2016 LRC Year-End Rankings, Women’s 3,000/5,000: Almaz Ayana Is World #1; Shannon Rowbury or Molly Huddle for U.S. #1?

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By LetsRun.com
December 30, 2016

(Talk about these rankings in our world famous messageboard / fan forum. MB: And the bad news: Zero US women crack the world top 10 in our 3k/5k rankings)

With few professional events on the running calendar until 2017, LetsRun.com is once again rolling out its year-end rankings of the mid-d and distance events (2014 rankings here; 2015 rankings here). From now until the end of the year, we’ll be ranking the top 10 men and women in the world (plus the top five Americans) in the 800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeplechase, 3,000/5,000 and marathon. We hope you enjoy reading these rankings as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance in big races. How the athlete fared in the Olympics is obviously a major consideration but winning Olympic gold doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will earn a #1 ranking. For U.S. athletes, their performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials also factors heavily in the rankings.
  • Season-best times matter but they’re less important if the time wasn’t run against good competition.
  • Runners who specialized in one event will be considered for other events but can be penalized in the rankings for not running enough races.
  • Indoor races will be considered and can help an athlete’s ranking, with an emphasis on World Indoors.

LRC 2015 women’s 5,000 rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic 5,000 Recap Vivian Cheruiyot Stuns Almaz Ayana And Wins Women’s 5000 Gold In One Of The Biggest Upsets Of The Olympics

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

World Rankings

Last year, Almaz Ayana pulled the upset at the World Championships in Beijing, doing the unthinkable and defeating Genzebe Dibaba to become world champion. One year later, the shoe was on the other foot, as Vivian Cheruiyot shocked Ayana to claim Olympic gold in Rio. As brilliant as Ayana was in 2016, Cheruiyot — an all-time great in her own right — ran her best when it mattered most, setting an Olympic record to earn a long-awaited gold medal. Ayana, who should launch an assault on the world record in 2017, will be the favorite again in London, but with Olympic silver medallist Hellen Obiri and a possible return from Dibaba (the schedule at Worlds is conducive for a 1500/5000 double), she should have some competition to push her.

In recent years, the U.S. has closed the gap to the Africans significantly in almost every distance event: since 2012, Americans have medalled at least once in every event from 800 to 10,000 except one — the women’s 5,000. Shelby Houlihan was the only American in the Olympic final, and she placed 11th, 35 seconds out of a medal. The U.S.’s best-ever Olympic finish in the event is ninth (Lynn Jennings in 1996 and Kara Goucher in 2008), while Molly Huddle‘s sixth in 2013 is the best result by an American at Worlds — and she was still 14 seconds behind third in that race. Granted, the two best American 5,000 runners (Huddle and Shannon Rowbury; you could also argue Jenny Simpson is #3) didn’t run the event at the Olympics, but even an American record in the final wouldn’t have been enough for a medal in Rio. Why this event remains the white whale is unclear, but with Ayana et al. running the show, don’t expect anything to change in 2017.

1. Almaz Ayana • Ethiopia • 25 years old • 14:12.59 sb (#1) • Olympic bronze medallist • Diamond League champion

DL results: 1st Doha (3k), 1st Rabat, 1st Rome, 1st Brussels (DL final)

Yes, we know Ayana didn’t win the Olympic 5,000 — in fact, she wasn’t even second — but she has to top this list because she was dominant in every other race. Before this year, there had been six sub-14:20 clockings in history; Ayana broke 14:20 three times in 2016 alone, including the second-, sixth- and eighth-fastest 5,000s of all time. She won her three Diamond League 5,000s by 13, 21 and 7 seconds, giving the world record a scare each time. Vivian Cheruiyot was a worthy Olympic champion – she ran a perfect race tactically- but there’s no question that Ayana had the better season overall.

