The world's largest fun run takes place on Sunday in the form of Sydney's City to Surf.
In it's 39th year, the 14km from the Sydney CBD to the iconic Bondi Beach is, for most of the 75,000 entrants, a social community run rather than a race. However, for those who toe the front of the starting line, the prestige of winning Australia's most famous road race looms strongly on their mind.
Great Australian marathon runners, including 1983 world champion Robert de Castella, 1988 Olympic silver medalist Lisa Ondieki (nee Martin) and 1997 world championships bronze medalist Steve Moneghetti, have taken line honours. Moneghetti holds the race record at 40:03 from 1991, whilst Ondieki's race record was surpassed by Susie Power in 2001 with a run of 45:08.
The race is one of less than a handful of domestic athletics events to receive live to air TV coverage, bringing with it widespread recognition which compensates for the lack of a cash prize for the winners. Over the past decade the men's race had been dominated by foreign winners, with Martin Dent breaking the Australian drought last year. Dent is absent from this year's race, instead representing Australia in the marathon at the world championships in Berlin next week.
Although Dent, who over the previous five years has usually been the forefront of domestic road races, is absent, the likelihood of an Australian victory is strong, with Queensland's Michael Shelley an overwhelming favourite. Second to Dent last year by 13 seconds, Shelley earlier this year lowered his personal best over 10000m to 27:59.77 in the United States and last month finished a close second to Tanzania's Dickson Marwa at the Gold Coast Half Marathon, clocking a personal best of 62:11.
Even prior to that run, Shelley had his radar firmly focused on the City to Surf, with his medium term goal being to secure a place on Australia's team for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India.
"My target at the moment is the 10km, but maybe I'll run a marathon if things don't go to plan with the 10km,? he said last month.
Shelley's competition is likely to come from Sydneysider Ben St Lawrence, who improved dramatically over 5000m towards the end of the domestic season and subsequently on a racing tour to the west coast of the United States, where he clocked 13:25.88. However, St Lawrence is yet to demonstrate similar pedigree to Shelley over longer distances on the road, but clearly has untapped potential in this area following medal winning finishes at the national cross country championships the past two years and representation at the world cross country championships in 2008.
Third placegetter in last year's race, Kenyan Josphat Mwangi, who hopes to gain Australian citizenship and represent Australia in the future, is a long shot for victory, having finished third a fortnight ago in the Cities Marathon in a modest 2:24:42. Also expected to feature in the leading pack, which well may break up prior to the summit of Heartbreak Hill, are Clint Perrett, Anthony Haber and Harry Summers.
The women's race is a more open affair. On the basis of past achievements, Eloise Wellings, fourth placegetter in the 5000m from the 2006 Commonwealth Games and holder of a classy best of 14:54.11, is a standout. Yet after a long absence from competition due to injury, Wellings has not been anywhere near the same athlete in her performances so far this season, placing only fourth at the NSW cross country championships in June.
With last year's winner, US collegiate based Rebecca Lowe, not having raced since due to injury, the race is very open. Second placegetter last year, Emily Brichacek, who finished 11th in the junior race at this year's world cross country championships, returns, but her form since running 34:34 to place fourth at the BUPA London 10000, which she attending by utilising the prize which Lowe was unable to claim due to the NCAAs archaic rules on amateurism, is unknown.
On recent form, first and second placegetters at the NSW cross country championships, Melinda Vernon and Hollie Emery, are as good a bet as any to be the first female across the line. Both hailing from the Blue Mountains, there is no love lost between the pair.
Vernon has the better form so far this season and also a unique story: she is deaf and can only hear with the aid of a cochlea implant, which she must remove whilst racing, leaving her oblivious to the audible atmosphere that a race ? especially a race such as the City to Surf ? has to offer. Over the past few years Vernon has captured the Australian 10000m title and represented the nation at the world cross country championships. So far this year she has won the NSW road championships, Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon and NSW cross country titles as well as venturing across the Tasman last week to win the New Zealand cross country title.
The diminutive Emery, 19 years old and still a junior, seems more accustomed to races as the distance increases. The NSW junior record holder for 10000m and world junior cross country representative, Emery placed second to Vernon at the NSW road and cross country championships. Untested over the City to Surf course, Emery's lithe build contrasts with the upper body strength that Vernon has as a former swimmer, making the race to the line on the rolling downhills of the final four kilometres an intriguing duel if the pair are in the lead.
The City to Surf will be broadcast live on Channel 10 from 8:30am on Sunday.