Johannesburg - South Africa's leading distance runner, Hendrick Ramaala, expects the toughest challenge to come from Martin Lel when the 37-year-old lines up for his eighth New York City Marathon on Sunday.
Despite the withdrawal of injured former world record holder Paul Tergat, New York race director Mary Wittenberg has again put together a world-class field.
Lel hasn't run a marathon since winning the London race in April 2008, but the 31-year-old is a class act and Ramaala was unsure whether the rest would turn out positively or negatively for the Kenyan who won New York in 2003 and 2007, and has three London Marathon titles to his credit.
"Hopefully the rest will be bad for him," Ramaala joked on Monday, adding that he expected the Kenyan to control the race from the gun.
"I think he's the man to watch. If he starts fast, we're going to have a tough race."
But Lel won't be the South African's only opposition. The impressive line-up includes Kenyan Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot, a four-time Boston Marathon champion and former Chicago Marathon winner, Olympic silver medallist and twice world champion Jaouad Gharib of Morocco, defending champion Marilson Gomes dos Santos of Brazil, who also won in New York in 2006, and Kenyan Patrick Makau, the second fastest half-marathon runner in history.
US half-marathon record holder Ryan Hall and former Olympic silver medallist Meb Keflezighi lead the American charge.
And while Ramaala is not willing to dismiss anyone as a worthy challenger, he doesn't expect Kenyan James Kwambai to put up much of a challenge, despite being one of the biggest drawcards produced by Wittenberg and her team.
Kwambai ran 2:04:27 to finish second behind countryman Duncan Kibet at the Rotterdam Marathon in April, clocking the third fastest time in history, but Ramaala believes the 26-year-old will struggle on the difficult New York course.
"I don't think we need to worry about him. He's a speedster and he ran that time on a fast course," Ramaala said.
"After running 2:04 he won't be the same Kwambai as before, he'll be more confident, but New York is a tough course, it's very undulating, especially in the second half."
Ramaala, who leaves for New York on Wednesday, has been in good form this year, finishing fifth in London in April in his second fastest time of 2:07:44, and hopes to reproduce his New York performances from 2004, when he won the race, and 2005 when he finished second just 0.3 seconds behind Tergat.
"I'm ready," he said, "but the last week before the race is always difficult.
"It's just a waiting game now. It's a long way to travel and I've just got to make sure I stay healthy and don't pick up any bugs or anything.
"But New York is my favourite race, along with London, and my training has gone well.
"I've finished first and second before, so hopefully I can put in another good performance."