This weekend sees the return of one of the world’s most-popular half marathons as the BUPA Great North Run once again gears up to welcome over 50,000 runners to the streets of Gateshead.


Since Mike McLeod’s victory in the first staging of the race back in 1981, the premier event in the Great Run series has continued to attract the biggest names in distance running and this year proves to be no exception with exciting match-ups and debut appearances in both the men's and women's elite fields.


Despite being hit by the double withdrawal of long-distance running legend Haile Gebrselassie and Britain’s double-Olympic champion Mo Farah last week, the men’s elite field is still due to feature some of the best of the rest of the world’s long-distance runners.


Kenyan Wilson Kipsang will line up as favourite to take the title. Coming off the back of his bronze medal at the London Olympics a little over a month ago, the 2012 Virgin London Marathon winner’s 58:59 half-marathon PB sits just three seconds off the course record set last year by compatriot Martin Mathathi.


In the absence of Farah, who will instead line up in the Great North CityGames 2 mile event on Saturday, and the injured Gebrselassie, the greatest threats to Kipsang are likely to come in the shape of Ethiopia’s Imane Merga and Micah Kogo of Kenya.


Merga, a 10000m bronze medallist from Daegu last year, seems to be running into form following a season’s best of 27:14 at last Friday’s Diamond League meeting in Brussels. Micah Kogo, fourth in last year’s Great North Run, lines up number three on paper. Emmanuel Bett, with his 26:51 world leading time over 10k, will also be one to look out for.


Great Britain’s Chris Thompson, the 2010 European 10000m silver medallist, will be looking to head the domestic challenge following his 61:23 clocking earlier this year at the NYC Half Marathon. Morpeth AC's Nick McCormick, second in the BUPA Great Yorkshire 10K earlier this month, makes his debut over the half-marathon distance as Antony Ford (Sale Harriers), Dewi Griffiths (Swansea AC) and Aaron Scott (Notts AC) lead the rest of the British interest.


The women’s elite race promises to be a race of firsts as Tirunesh Dibaba makes her debut appearance over the half-marathon distance. Dibaba’s manager indicated earlier this year that the Ethiopian superstar will step up to the marathon in 2013 and she will face experienced competition this weekend as she takes her first steps towards that goal.


Dibaba will be joined on the start line by the Ethiopian National record holder for the marathon and surprise winner of the Olympic Marathon this summer, Tiki Gelana, and the runner-up in this year’s Virgin London Marathon, Kenya’s Edna Kiplagat.


Jo Pavey is likely to be one of the leading Europeans as the double seventh place finisher in the women’s 5000m and 10000m Olympic finals goes head-to-head with Portugal’s 2009 Great North Run winner Jessica Augosto.


Freya Murray will hope to improve on her 72:44 and 10th place finish in last year’s Great North Run and is bound to face stiff competition from Charnwood AC’s Gemma Steel; the 2011 European XC silver medallist will be aiming to continue her impressive Great Run series form following victories in Ireland, Gateshead and Sheffield earlier this year.


Coverage of the BUPA Great North Run starts at 0930 BST this Sunday on BBC1. The Great North CityGames, featuring British Olympic gold medallists Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford amongst others, will also be live on BBC1 on Saturday from 1300 BST.