The start of the SCO Kunming International Marathon.

KUNMING – Defending champion and course record-holder Olkeba Jene of Ethiopia will face stiff opposition when he defends his title at the SCO Kunming International Marathon, as the organisers have assembled the deepest field ever witnessed in the four-year history of the World Athletics Bronze Label road race on Sunday.

The 22-year-old scored a 2:20:49 victory last year, winning by seven seconds while setting the course record in the southwestern city of China. He improved his personal best to 2:14:18 this season from a ninth-place finish in Chongqing in March, but this weekend he faces a field that includes nine sub-2:10 runners.

Jene’s compatriot Bazu Worku is the fastest entrant in the field thanks to his 2:05:25 career best set nine years ago in Berlin. The 29-year-old has been struggling to find his best form so far this year as he failed to break 2:10 in all the three races he enrolled in and most recently achieved a season’s best of 2:10:56 to finish fourth in Beijing last month.

Bahrain’s Marius Kimutai, a 2:05:47 performer, has been enjoying better form in 2019. It will also be his fourth race of the year and the 26-year-old has already collected two victories in Taiyuan and Hangzhou plus a fourth-place finish in Chongqing.

Other sub-2:10 runners toeing the line include Ethiopia’s Dereje Debele, whose PB of 2:07:48 was recorded six years ago in Dusseldorf, Mathew Kipsaat of Kenya, winner of this years’ New Taipei City Marathon with a PB of 2:09:19, and fellow Kenyan Evans Sambu, who achieved a PB of 2:09:05 in Gongju in 2017.

The women’s course record of 2:33:53 set by Kenya’s 2016 winner Rodah Chepkorir also looks vulnerable since 10 runners in the field have run faster than 2:30 and half of them have broken 2:33 this year.

Ethiopia’s Mulu Seboka, who boasts a PB of 2:21:56, has vast experience of racing in China, having earned titles in Dalian and Shenzhen. As the fastest woman on paper, the 35-year-old registered two sub-2:30 results this season, retaining her Dalian title in 2:27:19 and clocking 2:29:09 to finish third in Beijing last month.

Fellow Ethiopian Letebrhan Haylay is another woman to watch in Kunming. Since her marathon debut in 2015, Haylay has produced six sub-2:30 marks from her 10 outings. The 29-year-old hasn’t competed in any races since setting a PB of 2:24:47 in Dongying last May, so her competitiveness is unknown.

Other title contenders include Ethiopia’s Nurit Shimels, who trimmed more than a minute off her PB with 2:27:40 two months ago in Cape Town, and Kenya’s Rael Kiyara, a past winner of the Chongqing, Lanzhou and Shanghai marathons with a lifetime best of 2:25:23.

African News Agency (ANA)