Did we mention that the Dubai Marathon has a tendency to be won by debutants?

Well, that tradition was bolstered in some style this morning in the first major marathon in Olympic year when, first, nineteen year old Addisu Gobena of Ethiopia, barely two years in training as a runner, beat an experienced field to win the men’s race in a time of two hours, five minutes and one second. He was then upstaged less than a dozen minutes later when a recent 1500 metres specialist, his compatriot Tigist Ketema won the women’s event in 2.16.07, beating the former fastest women’s marathon debut by 42 seconds. That record, incidentally was held by another Ethiopian, Letesenbet Gidey.

And it doesn’t end there.

With the return of two more Ethiopians, Dera Dida and Ruti Aga, first and second last year, the women’s race was always expected to be more interesting than the men’s in this, the 23rd edition of the race. But in gate-crashing her peers’ party, Ketema made it doubly so. With Aga determined to avenge her close defeat last year, she took the early initiative, and when the field began to split up after halfway, Dida began to cede ground to her rival. But, loping along beside them both in the early stages, then tracking Aga comfortably when they forged a lead together, Ketema’s ease began to look more and more ominous for the more experienced marathoner.

So decisive was Ketema’s move with less than five kilometres to run that she ended up beating Aga by over two minutes. The latter ran 2.18.09 with last year’s winner Dida taking third in 2.19.29, still over a minute faster than 12 months ago here.

The following press conference proved revelatory. After thanking her coach Gemedu Dedefo for transforming her from a 1500 metres specialist to a (successful) marathoner in barely a year of increased work, Ketema said, “I was quite afraid of the distance before I raced a marathon, but at the end, I wondered why”. Her rivals might like to think it was beginner’s luck, but a chat with Dedefo dispelled that notion. “Judging by her training, I thought she could do two hours, fifteen, but I can’t be dissatisfied with what she has done”.

Now, if I mention that Dedefo is coach to recent new world record holder Tigist Asefa (2.11.53 in Berlin in September), to Amane Beriso (2.14.58 in Valencia a month ago), to Tamirat Tola (world championship gold and silver at marathon), then you’ll see the sort of company that Ketema is keeping. The theory that excellence breeds excellence gets quite a bit of traction.

You might say the same for Gobena. He was rather more aggressive than Ketema; he was always the one pushing the pace, even when there were still a dozen contenders dogging his footsteps well into the second half of the race. But his relentless assault from the front put paid to all of them. And his story, while it bears similarities to Ketema’s has one salient difference. He too thanked family and friends for his success; but the gob-smacker was the fact that until two years ago, Gobena was a mediocre javelin thrower, with a best of 52 metres – which would barely trouble officials standing halfway down the stadium infield, while the world record is close to 100 metres. But Auntie Ruti (Aga is the younger sister of Gobena’s dad) suggested he might be better off running. So he started training seriously with Aga. Two years later, he is $80,000 better off. “I think I made the right decision,” he said, in such a downbeat fashion that should he eventually want another career change, he might try stand-up comedy. 

More seriously, these results will provide little encouragement to first world long distance runners. Already long aware that being born and nurtured at altitude gives a huge advantage to Ethiopians and Kenyans in particular – training in thinner air, then coming to race at sea-level is the human equivalent of turbo-charging a combustion engine – these results from athletes who have barely had time to train properly for the marathon will afford further dismay. One way to combat that would be to import excellence. Both Melat Kejeta, fourth in the women’s race, and Samuel Fitwi, fifth in the men’s were born in East Africa. Those excellent performances, 2.21.47 and 2.06.27, easily personal bests have qualified them to run in the Olympic Games for their naturalized country, Germany.

The expected warm morning didn’t materialize, temperatures keeping at 16/17C (61/62F) throughout the race with a bit of cloud cover when it got light after the 6am start. And the return for the first time in four years to the fast course along Jumeirah Beach Road provided a new women’s course record for race director, Peter Connerton, who said, “Because of the pandemic and the one-off run at Expo City last year, everybody was looking forward to coming back to Jumeirah; and the women’s result in particular justified our expectations”.

RESULTS

MEN

NAME COUNTRY TIME PRIZE/US$

1 GOBENA, Addisu ETH 2.05.01 80,000

2 DUMECHA Lemi ETH 2.05.20 40,000

3 MEGERSA Dejen ETH 2.05.42 20,000 

4 FUFA Abdi ETH 2.06.23 10,000

5 FITWI Samuel GER 2.06.27   5,000

6 DAGNACHEW A ETH 2.06.55   4,000

7 CHEBII Douglas KEN 2.08.15   3,000

8 TESFAYE Lencho ETH 2.08.25   2,500

9 TESHAGR Bayelign ETH 2.08.56   2,000

10 DESSIE Abebaw ETH 2.09.09   1,500

WOMEN

1 KETEMA Tigist ETH 2.16.07 80,000

2 AGA Ruti ETH 2.18.09 40,000

3 DIDA Dera ETH 2.19.29 20,000

4 KEJETA Melat GER 2.21.47 10,000

5 JEMAL Fozya ETH 2.21.53   5,000

6 ESHETE Shitaye BRN 2.21.55   4,000

7 ANMUT Atelel ETH 2.22.23   3,000

8 AFENIGUS Bet. ETH 2.25.57   2,500

9 NIGUSE Emebet ETH 2.27.15   2,000

10 SHIMELS Nurit ETH 2.28.28   1,500