races so far this year have merely been milestones in preparation for the marathon, and that he has not rested up before them. This accounts for the performances, but resting is as vital to marathon preparation as the training. There is a distinct possibility that he has overdone the training at the expense of his performance in the race.
Hard at Martin's heels last year was Isidro Rico, one of the wave of Mexican distance runners who have swept the world's major marathons over the past two years. This year, with Dionicio Ceron the race favourite, the London Marathon may finally succumb. He did not race here last time as he was otherwise engaged winning the Rotterdam Marathon. He has recorded two more victories since - one at altitude in Mexico City, and last December in the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon where he set the fastest time of the year.
That time is two minutes faster than Martin ran last year, but although the London course is fast, the weather is seldom favourable. An over-ambitious early pace can overturn pre-race form. Ceron's confidence on arrival in London was indicated by his suggestion that he wanted to be paced through half-way on a near world-record schedule. A capable man has been assigned the task, but if Ceron attempts such a telling pace in adverse conditions then more cautious starters may catch him as the whole field tires running into the wind over the last few miles.
Another pacemaker has been assigned to Martin, who will require a steadier speed. Last year he ran the first half in 64 minutes, and the second half nearly three minutes slower. There was no need to do more. But if Ceron sticks to his plans there could be a big pack hunting him down, which will give no one much chance of saving energy for a storming finish.
In the pack will be Artur Castro from Brazil and Salvatore Bettiol of Italy. In 1990, Bettiol tried unsuccessfully to track down the previous British winner to Martin, Allister Hutton, when the break came as early as six miles out. These are the men in form, but there are also some vintage performers in the field. Juma Ikaanga of Tanzania was consistently a top competitor throughout the 1980s, while Douglas Wakiihuri, world champion in 1987 and winner of the London race in 1989, runs his first marathon for two years.
As defending champion, Martin is seen as carrying British hopes, but he is not the fastest Briton in the field. Mike O'Reilly, who ran his fastest time behind Ceron in Fukuoka, takes that honour. He was pacemaker in the race last year, and says a 'comfortable' first half and a consistent pace is the best way to be competitive over the full distance. He is a Londoner who has spent most of the past 10 years living at altitude in New Mexico, alienated from both British and Irish athletic authorities. An itinerant professional, as most top runners are these days, he candidly admits the weakness of the British challenge: 'We have one or two good runners coming on, but no one at the very top.'
The organisers have recognised this in offering a separate prize money list for Britons finishing outside the top three. Bolstering incentives for home runners has long been the practice in US races, but it has never before happened in London. Many of the top British runners will be running their race against each other rather than the overseas opposition.
The late withdrawal of the Chinese team, who filled the first four places in last year's World Marathon Cup, has thinned out the women's field considerably. The competition today now comes down to a battle between Katrin Dorre of Germany, who has won the race twice, and the Australian Lisa Ondieki. Tatyana Dzbrailova of the Ukraine has the best chance of gatecrashing this duel, much as Dorre did last year, when a clash between Ondieki and Liz McColgan was what the media and the public expected.
Dorre is too canny a campaigner to underestimate the opposition. Like Ondieki, she was training at altitude until a few days before the race, using a formula that has worked for her before. Dorre's two victories were by the smallest margins seen in London, of about 100 yards each. This does not reflect a small margin of superiority but is rather an indication of her patience in awaiting an opportunity that can be pressed to advantage. In the long-run, that is often what is required to win. A third consecutive London victory was more than even the world-record holder, Ingrid Kristiansen, could manage. If Dorre achieves that today, she may finally step into the limelight which, despite her record, has eluded her in London.
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