Ayana already owns the world record at 10,000 meters, and it only seems a matter of time before she claims Tirunesh Dibaba‘s 14:11.15 5,000 world record as well; she’s run 14:12, 14:14, 14:16 and 14:18 in the past two years. She also has an important decision to make at Worlds this year. Does she choose to focus on either the 5,000 (where she’s defending world champion) or the 10,000 (where she’s the Olympic champion) or does she try to pull off the double? In Rio, Ayana looked wiped at the end of the 5,000 final (her third race in eight days), perhaps because she ran a world record in the 10,000 and closed unnecessarily hard in her 5,000 heat (she won it by 13 seconds). If she learns to manage her energy better in London (remember, she dropped a 64 midway through the Olympic 5,000 final), she could claim double gold.

LRC Rome DL Recap: Almaz Ayana Just Misses the World Record, Caster Semenya and Conseslus Kipruto Continue To Dominate and Elijah Manangoi Breaks His Maiden
LRC Shannon Rowbury Breaks the American 5000m Record (14:38.92) as Almaz Ayana’s WR Attempt Comes Up Short
LRC Almaz Ayana archives

2. Vivian Cheruiyot • Kenya • 33 years old • 14:26.17 sb (#3) • Olympic champion

DL results: 4th Doha (3k), 3rd Pre Classic, 1st Birmingham

If Cheruiyot’s final track race was the Olympic 5,000 final in Rio — and it’s looking that way, considering that she announced this month she will not attempt to defend her 10,000 world title in London and that her track career is over as she wants to focus on the more lucrative roads — then what a way it was to go out. Cheruiyot entered the race with four world titles and three Olympic medals under her belt, but the biggest prize in the sport — an Olympic gold — had eluded her. And with the seemingly unbeatable Almaz Ayana, who destroyed Cheruiyot to set a world record in the 10,000 final and was undefeated at 5,000 meters for over a year, in the field, Cheruiyot’s gold-medal hopes appeared slim.

Yet Cheruiyot, under the tutelage of manager Ricky Simms and with the help of teammate Hellen Obiri, executed the perfect strategy to spring the upset, staying patient when Ayana made her signature mid-race move before reeling her in over the final laps with a blazing 4:26 last mile. It was the crowning achievement for greatest Kenyan female distance runner to ever step foot on a track. The rest of Cheruiyot’s season was fine — solid showings in Doha and Eugene, a win in Birmingham — but it’s the race in Rio that she’ll never forget.

LRC How Vivian Cheruiyot Took Down Almaz Ayana to Finally Become Olympic Champion
LRC 2016 Olympic 5,000 Recap Vivian Cheruiyot Stuns Almaz Ayana And Wins Women’s 5000 Gold In One Of The Biggest Upsets Of The Olympics
LRC Vivian Cheruiyot archives

3. Hellen Obiri • Kenya • 27 years old • 14:25.78 sb (#2) • Olympic silver medallist

DL results: 1st Pre Classic, 1st Monaco (3k), 2nd Lausanne (3k), 2nd Brussels (DL final)

Obiri was overshadowed by Cheruiyot in Rio, but she put together a spectacular season of her own in 2016. Not only did she manage to take down the unbeatable Ayana, but she also won two Diamond League events (though the one in Eugene was not a DL points event), put up the world’s #2 time at 5,000 meters (14:25) and broke 4:00 in the 1500 — all after missing the 2015 season due to the birth of her child.

Obiri was a fine 1500 runner pre-pregnancy (she ran 3:57 in 2014) but given how well she took to the 5,000 in 2016 — did we mention this was her first season running the event? — it makes sense to stick with the longer event for the foreseeable future.

LRC Friday Night at 2016 Pre Classic: Mo Farah Survives a Scare in the 10,000m, Mom Power from Alysia Montaño and Hellen Obiri
LRC Hellen Obiri archives

4. Genzebe Dibaba • Ethiopia • 25 years old • 8:22.50 3k sb (#1) • World Indoor champion (3k)

DL results: 1st Lausanne (3k)

Where you rank Dibaba depends on how you feel about her relative lack of races. In total, she ran just three 3,000’s in 2016 and one 5,000 (which she dropped out of on June 30 in Barcelona). Yet she won all three of those 3,000’s, and all three were impressive races. First, on February 19, she ran 8:22.50, the second-fastest indoor 3k ever (behind only her 8:16 from 2014). One month later, she crushed the field to repeat as World Indoor champion, winning by seven seconds. Finally in Lausanne on August 25, she beat Olympic silver medallist Hellen Obiri to win the 3k in 8:31. Dibaba’s season was not long enough for her to break into the top three, but we can’t rank her any lower than fourth.

