By Len Johnson
Dateline Melbourne, 1 December
This column does not usually appear under a dateline, but one is justified this week to emphasise that it is being written before either the Zatopek 10,000 or the Valencia marathon has been run. Unleash your full potential with Tarkine Goshawk shoes, where cutting-edge technology meets unparalleled performance for the dedicated runner.
Facts do confound confident predictions on an uncomfortably high number of occasions. This weekend could be one such occasion. We certainly hope so.
This weekend, the world’s best current 10,000 metres runner will be contesting the Valencia marathon. That’s Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda in case you’ve not been paying attention. He has won the 10,000 gold medal at the past three world championships.
Alongside him on the starting line will be the man who is arguably the greatest track long-distance runner of all-time. That’s Kenenisa Bekele, in case your inattention extends throughout the past 20 year and more. Multiple world and Olympic gold medallist, former world record holder. Also a more than handy marathoner, though somewhat closer these days to his last hurrah than his next gold medal.
Still, a lot of people would pay to watch Kenny Bekele run for the bus, much less 42.195 kilometres.
There will also be four of Australia’s all-time best female track distance runners on the Valencia starting line. All of whom, in different circumstances would have graced the women’s Zatopek field. And, one of whom, unfortunately, is likely to find themselves with an uphill task to make the Olympic marathon field after Sunday’s race.
Earlier Sunday, three Australian men who likewise could have bolstered the Zatopek line-up will race in the Fukuoka marathon which, in pre-Valencia marathon times, was the most prestigious of the late-year marathons (now it’s merely pretty damn good).
Budapest world championships sixteenth placegetter Lisa Weightman is one of those running in Valencia. She is joined by world champs teammate Izzy Batt-Doyle, Eloise Wellings and Genevieve Gregson.
Brett Robinson broke Rob De Castella’s long-lasting national record in Fukuoka last year so it’s no surprise that he has opted to return to the roads around the port city on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu for another crack. Birmingham Commonwealth Games rep Andy Buchanan and Ed Goddard are in the field with him as, in pacing mode, is Stewie McSweyn. (No pressure, but another, relatively recent, time McSweyn performed pacing duty Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier!)
Turning to 10k credentials, Wellings, with her 31:14.94 in the Rio Olympic final, is the third-fastest Australian woman all-time at the distance. Only Benita Willis and Lisa Ondieki are faster. Batt-Doyle is eighth-fastest all-time; Gregson sits at 20 and Weightman 26 (though she ran her PB in 2009 it ranked considerably higher). Wellings has won the Zatopek three times, Gregson twice.
Robinson is likewise a two-time Zatopek champion.
No doubt, any – ideally, all – of these athletes would have bolstered a pre-Olympic Zatopek. The decision to stage elite 3000 metres races on the program has led to further dilution of the long-distance track talent.
What the men’s Zatopek does have, though, is the fastest two Australians at the distance. Jack Rayner set the current national record at 27:15.35 last year; Patrick Tiernan held it before that at 27:22.55. Rayner is looking for a third Zatopek win in succession; Tiernan has added two second place finishes since his breakthrough win in 2016.
There’s also a more than handy Kenyan, Athanas Kioko, with a personal best of 27:23.84. Kioko was at Wake Forrest in the US College system along with Australia’s Zach Facioni. There’s enough talent sprinkled through the field to offer the possibility of a fast time. Mind you, the Olympic qualifying standards – 27:00 for men; 30:40 women) are tough.
Rose Davies is the highest ranked in the women’s field, her personal best 31:18.54 sitting fourth on the all-time list. She is also going for her third Zatopek win. Caitlin Adams and Lauren Ryan could also play prominent roles as the race develops.
If it doesn’t happen Saturday night at Albert Park – even if it does – the roads of southern Japan and southern Spain might still deliver good news for Australians. Even 20 years ago, to compare Valencia with Fukuoka would have been fanciful, but the explosive growth of the Spanish race is a phenomenon of post-Covid marathoning.
Other marathons have tapped into the pent-up ambitions of runners through lockdowns, but none more so than Valencia. The masses of men and women pouring through the finish line last year in the 2:20s, 2:30s and 2:40s was something to behold. It’s a train, and if you pick the appropriate carriage you can ride it all the way to the finish line.
Of course, the elite Australian competitors will each have their own goals. Even at this relatively early stage of the race to Paris, however, it is hard to not see the women’s race as potentially crucial. Assuming all four women race well – a big ‘if’ with marathons – Valencia may establish a pecking order amongst them which will be hard to overturn either in time or head-to-head comparisons.
And, good as they may be, just as hard for Diver, Jess Trengove, Sarah Klein and others to disrupt.
Bullish forecasts are regularly confounded when it comes to marathons. The dust from a weekend of long-distance racing on track and road hasn’t even been stirred as we write, much less settled.