By John L. Pitts
TUPELO - The elite runners in Saturday's Gum Tree 10K have the potential to smash the course record for both the men's and women's winners.
The weather won't make that easy, though.
The forecast for Saturday morning at race time: 72 degrees with humidity above 80 percent, light winds and a 30 percent chance of rain.
"As hot and humid as it is, I doubt the course record will fall," said race director Andy Hughes, who said he's expecting more than 1,000 runners for the 10K, which begins at 8:30 a.m., and an allied 2K fun run.
"If it was as cool as it was a few days ago, the conditions would have been perfect for setting some records," Hughes said.
Last year's overall runner-up, Daniel Kipkoech, 23, leads the list of elite men's runners who are committed to Saturday's race. His best time in the last 12 months, 28:38, is 10 seconds better than the course record set in 1992.
Peter Matelong's best time, 28:42, suggests the 20-year-old could be Kipkoech's top competition on Saturday.
The field also includes Patrick Cheruiyot who won a 10-mile race from Mount Vernon to Old Town Alexandria (Va.) on April 26, and Oxford running veteran Brian Pope, 46.
The women's course record, 32:35, was set in 1986.
Defending women's champion Caroline Kiptoo returns on Saturday. She cruised to victory in 35:31 last year - more than four minutes ahead of the women's runner-up.
"She's got some competition this year," Hughes said, with a field that includes a two-time Boston Marathon winner (in 1992-93), Russia's Olga Markova, 40.
She's one of three elite over-40 runners from Russia who will be in the field. She's joined by Firaya Sultanova-Zhdanova, 48, and Valentina Yegariova, 45. Sultanova-Zhdanova is a three-time Boston Marathon master's champion (2002, 2003, 2008).
The women's field will also include last year's runner-up, Meggan Franks of Starkville, a former Mississippi State runner.
Best recent time for a runner in the women's field is the 32:48 by Rahab N'Dungo.
The top men's and women's finishers will each earn $1,200 with cash to the top eight male and female finishers. The top over-40 runners will get $400.
The total prize purse is $8,700.
The Gum Tree 10K bills itself as the state's largest race at the distance, and Hughes said the presence of the elite runners boosts the event in terms of quality.
"It helps keep this a legitimate race, not just in the eyes of the racing community but the sports community as well," Hughes said. "For 95 percent of the people in the field, it's a fun run. For these elites, it's a business."
The business of registering runners for Saturday's race was booming on Thursday. Hughes said he expected overall participation to be up 10 percent compared to last year.
"We've never had 500 runners preregistered by 1 p.m. on Friday and we're already very close to that figure," he said. Typically, he said, half the runners walk up on Saturday morning to sign up.
Saturday's race will also see the return of the Chad Payne Memorial wheelchair race, with runners propelling handcapped youngsters in wheelchairs.