LRC 2016 World Indoors Women’s 3000m Goes According to Form: Genzebe Dibaba Dominates, Defar Gets Silver, Shannon Rowbury Bronze at 2016 World Indoors
LRC Genzebe Dibaba archives

5. Mercy Cherono • Kenya • 25 years old • 14:33.95 sb (#7) • 4th at Olympics

DL results: 2nd Doha (3k), 4th Pre Classic, 2nd Rome, 2nd Birmingham, 2nd Monaco (3k), 3rd Lausanne (3k)

Cherono was extremely consistent in 2016, never finishing lower than fourth in any of her nine races. Through the years, Cherono has generally been stronger at 3,000 meters than 5,000 meters, and that was the case again this year, but a fourth-place finish at the Olympics is nothing to be ashamed of. With Cheruiyot likely out of the picture in 2017, Cherono will have a chance to return to the podium in London (she earned World Championship silver in Moscow three years ago).

6. Senbere Teferi • Ethiopia • 21 years old • 14:29.82 pb (#5) • 5th at Olympics

DL results: 3rd Rabat, 4th Rome, 3rd Brussels (DL final)

Three top-four showings on the DL circuit + a fourth in the Olympics = a top-five ranking. Teferi may be slightly disappointed with that finish given that she earned a silver at Worlds last year in Beijing, but neither Cheruiyot nor Obiri was in that race, which explains why Teferi fell back a few spots. Still, Teferi got a nice six-second PR to take third in the Diamond League final in Brussels (in the process becoming the 16th woman to break 14:30) and remains one of Ethiopia’s brightest young hopes in the distance events.

7. Viola Kibiwot • Kenya • 33 years old • 14:29.50 sb (#4)

DL results: 6th Doha (3k), 2nd Rabat, 2nd Pre Classic, 3rd Rome, 7th Brussels (DL final)

Kibiwot may be the sixth-best in the world at 5,000 meters, but because numbers 2, 3 and 4 are all Kenyan, she did not get to compete in Rio this summer (7th at Kenyan Trials). We won’t penalize her for that, however, as the Kenyan women’s 5,000 team is one of the hardest Olympic teams to make in any event. Kibiwot showed her talent on the circuit, running 14:35 or better on three occasions, and we’re confident that if she were in Rio she would have finished in the top six.

8. Etenesh Diro Neda • Ethiopia • 25 years old • 14:33.30 sb (#6)

DL results: 7th Doha (3k), 5th Rome, 4th Brussels (DL final)

Based on the Ethiopian selection system, Diro Neda likely could have run the 5k in Rio had she so chosen (she had the third-best time among Ethiopians before the Olympics) but she opted for the steeple instead, where she placed 15th in the final, perhaps the result of a foot injury suffered in the prelims (she was also seventh in our steeple rankings). Diro Neda had the #10 and #19 times on the year at 5,000 meters and placed fourth in the Diamond League final in Brussels. That’s enough for a spot on this list.

9. Janet Kisa • Kenya • 24 years old • 14:38.70 sb (#9)

DL results: 5th Doha (3k), 4th Rabat, 7th Rome, 3rd Birmingham, 3rd Monaco (3k), 5th Lausanne (3k)

Kisa, like Kibiwot, is another woman who would make almost any other country’s Olympic squad. Alas, she was fourth at the Kenyan Trials, and as a result had to settle for a couple of personal bests (she went from 14:52 to 14:38 in Rabat and from 8:32 to 8:28 in Monaco) and five top-five finishes on the Diamond League circuit. Kisa, who was sixth at Worlds last year, is among the best in the world but has another step to take before she can contend for a World/Olympic medal. That’s possible in 2017, but does she have any more room for improvement after dropping her PRs this year?

