Africans set to dominate as thousands hit the streets
It's all systems go for today's 35th DeepRiver Rock Belfast Marathon (start 9am, City Hall). Organisers have been working round the clock in the last few days to ensure the smooth operation of the largest sporting participation event in the province.
A total of some 14,000 will be taking part in the various events comprising the marathon run, team relay, eight-mile walk, fun run and wheelchair race.
The main marathon has some 2,800 participants while there is yet another huge entry of 1,900 teams in the five-person relay.
The relay is the is main vehicle for raising thousands of pounds for charities including the official charity, Mencap.
A major innovation this year is the introduction of a sophisticated tracking system similar to the London Marathon.
This will enable individual competitors to be monitored and timed at key points.
The quality of elite entries has again been maintained despite the usual behind the scenes problems concerning travel visas for African athletes.
While several will be making a welcome return to Belfast a number of new names have been unable to obtain visas probably reflecting the ever increasing vetting process for non UK citizens entering the country.
Thankfully despite last minute document problems last year's female winner Behran Gebremichael of Ethiopia is back again to defend her title.
The classy 29-year -old should have little trouble defending her title particularly after a very good marathon win in Spain in December in 2 hrs 36 minutes.
Behran may have her sights on a new course record which currently stands at 2 hrs 36 mins 49 secs set three years ago. This could net her a first prize of £3,000 plus a rollover prize of £1,000 for each year since the record ie a total of £6,000.
However it is notoriously difficult to set new records in Belfast because of the challenging hills especially the Antrim Road. Also, the weather plays a key factor and while today's forecast is reasonably dry some blustery winds are anticipated which will affect the runners on the numerous exposed sections of the course.
Behran will have to rely on the company of very good male runners to ensure a fast tempo.
Former Irish Olympian Catriona Jennings will be making her debut run in Belfast and could well make a rostrum positio . However,after an indifferent run in Rotterdam it is very unlikely that she will be able to overhaul Belfast's Breege Connolly's time of 2.37.29. This would snatch Breege's coveted third Irish slot for the Rio Olympics.
While Laura Graham of Mourne Runners is entered she will probably not run following her superb 2.48.03 run in London a week ago.
In her absence North Belfast's Roisin Hughes who was fifth in 2013 could be the top local finisher along with Christine Kinsella.
In the men's race Kenya's Joel Kipsang will be making a determined effort to become only the second person to achieve a hat-trick of wins after John Mutai. He is currently in good form and clearly knows the Belfast course in every detail. However, given the quality of opposition a winner will still be hard to predict.
Local coach Ciaran Collins has entered Kenyans Dan Tanui and Eric Koech who have ran 2 hrs 15 mins and 2 hrs 16 mins respectively. An 19-year-old newcomer Zeleke Bekele is of similar quality having almost won his debut marathon. As usual the result may not become clear until the last three miles especially since title holder Kipsang has a reputation for biding his time.
The best of the local runners include Ben Morrow of Ballymena who was 10th last year in 2.44, East Antrim's Clive James (14th in 2.48) and Willowfield's Alistair Duffield (16th in 2.50).