IT WAS the calm before the plunge. A day before Sunday's Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon, their bodies ready to wither the onslaught of a 42.195km run, athletes preferred to take the day easy and focus instead on preparing the mind.
For given the humid weather and quality of the field, it's the strength of the will and richness of experience that will be key in determining the winner.
"Mental strength is going to matter in this race," said Ian Ladbrooke, an elite athlete coordinator and coach. "And I'll be astonished if John Kelai does not win. He is very self-assured, very confident and has won his last two marathons," he added.
Kelai said he expected the race to be a tactical battle and used the day to focus on "mentally preparing the body to go through the pain".
"Pain starts to set in at the half-way mark, though sometimes the first 10 kilometres can be a bit uneasy. But at around 15km, you get comfortable," said Kelai, who considered the Ethiopians as his main competitors, besides his own countrymen. "I'm aiming for the same time as last year. However, the weather will determine if the course records will be broken."
Also in the fray are two of the world's top veteran runners, 41-year-olds John Mutai and Japhet Kosgei, both from Kenya. Winner of the Belgrade Marathon in 2006, Kosgei is the fastest runner in the field with a personal best of 2:07.09.
Mutai likes running in warm conditions, but favoured his younger compatriot to claim the top crown.
"Kelai is tough, and his mental and physical preparation is very good," Mutai said. "Besides, previous experience will help a lot."
For the past four years, the men's winner has made his move on top of the Peddar Road flyover on the return journey, and that spot, around eight kilometers from the finish, is being touted as the pivotal point of the race. That's where Ladbrooke believes the experience would matter the most.
"Knowing the course will be an advantage. Anyone who breaks early will pay the price for it. The key participants at the end will be the ones who have run here before," he said.
Seboka looking strong
Among the women, Ethiopia's Mulu Seboka has already won twice, and has already declared she is determined to set a blistering time. She will be paced by senior runner Joseph Mbithi, who is being deployed to help her maintain a patient head.
"Mulu often has a rush of blood that makes her go too fast. The last two years she ended up slowing down towards the end," said Ladbrooke, who is also her coach.
The main competition for the two-time winner will come from Chinese youngster Xin Zhang, deemed as a serious contender among the women. The 21-year-old replaced last year's winner Xia Yang Feng on the Chinese 'Greatest Race on Earth (GROE)' team, and has a personal best of 2:31.29. Kenya's GROE runner Jemima Jelagat Sumgony, one of the fastest runners in the fray with a best of 2:29.00, is also likely to topple the Ethiopians.
The Indian challenge
No Indian has yet managed to finish within 15 spots or 8 minutes of the overall winner in the four editions of the Mumbai marathon. However the Indian men will be hoping to change that and set a faster pace, especially with qualification for the Beijing Olympics at stake.
Favourites to do that would be the Army runners: last year's top Indian finisher Ram Singh Yadav, 2007's fastest marathoner Lyngkhoi Binning, Indian Open marathon winner Satya Prakash and 2004's top Indian KC Ramu.
Among the Indian women, Leelamma Alphanso is likely to pose a serious challenge since she is yet to finish outside the top three in all past editions of the Mumbai marathon. Two-time winner Indresh Dhiraj and last year's fastest Indian runner Reena Das are expected to offer her a serious challenge.