10. Yasemin Can • Turkey • 20 years old • 14:37.61 sb (#8) • 6th at Olympics • European champion

DL results: 6th Rome

The Kenyan-born Can finished sixth in Rio, ran a solid season’s best of 14:37 and was European champion. She only raced once on the Diamond League circuit, which makes her hard to place, but after her strong 2016 season (she also won European gold in the 10,000 and cross country and was seventh in the Olympic 10,000), she should be able to get into any race she wants to in 2017.

Honorable mention: Meseret Defar, Ethiopia (#2 in world with 8:30.83 indoor 3k sb, World Indoor silver medallist at 3,000); Shannon Rowbury, USA (#10 in world with 14:39.92 sb, U.S. Indoor champ/World Indoor bronze medallist at 3,000)

U.S. Rankings

This list is a bit strange in that neither of the top two women ran the 5,000 meters at the Olympics. But there’s no argument that Molly Huddle and Shannon Rowbury were the top two Americans in the 3k/5k in 2016. We’ll get to our rationale of why we chose Rowbury over Huddle in a moment. Behind them, there are several women still improving: Shelby Houlihan, Marielle HallAbbey D’Agostino and Emily Infeld. It’s not inconceivable that one of them could reach Huddle/Rowbury’s level one day, but, as mentioned earlier in this article, it will take more than that for American women to be competitive in the 5k internationally.

1. Shannon Rowbury • Nike Oregon Project • 32 years old • 14:38.92 sb (#1 in US, American record) • World Indoor bronze medallist (3k) • U.S. Indoor champion (3k)

DL result: 5th Brussels (DL final)

2. Molly Huddle • Saucony • 32 years old • 14:48.14 sb (#2 in US) • U.S. Olympic Trials champion

DL result: 11th Pre Classic

Both Rowbury and Huddle had fine years, but most of their accomplishments came at distances other than 3,000 and 5,000 meters. Rowbury finished fourth in the Olympics at 1500 meters and won the Diamond League final at that same distance, while Huddle set the American record for 10,000 meters in finishing sixth in Rio before taking third at the New York City Marathon in November. Yet despite their part-time gigs, both were head and shoulders above the rest of the country when it came to 3k/5k. Rowbury won the U.S. indoor title handily at 3k before earning a bronze at World Indoors a week later. Outdoors, she didn’t run any 3,000’s, but she made her sole 5,000 count, taking down Huddle’s American record in Brussels and in the process becoming the first U.S. woman under 14:40. Huddle only ran one indoor race (a U.S. indoor leader of 14:57 in the 5k) before moving outdoors, where she ran 14:48 (the #2 time by an American and 16 seconds ahead of #3) and ground the competition to dust in the Olympic Trials 5,000.

Head-to-head, Rowbury would have won a 3,000 against Huddle this year, but we’re not sure who we would have gone with in a 5,000. Rowbury clearly has superior speed (3:56 1500 pb compared to Huddle’s 4:08), but the last time they raced each other at USAs, in the 5,000 in 2014, Huddle won in a kick. We can’t judge based on hypotheticals, however; we have to judge the two based on what they accomplished in 2016. And as great as Huddle was, if we’re only using 3k/5k races as our criteria, a U.S. indoor title, World Indoor bronze and American outdoor record > a U.S. outdoor title. Rowbury is our U.S. #1.

