Since the first edition of the Grassland Marathon in 2008, Chinese runners have always claimed victory in the men’s race, but this year the odds are against them. Beijing-based Heyrobics icon Linus Holmsäter of Sweden is the man to beat on Saturday morning.
The 27-year old Holmsäter signs his emails with “Managing Director in Pink Shorts” and pink may indeed be the colour of the day. His HeyRunning team in Beijing has been preparing for 10 weeks and is coming to the Grassland Marathon en masse. Several of his runners are legitimate podium candidates on all distances, 42.5km, 21.5km and 11.5km. Holmsäter himself carries the flag and is determined to win and back up his 2008 Great Wall Marathon success, a tough cross country running race in May every year. His chances look very promising after last year’s champion, Yun Yanqiao, surprisingly dropped out of the challenge yesterday.
That does not mean Linus – as he is commonly known – will enjoy a walk in the park. Over the years the Grassland Marathon has seen plenty of strong performances by runners nobody saw coming. One local runner, Amuri Tubuxin, has finished on the podium for the past three years and will be very keen to finally climb the top step. It should also be noted that the Swedish runner has had a very heavy programme over the past six weeks. He travelled to Sweden in early June for the Stockholm Marathon, where he finished 16th overall and 8th Swede in a new personal best time of 2:29:57. After that, he raced cross country for 30km in Jinshanlin Great Wall (2nd place) and Changbai Shan last week. Surely there may be some fatigue creeping into his legs, which might pave the way to glory for other sub 2:45 runners, such as his deputy HeyRunning coach Neil Fraser. The Briton is peaking right now, as he proved with a win in the 38km Jinshanlin Great Wall race less than three weeks ago. Another westerner to watch is Germany’s Jochen Horn, a quick and very experienced XC ultra runner who could cause an upset, especially if the going gets tough.
The women’s race seems wide open and predictions are hard to be made. Last year’s champion Sarah Edson has chosen not to defend her title in favour of keeping her training regime for a 100km ultra running race in Mongolia in four weeks. In the half marathon men’s race, last year’s runner-up Mark Thirlwall from Australia returns with the aim to win.
The Grassland Marathon is a cross country or trail running race and it is peculiar because on certain parts of the course there is actually no real trail to follow. Runners can choose their own path across the vast grassland. This year even more so than ever, with the final 6 kilometers being completely redesigned to avoid the everlasting main road into the finish, and several shortcuts being introduced to keep the total length as close as possible to the standard road marathon distance. Even though the course has a number of rolling hills to conquer, the biggest obstacle for most is the wind, which can at times blow quite heavily. The Grassland Marathon is a challenge, but an exceptionally beautiful one.
The course marking team has reported two short descents where the grassland can be experienced as a bit wobbly. Between km 20 and 21 on the full marathon loop, and between km 10 and 11 on the half marathon loop. The grass is long there and everyone is recommended to adjust his or her pace to avoid placing your foot wrong. In fact, if you are not running for a top 10 spot, just walk the bit and enjoy the stunning scenery of the two areas in question. As mentioned before, if you own a pair of XC or trail running shoes you might feel more comfortable running in them during the Grassland Marathon.
The weather forecast is positive, albeit very warm with expected maximum temperature at noon of 31 degrees. At the 7 a.m. start it will still be comfortably cool, though.
Heyrobics icon Linus Holmsäter is this year’s top favourite.
Running across the vast grasslands of Xiwuqi.