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Chephirchir to take on Seboka in Guangzhou, Oljira and Jepchirchir face-off at Saitama

This weekend’s World Athletics Label road race action centres on the Guangzhou Marathon in China and the women’s race at Saitama. 

Ethiopia’s Mulu Seboka will take on the in-form Celestine Chepchirchir of Kenya at the Guangzhou Marathon, a World Athletics Gold Label road race, on Sunday.

The Prolific Ethiopian racer, who will compete in her fifth marathon of the year, owns the fastest personal best in the field at 2:21:56 set in Dubai four years ago. The 35-year-old competed in the southern Chinese city in 2016 and finished second in 2:32:26.

Seboka, a past Dubai Marathon, has a season’s best of 2:27:19 from her four marathons. She will obviously not be running with fresh legs in Guangzhou as her last race was just one week ago in Kunming, where she scored a 2:32:54 victory.

The rising Chepchirchir, 23, is the second fastest but the highest ranked (43) woman toeing the line. She knocked more than two minutes off her PB to finish third in Seoul in 2:24:48 nine months ago and went on to set a course record of 2:26:44 at the Cape Town Marathon in September.

Guangzhou will be her third race of the year and first time competing on Chinese soil.

Lilia Fisikovici of Moldova also improved lifetime best this April to 2:27:26 and has been pursuing her second international marathon title following her win in Krakow last April.

Other sub-2:30 runners in the field include two-time Daegu Marathon winner Pamela Rotich of Kenya who has a PB of 2:27:48, Ethiopia’s Hiwot Gebrekidan, who set a winning mark of 2:25:45 in See Genezareth two years ago, as well as Chinese duo Ding Changqin and He Yinli.

The men’s field is led by Kenya’s Eliud Kiptanui. The 30-year-old clocked a PB of 2:05:21 to finish second at the Berlin Marathon four years ago and has managed to run inside 2:10 every year since 2014. But the past winner in Ottawa and Prague has yet to break that barrier in 2019 as he only clocked a mediocre 2:14:15 to finish seventh in Xiamen in January and failed to finish in Taiyuan three months ago.

Kiptanui’s countryman Mike Kiptum took more than three minutes off his career best to finish third at Seoul Marathon in 2:06:22 in March, suggesting that the 27-year-old would be another serious candidate not only to win the title but also to rewrite the 2:10:01 course record set by Morocco’s Abdellah Tagharrafet in 2015.

The powerful Kenyan contingent also includes Felix Kirwa, whose PB of 2:06:13 was set in Eindhoven two years ago, and 31-year-old Josphat Letting, winner of the Tallinn Marathon in September.

Ethiopia’s Gebretsadik Abraha could be the biggest threat to the Kenyans. Although the 27-year-old achieved his 2:06:23 PB back in 2012, the consistent Abraha has maintained a high level of competitiveness, earning four podium finishes in his six races since 2017.

On the hand, Ethiopia's Belaynesh Oljira will start as favourite in the fifth Saitama International Marathon, a World Athletics Silver Label road race, on Sunday.

The elite field includes eight runners from abroad as well as two Japanese. Oljira is the fastest among them with a 2:21:53 lifetime best set in the 2018 Frankfurt Marathon. Oljira was a superb track runner, having finished fifth in the 2012 Olympics and third in the 2013 World Championships, both at 10,000m and boasts track bests of 14:42.57 in the 5000m and 30:26.70 in the 10,000m. She's only raced once this year, in a 10km road race in June, so her current fitness is a mystery.  

Oljira’s second fastest marathon is 2:24:21 - only two runners in the field have run faster: Ethiopians Rahma Tusa, who clocked 2:23:46 in the 2018 Roma Marathon and Fatuma Sado who ran 2:24:16 in the 2015 Toronto Marathon. Sado was one of the favorite in Saitama last year but failed to finish. She won the Osaka Marathon in January with 2:25:39.

The field also includes Kenyan Paskalia Chepkorir, who has a best of 2:26:04; Zinash Debebe of Ethiopia, who has a 2:27:15 lifetime best; Ethiopia's Zerfie Limeneh, a 2:26:48 runner; and Nina Savina of Belarus, who's clocked 2:29:06.

Hiroko Yoshitomi, with a best of 2:30:09 and Kaori Yoshida, who's run 2:28:24, are the Japanese entrants. Their incentive? Any Japanese runner who breaks 2:22:22 will secure the third spot on the 2020 Olympic Marathon team.

The most intriguing runner in the field is Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the former world half marathon record holder with a best of 1:05:06 and 2016 world champion over the distance. She's run two marathons in her career, both at altitude in Kenya and both over 2:45. But those performances don't seem indicative of her marathon potential.

Inaugurated in 1979 as the Tokyo Women’s Marathon, the first women-only marathon, it was moved to Yokohama after 30 years where it remained as an elite women-only race. After six editions, it was moved to Saitama where it became a mass race but still only features a women's elite field. (IAAF)