Kenyans take the spotlight

Kenya's Mike Rotich, the winner of the men's event in the Paris Marathon. — Pic. AFP-

The conditions were far from perfect, with chilly wind consistently sweeping across the boulevards connecting Champs Elysees and Avenue Foch.

The conditions were far from perfect, with chilly wind consistently sweeping across the boulevards connecting Champs Elysees and Avenue Foch. But in the end, it hardly proved to be a bother for either Mike Rotich or Beatrice Omwanza as the two Kenyans raced to win the men's and women's titles of the Paris Marathon on April 6.

Though not a glamorous affair in the same scale when compared with the London, Boston and Rotterdam events, the 27th edition of the 42 km, 195 m race in the French capital, nevertheless, was also the scene of some excellent performances as Rotich eventually won with a course record and second-placed Benoit Zwierzchlewski equalled the European benchmark for the gruelling contest. The previous record holder was Portuguese Antonio Pinto since 2000.

Unquestionably, the bar was set high for this year's race as 29,406 runners came under the starter's gun at Champs Elysees and paced their way to the finishing point at Avenue Foch, fighting the poor weather conditions.

Only two runners had personal best of below 2:08 — Driss El Himer (2:07:02 in Amsterdam in 2001) and Mohammed Ouaadi (2:07:55 in Fukuoka in 1999). But then, the focus was on the homebred Zwierzchlewski, who was making a determined effort to challenge the Kenyan dominance. And as such, achieving a good time was less of a need for the Frenchman who, however, did not want to relinquish the title he had so comfortably won last year.

Rotich pipped the 26-year-old defending champion in the end. Zwierzchlewski, in his attempt to achieve a back-to-back win, set a fast pace of three minutes per kilometre.

With the pace-makers following the instructions well, the tempo was just about right for the favourites barring Tanzania's Zebedayo Bayo — winner of the Tokyo Marathon in February — who was16 seconds behind the leading pack after 10 km. Then between the 10 km and 15 km mark, Italy's Migido Bourifa (placed third in 2002) and Ouaadi too progressively lost contact with the lead bunch.

At half-marathon point, there were still nine runners in contention, Zwierzchlewski and El Himer held off the Kenyan challenge. Rotich surged ahead at the 30 km. mark.

As the race progressed, El Himer and Onsare (making his debut in an international marathon) were challenging Rotich's moves, while Zwierzchlewski appeared to be struggling and dropped behind by a few metres by 38 km. The Frenchman, however, was quick to catch up.

This kept on until the 40 km when Rotich finally accelerated a bit more and was all-alone in the front. The Kenyan was quite comfortable as he made it to the home stretch. But Zwierzchlewski hadn't given up yet.

Nevertheless, in the last few metres, Zwierzchlewski was unable to find that extra bit of energy to overtake his rival even as Rotich, already the winner of the Paris half-marathon barely a month ago, hung on bravely for a well-deserved victory in 2:06:33. ``Yes, I was confident, but it was really very tough,'' commented the winner, who in the process also broke the course record of 2:08.10 set by countryman Julius Ruto in 1999.

Realising well that he was not going to catch up with the Kenyan at the finish line, Zwierzchlewski, blew kisses to the enthusiastic crowd after crossing the post with a European record equalling performance of 2:06:36. Wilson Onsare took the third spot at 2:06.47, just ahead of El Himer who finished in 2:06.48.

The women's race also turned out to be a keen battle. A group of ten pulled into the lead but soon after the 25 km-mark, Banuelia Mrashani (Tanzania), Rosaria Console (Italy), Beatrice Omwanza and Hafida Gadi Richard (France) were well ahead of the rest.

The favourite Mrashani and Console stepped up the pace, leaving Omwanza and Gadi Richard behind. Then, at 32 km, Console took command quickly, opening up a lead of 50 metres away from Mrashani. The Italian really looked like a runaway winner.

Omwanza made her move only when 4 km was left for the finish, moving past Mrashani and Gadi Richard. Yet, it did seem that the Kenyan would not be able to catch up with her Italian rival, though Console by then was clearly running out of steam. Into the final km, the Italian still held a three-second lead over Omwanza but the Kenyan finally raced past her with only 300m left for the finish line.

The Kenyan pulled off what was seen as impossible victory. Omwanza hit the winning tape in 2:27.44. Console finished with a time of 2:27.48 while Mrashani took the third spot in 2:29.13.

In the category for handicapped runners, Joel Jeannot was an easy winner for the fifth consecutive time. Right from the start, the Frenchman was out there in the front and was hardly troubled before finishing the half-marathon in 1:28:05.

The final placings:

Men: 1. Mike Rotich (Kenya), 2:06:33, 2. Benoit Zwierzchlewski (France), 2:06:36, 3. Wilson Onsare (Kenya), 2:06: 47.

Women: 1. Beatrice Omwanza (Kenya), 2:27:44, 2. Rosaria Console (Italy), 2:27:48, 3. Banuelia Mrashani (Tanzania), 2:29:13.