London

Britons in the hunt for fast times

By common consent, there won't be any Britons chasing the top honours in Sunday's Flora London Marathon. But a batch of talented home-grown runners will be close on the heels of the main contenders, chasing fast times as they seek to claim places in Britain's World Championship and Olympic teams.

Now 36, Jon Brown has long been Britain's leading marathon man, and has two Olympic fourth places to his name to prove it. But with a personal best of 2:09:31 he knows it's highly unlikely he'll be in the frame when the leading men approach the crucial final stages of Sunday's race.

"At my age anything close to my PB would be very satisfying," said Brown, who set his current best when finishing sixth in his last London appearance two years ago. "Somewhere around 2:09-2:10 would be OK.

"It's been a good build up for me," added the Canada-based Briton. "I've done some local races and ran a half marathon in about 64 minutes in the middle of a heavy training period."

For Brown, the London Marathon this year is partly a preparation for this summer's World Championships in Osaka, before he focuses on the Olympic Games in Beijing next year. In fact, for British runners the London Marathon is also the UK Athletics trials for the World Championships marathon teams with the first British men and women guaranteed selection.

"Osaka is my main goal this year," confirmed Brown. "I really want to run well there. Running a championship marathon in Japan is really something special for a marathon runner."

No-one knows that better than Mara Yamauchi who, in the absence of new mother Paula Radcliffe, is again Britain's leading woman. Yamauchi is based in Tokyo, where she lives with her Japanese husband.

Last year she shot to prominence by finishing sixth here in 2:25:13, a time that moved her up to second behind Radcliffe on Britain 's all-time list. But, like Brown, the 33-year-old is far from satisfied and this year aims to use the high quality of the athletes around her to dip below 2:25 for the first time.

"I'm aiming for 2:23," she said. "I feel I am in similar shape to last year or better. Last year I felt pretty good at the finish and wish I'd gone a bit faster, so I would like to finish a minute or two quicker than that."

Yamauchi believes living in Tokyo has helped to instil an extra edge of mental and physical steel into her running that could well come in handy on Sunday.

"Training in a built up environment means you do quite a lot of loops and mentally that is quite a good discipline," she said. "It can be monotonous, so it is good mental discipline for running marathons.

"Training on your own you learn the discipline of running on your own. Marathons can be lonely places and if you can't run hard on your own then you're not going to be a great marathon runner."

Yamauchi might not be quite so much out on her own among Britons this year, however, for in Commonwealth bronze medallist Liz Yelling and the experienced talent Kathy Butler the home nation has another pair of racers who'll be looking to keep the international elites in sight.

Yelling, in particular, has been in great form. Having made some fairly dramatic changes to her training regime, incorporating more "easy days" into her schedule, the 32-year-old is looking to get well below her best of 2:30:58, set in Berlin three and a half years ago.

A recent half marathon victory in Bath in 69:28 proved she's "getting everything right this year". Yelling's only previous appearance in London came in 2005 when she finished 14th in 2:37:42, a record she is determined to improve this weekend.

"Running a fast half is one thing, but unless you run a fast marathon it doesn't mean much," she said. "You can always say you know it's in there but until you do it it's not written in black and white."

Yelling, who grew up training and racing with Radcliffe in Bedford, clearly feels she has something to prove. "I just want to run fast times to get into the Olympics," she said. "For me it's all about running an Olympic qualifying time. I'm focusing everything on qualifying for Beijing ."

Like Yelling, Butler has also been in good form in recent months. The 33-year-old made a breakthrough in Chicago last October when she broke 2:30 for the first time, running 2:28:39 to finish ninth. "I was in quite good shape for Chicago," she said. "But the weather wasn't very good so I think there is more to come.

"Like Liz, for me, the Olympics is the most important event so I have to do everything I can in the next year and half to be right for it. I want to run fast in the marathon, not just participate in it."

Dan Robinson is also looking to improve his best time. The Commonwealth Games bronze medallist from last year has a best that currently stands at 2:13:53, set when finishing 16th here in 2004. But since then the 32-year-old has been focused on championship racing (beside his Commonwealth medal he also finished 12th in the Helsinki World Championships in 2005), so he sees Sunday's race as a chance to cut his PB.

"I have been concentrating on championships in recent years and haven't done a big city race for three years," he said. "It will be good to see what I can do on a nice day and with a fast course.

"It's very unlikely a Briton will win but hopefully we will have more under 2:20, more under 2:15 and some of us under 2:12. That would be a good sign that things are improving."

In the face of London s stellar elite field, Brown is also under no illusions about winning the race. "It seems like it gets better every year," he said. "It would be hard to put a better field together.

"Whether the race pans out to be as good as it looks by the finish we'll have to see. Anything can happen. I will just follow the guys I think should be running with me and give myself some wriggle room."

Hopefully by the time they've finished on Sunday, Brown and the rest of these top Britons, will have wriggled themselves a little further up the international rankings, and a little closer to contention for future honours.