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Defar Ready To Rock Philadelphia

Multiple Olympic medalist and world-record holder ready for half marathon debut.

Written by: David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

Two-time Olympic medalist and multiple world record holder Meseret Defar will make her half marathon debut at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Sunday, September 19, organizers told Race Results earlier this week.  For Defar, 26, the race will be more than twice as long as her previous longest race on the roads, the World’s Best 10K in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2007.

“I’ve been talking to Mark Wetmore (Defar’s agent) for two to three years about Tirunesh (Dibaba) and Meseret stepping up to the half-marathon distance,” said Matt Turnbull, who manages the professional athlete fields for the Competitor Group, Inc., owner of the Philadelphia race.  “It’s always been something we’ve been keen to do, to see Defar moving up.  Meseret obviously is already looking to move up.  She’s chosen to make her debut here in the States in Philadelphia.”

A fiery track racer with nearly unbeatable closing speed, Defar owns four of the ten-fastest 5,000-meter performances in history, and has set the world 5,000-meter record twice.  She is also the holder of the world best time for five kilometers on the road, having run 14:46.  She clocked that time at the 2006 Carlsbad 5,000 in Carlsbad, Calif., a race she has won three times.  She was the Olympic 5,000-meter champion in 2004, and earned the bronze medal at the same distance in 2008.

Although the Philadelphia course has been slightly modified this year, it remains flat and fast, starting and finishing in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art at Eakins Oval.  The 69-minute mark has been broken by women in Philadelphia five times, with Deena Kastor’s 1:07:53 from 2005 still standing as the course record.

It is unlikely, however, that Defar will be paying much attention to the clock in Philadelphia.  That’s because Turnbull has assembled an exceptional field to challenge her.  Also on the starting line to take on the Ethiopian will be Olympic 10,000-meter bronze medalist Shalane Flanagan of Portland, Ore., who has a half-marathon personal best of 1:09:41.  Turnbull says Flanagan, who is training for her marathon debut at the ING New York City Marathon in November, is ready to race Defar.

“I’m been talking to her husband and manager Steve Edwards, and she’s in the right frame of mind for it,” Turnbull explained.  “She’s ready to take on the world’s best.”

Also in the field is New Zealand’s Kim Smith, who is also prepping for the marathon in New York.  Smith, who lives in Providence, R.I., and holds the New Zealand marathon record of 2:25:21, has a half marathon personal best of 1:07:55.

Turnbull also convinced two-time Olympic Marathon silver medalist Catherine Ndereba, who has won the race in Philadelphia seven times, to race it again.  Ndereba, who logs most of her training miles when she is in the United States in nearby Valley Forge, has a half marathon best of 1:07:54.

“You can almost call her ‘Miss Philadelphia Distance Run,'” Turnbull quipped.  “She gets the biggest reception of anybody.  The people of Philadelphia have really taken to her and her career.”

But Turnbull’s field goes even deeper.  Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu (1:07:03 PB) and Werknesh Kidane (1:08:09), and Japan’s Yuri Kano (1:08:57 PB) are also in the race.  Other Americans in the field include Katie McGregor (1:12:01), Serena Burla (1:10:08) and Kathy Newberry (1:12:59).  McGregor, Burla and Newberry are also tuning up for the ING New York City Marathon.

For 32 years the race had been called the “Philadelphia Distance Run.”  Competitor Group bought the event two years ago, secured Dutch financial company ING as the title sponsor, and initially named the race the “ING Philadelphia Distance Run.”  At a press conference in Philadelphia prior to last year’s race, Competitor Group vice-president Tracy Sundlun said that rebranding the race to join their successful Rock ‘n’ Roll race family would help boost its profile and help transform it from a regional to a national event.

“The Rock ‘n’ Roll brand does that,” said Sundlun in an interview with Race Results Weekly last year.  He added: “The brand just lights them up.”

Turnbull said that the race had sold out at 18,000 entries, easily an event record (last year’s race had 12,247 finishers).

“It’s going to be a full house in Philly this year,” Turnbull concluded.