Belfast Marathon: Joel Kipsang's crown is under threat
Joel Kipsang is back to defend his Belfast Marathon title on Monday – but fellow Kenyan Bernard Rotich will start favourite.
Another Kenyan, Freddy Sittuk, took bronze last May and should also be in the shake-up, while Joe McAlister of St Malachy's can be best of the locals.
These elite athletes will head another very large field of some 2,900 entrants for the 33rd Deep RiverRock event starting at the City Hall on Monday (9.00am).
Rotich has the sort of pedigree which could easily upset Kipsang's plans for a repeat of last year's emphatic victory.
Last time, 27-year-old Kipsang broke away from his main rival Joseph Rotich in the final mile for a comfortable 30 seconds victory in 2hrs 19mins 28secs.
Earlier both athletes had attempted to maintain a course record breaking pace of 2.13.41 which had been set the previous year by Ethiopia's Urga Negewo.
However, while the pace was maintained to half way the two runners were then forced to slow due to the usual strong wind on the exposed M2 foreshore and Duncrue Street areas.
Sittuk was isolated for most of the race in third spot and finally crossed the line in 2.24.39 ahead of local St Malachy's man Tom Frazer.
Following his victory in Belfast, Kipsang has been very busy with more marathons – in Germany last September when he was second, and Israel in January when he finished fourth in a fast time of 2.12.08.
However a further marathon earlier this month in Zurich when he was eighth in 2.14.44 raises the question as to whether his body can realistically cope with a fourth marathon in the space of eight months.
For his part Rotich has certainly got the credentials to present Kipsang with a serious challenge in Belfast.
The 27-year-old had originally planned to race in the recent Brighton marathon where he was denied victory last year by a mere five seconds but recorded a classy time of 2.10.51.
Rotich withdrew from Brighton this time because of a niggly leg injury but reckons he is now fully fit for the challenges in Belfast on Monday.
Rotich has other classy credentials as shown by his victory in the Bristol Half Marathon last September.
He is no stranger to the province with a third place in a wind-ravaged Antrim International Cross Country in 2012 followed by eighth place a year later.
Another leading foreign contender is Morocco's Jaouad El Jazouli who ran a personal best time of 2.18.02 when finishing ninth in Casablanca last October.
Then in January he was 15th in Marrakech in 2.19.44.
There will be substantial local interest in Irish international McAlister who will be competing for the first time in Belfast.
The 33-year-old former World Half Marathon competitor is currently in good form with recent victories in the Larne Half Marathon plus the Downpatrick 10K.
McAlister has a personal best of 2.21.05 from the Dublin Marathon in 2010 with his last marathon outing being on the same course a year later where in tough, windy conditions he was third Irish finisher in 2.24.40.
The women's elite field seems to be affected once more by travel visa difficulties for some Ethiopian athletes.
One confirmed entry is England's Shona Crombie-Hicks who was fourth female finisher in 2012 in 3.01.45.
The five-person Relay Team event in the Marathon continues to break all records with entries closed at around 2,200 organisations, translating to no less than 11,000 participants.