PARKERSBURG-The return of four-time defending champion Julius Kogo and a women's field that could be the strongest in the 28-year history of the race awaits fans as the News and Sentinel Half Marathon hits the streets beginning at 8 a.m. on Saturday.
Kogo, the course record holder, will face a field stacked with runners from his home country of Kenya as well as several competitors from Ethiopia.
"I hope all is well," Kogo's agent Ben Kurgat said. "As always, (Julius) Kogo is looking forward to defending his title at your great race-he loves those hills."
Looking to snatch that crown off Kogo's head will be a field that includes one runner who has eclipsed the 61-minute barrier as well as seven other competitors who have covered the 13.1-mile distance in 62 minutes or less.
Ethiopian Merkebu Ayele Birke, at least on paper, appears to be the biggest challenger to Kogo. The 26-year old has run a personal best of 1 hour, 14 seconds for the half marathon while fellow countrymen Leul Aleme and Kenyan Abraham Chelanga both have crossed the finish line in 1 hour and 1 minute.
All three times would lower the present record of 1 hour, 1 minute and 47 seconds established by Kogo during the 2011 race.
Rounding out the list of top contenders are Ethiopians Demesse Tefera (1:02:12) and Tekeste Nekaitibeb (1:02) and Kenyans John Njoroge Maina (1:02:34), Jacob Chemtai (1:02:42) and Eligah Muturi Karanja (1:02:08).
As strong as the men's field appears, it pales in comparison to the array of talent race director Chip Allman and his staff have gathered for the women's race.
"The field is as strong as it has ever been and the American women's field may be the strongest ever," said Allman, who recently added the 2014 USATF half marathon champion -Serena Burla from Falls Church, Va., to the list. Her winning time of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 8 seconds is 11 seconds faster than the course mark of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 19 seconds established by Ethiopian Mare Dibaba during the 2010 race.
The field also includes a pair of racers that have bettered that time.
Kenyans Cynthia Limo and Caroline Kiptoo headline an international field that includes five other runners who have covered the distance in 71 minutes or less.
The 24-year old Limo comes to Parkersburg for the first time with an impressive 1 hour, 9 minutes and 40 seconds personal best while the 28-year old Kiptoo has run the half marathon in a personal best time of 1:10:01.
The remainder of the top contenders includes 2011 champion Malika Mejdoub, who captured the race in 1:14:44, as well as defending American champion, and former WVU standout Aubrey Moskal. Others to look out for include Ethiopians Ethferahu Temesgen (1:11) and Biruktayit Eshetu (1:11:28), Kenyans Sophy Jepchirchir (1:11) and Joyce Kandie (1:11) and 43-year old Russian Lyubov Denisova (1:11:25).
The race will include some familiar names as well with the return of fan favorites Nic Schweikert from Canton, Ohio, 49-year old Tammy Slusser from Monroeville, Pa., 49-year old John Piggott from Williamsburg, Va., and 66-year old Terry McClusky of Vienna, Ohio, the top returning senior grandmaster.
Registration for the half marathon and 2-miler as well as the Tiny Tot Trot and Junior Races will continue from 2 p.m. until 9 p.m. Friday at the Parkersburg Municipal Building. Race packet pickups and a Runners' Expo also will take place at the same location.