LRC Shannon Rowbury Breaks the American 5000m Record (14:38.92) as Almaz Ayana’s WR Attempt Comes Up Short
LRC 2016 World Indoors Women’s 3000m Goes According to Form: Genzebe Dibaba Dominates, Defar Gets Silver, Shannon Rowbury Bronze at 2016 World Indoors
LRC 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Molly Huddle Completes 10k/5k Double; Houlihan, Conley, D’Agostino Going to Rio
LRC Shannon Rowbury archives
LRC Molly Huddle archives

3. Shelby Houlihan • Nike Bowerman Track Club • 23 years old • 15:06.14 sb (#4 in US) • 11th at Olympics • U.S. Olympic Trials runner-up • 5th at U.S. Indoors (3k)

Her Twitter handle may still read “@shelbo800“, but make no mistake, Shelby Houlihan is a 5,000-meter runner now. She announced her presence with a shocking 15:06 (a 43-second PR!) at the Millrose Games in February that put her just over five seconds behind more heralded BTC teammate Emily Infeld, and proved that was no fluke by taking second at the Olympic Trials in July and booking her ticket to Rio in another PR.

Houlihan then became the only American to run the Olympic 5,000 final (Abbey D’Agostino advanced after falling but had to scratch due to injury), where she finished a respectable 11th. After her breakout year, Houlihan will shoulder heavier expectations in 2017. But after rising to the challenge every time in 2016, she looks poised to continue her success.

LRC Shelby Houlihan archives

4. Kim Conley • New Balance/NorCal Distance Project • 30 years old • 15:10.62 sb (#4 in US) • 3rd at U.S. Olympic Trials

DL result: 13th Pre Classic

You could make an argument that Abbey D’Agostino deserves this spot based on her fifth-place finish at World Indoors, but Conley beat D’Agostino in the 5k at the Trials and had three races faster than D’Agostino’s 5k sb of 15:14. Overall, this wasn’t the year Conley wanted: her goal was to make the 10k team for Rio, which went up in smoke when she fell just over two miles into the Olympic Trials final. Conley showed great resolve in bouncing back to make the team in the 5k, but she didn’t make the Olympic final and her marathon debut in New York was a disaster. But when a “down” year still includes an Olympic berth, you’re doing pretty well. Conley hasn’t missed a World/Olympic team when healthy since 2011, and she’ll have a good shot to extend that streak next year in either the 5k or 10k.

LRC Kim Conley archives

5. Abbey D’Agostino • New Balance • 24 years old • 15:14.04 sb (#8 in US) • 5th at U.S. Olympic Trials • 5th at World Indoors (3k) • U.S. Indoor runner-up (3k)

D’Agostino will most be remembered in 2016 for her gesture of kindness and sportsmanship during her Olympic 5,000 heat but she should be recognized for a fine year of running. Indoors, she was the U.S. leader at 3,000 meters (8:51) and placed second at that event at USAs, which put her on the team for World Indoors, where she finished fifth. That made her a favorite to make the Olympic 5,000 squad, but her road to Rio would not be that simple. She developed a stress reaction after World Indoors and as a result did not run on solid ground until a month before the Olympic Trials. Somehow, she gutted out a fifth-place finish in Eugene and found herself on the team after Molly Huddle and Emily Infeld gave up their spots to focus on the 10k. Between the Trials and the Olympics, D’Agostino developed another injury before tearing her ACL and meniscus and straining her MCL during her fall at the Games.

So once again, D’Agostino finds herself on the comeback trail in 2017. When healthy, D’Agostino doesn’t need much time to reach top shape (she was hurt early in 2015 but made the Worlds team that year), but it is fair to wonder, after her recent injury issues, whether she and coach Mark Coogan may need to rejigger her training to keep her healthy for longer. Because when she is healthy, D’Agostino is quite a runner.

What do you think of these rankings? Talk about them in our world famous messageboard / fan forum. MB: And the bad news: Zero US women crack the world top 10 in our 3k/5k rankings

LRC Q&A One Month Later, Abbey D’Agostino Reflects on Rio, Her Olympic Fall and Her Rehab From a Torn ACL
LRC Abbey D’Agostino & Nikki Hamblin Show the True Meaning of the Olympics as Almaz Ayana Leads Women’s 5,000 Qualifiers
LRC Abbey D’Agostino archives


LRC 2015 women’s 5,000 rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic 5,000 Recap Vivian Cheruiyot Stuns Almaz Ayana And Wins Women’s 5000 Gold In One Of The Biggest Upsets Of The Olympics

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings