2015 IAAF World Relays Men’s 4 X 800: Can The U.S. (Or Poland) Upset Favored Kenya?
April 29, 2015
In the inaugural edition of the IAAF World Relays in 2014, an exciting men’s 4×800 saw Kenya hold on for gold after 17-year-old anchor Alfred Kipketer almost coughed up a huge 4.3-second lead on the final leg by running splits of 49.0-59.8. Poland wound up second in that race in 7:08.69 to the Kenyans’ 7:08.40, just ahead of the U.S., who were third in 7:09.06.
All three of those teams return in 2015, and while the makeup of the teams have changed (particularly with respect to Kenya), the situation is very similar to what it was a year ago. On paper, Kenya is the favorite, but it appears beatable. The U.S. and Poland are the only other teams with a shot to win.
Below is the key info about this weekend’s World Relays, followed by a breakdown of the men’s 4×800 field.
What: 2015 IAAF World Relays
Where: Thomas Robinson Stadium, Nassau, The Bahamas
When: Saturday, May 2 – Sunday, May 3
How to watch: Live on Universal Sports Network or streaming on UniversalSports.com from 7 p.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET on Saturday and Sunday. (Sponsored: If you don’t get Universal Sports and would like to get it and BeINTV (great international soccer) and tons of international news via SlingTV, the new cut the cord service, for $10 a month on your computer, laptop, phone or Roku click here for more info on World Relays on Universal/Sling. You can even get ESPN/CNN and a ton others for $25 a month.)
World record bonus: $50,000
Full entries, with top teams listed below. Athletes in italics were part of their country’s 4×800 squad in 2014
|Top 4 average||1:43.85 (6:55.39 total)||1:44.44 (6:57.75 total)|
|Top 4 average||1:43.99 (6:55.95 total)||1:45.02 (7:00.08 total)|
|Top 4 average||1:45.48 (7:01.91 total)||1:45.72 (7:02.87 total)|
|Top 4 average||1:46.38 (7:05.51)||1:46.44 (7:05.74)|
2014/2015 SB is the athlete’s best time over the past two years. We listed that because it offers a better idea of an athlete’s current fitness than PB (we included 2014 times as many athletes haven’t raced much outdoors in 2015).
Bahrain has also entered a team that includes 2009 World 1500 champ Yusuf Saad Kamel, 1:43 man Abraham Rotich and 1:44 man Belal Mansoor Ali. But considering Kamel has done basically nothing since winning Worlds, Rotich hasn’t raced since 2013 and Bahrain entered a team in the 4×1500 last year but withdrew, we’re not going to mention them beyond this paragraph. Mexico and Jamaica also have entered teams but there will need to be a lot of dropped sticks going into the infield resulting in DQs for them to be factors.
Men’s 4×800 (Saturday, 8:09 p.m. ET)
Kenya’s chances come down to two mercurial stars
The biggest reason to back Kenya in this one is that they have the best team, one through four, based on recent form. Unlike the DMR, a race that is often decided by which team has the best anchor, leads built up throughout the race can make a big difference in the 4×800. In a close race, you still obviously want to have the best anchor, but this is a race that rewards depth. Last year, the deepest team was Kenya, which had two guys under 1:44 and a third, Kipketer, in great form (he ran 1:44.2h to win the Kenyan trials last spring). This year, Kenya still has the best depth, but it’s not as far ahead as a year ago, where three of the four guys on the team had already 1:44 early in the season.
Kenya probably has the two best guys in the field in terms of pure talent. Alfred Kipketer, 18, ran 1:43.95 to win World Juniors last summer, while Timothy Kitum, 20, ran 1:42.53 two years ago to take bronze at the Olympics and had the fastest 2014 time of anyone in this field at 1:43.65. However, both runners bring questions. Kipketer has a reputation for going out extremely fast (he went out in 48.32 when he won World Youths in 2013 (MB: 16-year old Kenyan goes out in 48.32 for 800, holds on and (barely) wins World Youth Gold) and went out in 49.0 on the anchor leg at World Relays last year) and that strategy almost cost Kenya the win in this race last year. Kitum has shown flashes of incredible talent, but he’s inconsistent. He opened his 2014 season on July 19 with a 1:43.65 win in Heusden, but failed to come within a second of that time in his subsequent four races. In three Diamond League appearances last year (two 800s, one 1000), he never finished higher than eighth.
Kitum, who ran okay but not great indoors (two 1:46s and a 1:47) could end up being the key to this race (assuming he runs it; none of the teams have announced their lineups yet). Kenya’s other legs (likely Kipketer, Jeremiah Mutai and Nicholas Kiplagat) put them on par with the U.S. and Poland’s top three legs. If Kitum runs like the 1:42 guy he is, he puts them over the top and should pave the way to a Kenyan victory. If he runs like a 1:45 guy, suddenly the race is wide-open.
One thing Kenya does have going for it is that all of its guys have run well recently. Athletics Kenya held its World Relays trials on March 21 in Nairobi and the results of the top two sections of the 800 were the following (guys in bold were selected for the 4×800, all times hand-timed):
1. Asbel Kiprop 1:44.4
2. Alfred Kipketer 1:45.0
3. Nicholas Kiplagat 1:45.3
4. Jeremiah Mutai 1:45.6
5. Cornelius Kiptonui 1:47.9
6. Anthony Chemut 1:48.9
1. Timothy Kitum 1:46.2
2. Bernard Kipyegon 1:46.7
3. Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot 1:47.0
4. Jackson Kivuva 1:47.7
5. Evans Kipkorir 1:49.8
6. Boniface Mutisya 1:50.3
The selection process was pretty simple: the five fastest men made it onto the team (not counting Kiprop, who was going to run the DMR). Even if you add a few tenths for hand timing, those are fast marks for March and better than anything any other nation has put up so far this year.
Note: A full-strength Kenya wins this race easily. Put Ferguson Rotich Cheruiyot, David Rudisha and Asbel Kiprop on this team and it almost doesn’t matter who the fourth leg is. However, Cheruiyot is running the DMR, Rudisha chose not to run World Relays and Kiprop
is running on the DMR is a late scratch from the meet. Hell, to be honest, if Kenya would just anchor Kiprop in this baby, we’d basically guarantee victory as well.
Can the U.S. take the silver (or gold) or will Poland thwart them once again?
For this preview, we’re working under the assumption that the U.S. team will be Robby Andrews, Cas Loxsom, Duane Solomon and Erik Sowinski in some order. Brandon Johnson has the U.S.’s second-fastest pb, but we believe he will be running the DMR on Sunday and we doubt the U.S. would double-enter him (though it might make sense as the U.S. has a better shot to win the 4×800 than the DMR). There’s a lot to like about that team. Andrews and Loxsom both capped strong indoor seasons with wins at USA indoors (Andrews in the 1000, Loxsom in the 600 in an American record of 1:15.33). Loxsom hasn’t raced yet outdoors, while Andrews opened his outdoor season at Princeton on April 17 with a 1:46.83 win, his fastest time ever that early in the season. Those guys should both be good for a split in the 1:46-1:47 range, which should be enough to keep the U.S. in contention.
Solomon is a bit behind where he was last year, but that’s all right (and may actually help him out later in the summer). In 2014, Solomon opened his outdoor season in Australia on March 15, ran 1:14.43 for 600 on March 29 and followed that up with a 1:43.88 800 at Mt. SAC on April 19, the fastest time ever run in the month of April — by anyone. Solomon couldn’t hold that form, however, and was already on the downswing by the time he was outkicked by Poland’s Adam Kszczot on the anchor leg of the World Relays 4×800 on May 24 (Solomon split 1:45.16 to Ksczcot’s 1:44.79). This year, he’s run three outdoor races (a 3:49 1500 on March 28, a 50.24 400 on April 4 and a 1:15.44 600 on April 18) and while they’re not as impressive as his 2014 performances, that 1:15.44 shows that he’s in shape for this race. At his best, Solomon is one of the world’s top 800 guys (6th at ’13 Worlds, 4th at ’12 Olympics) and if he gets a lead on Kszczot of a second or two on the anchor, he should be able to hold him off (he may not even need that much).
How big that lead is (if the U.S. is indeed ahead of Poland) will likely depend on Sowinski’s performance. Sowinski, like Solomon, started out very strongly last year with a 1:44.58 in his first outdoor 800 of the year at Mt. SAC on April 19. However, Sowinski wouldn’t better that time in 14 subsequent 800s and would come within one second of it just once. Sowinski has had an up and down 2015 so far, running a solid 1:46.92 indoors and winning the 1000 at the Millrose Games but also finishing just fourth at USA indoors in the 600. After a two-week stint at altitude in March, Sowinski opened up outdoors in 1:47.03, his slowest outdoor opener since 2011. That’s not a bad time, but Sowinski, with the second-fastest pb on the likely U.S. lineup (Johnson has run faster) will need to be better than that if the U.S. is to challenge Kenya for gold.
The matchup between Poland and the U.S. should be very interesting. Poland has two terrific 800 runners in Kszczot (2nd at World Indoors last year, won Euros and Stockholm DL outdoors) and Marcin Lewandowski (4th at the last two outdoor World Champs; European champ indoors in March). The best way to compare the two squads is head-to-head (probably lineups):
|#1 guy||Duane Solomon (1:42)||Adam Kszczot (1:43)||Poland (slightly)|
|#2 guy||Erik Sowinski (1:44)||Marcin Lewandowski (1:43)||Poland|
|#3 guy||Robby Andrews (1:44)||Karol Konieczny (1:47)||USA|
|#4 guy||Cas Loxsom (1:45)||Kamil Gurdak (1:47)||USA|
The above chart is just a rough guide and not meant to be definitive. You could put Sowinski, Andrews and Loxsom in any order for the U.S. You could also argue that Solomon/Kszczot is even (we give the edge to Kszczot as Kszczot was 2-1 vs. Solomon last year and has run 1:45 indoors already in 2015). But the biggest takeaway is the same: Poland’s best two guys are better than the U.S.’s best two, but the U.S.’s third and fourth guys are better than Poland’s third and fourth.
The question is, how much better? Konieczny ran a best of 1:48.17 indoors and went out in the semis at the European Champs. Gurdak’s best was 1:47.88, and though he beat Konieczny at the Polish Indoor Champs, he didn’t make it out of his heat at Euros. Neither of those performances are on par with what Andrews/Loxsom have done so far. On paper, you’d expect the U.S. to pick up enough time on those two legs to offset whatever time they lose on the Kszczot/Lewandowski legs. But the outdoor season is still in its infancy, and you never quite know where a runner is at in his training cycle at a meet like this. We also don’t know what the dynamics of the race are going to be like. All other things being equal, the U.S. should beat Poland (especially if Johnson ends up running this race) but we said that last year and it didn’t happen. A little uncertainty is good, anyway. Races are more exciting when you don’t know who is going to win.
That also means that one of the U.S. or Poland could beat Kenya. The Kenyan guys may be fit and have the fastest times on paper, but as we said above, they have some question marks of their own. One thing we are confident about is that, barring a dropped baton or some other disaster, the medals should go to the U.S., Poland and Kenya in some order as they appear to be considerably better than the rest of the field.
Poland would be the favorites for silver (and possibly gold) if it had a healthy Artur Kuciapski on its team. Last year, the 21-year-old ran 1:44.89 and took home the silver medal at the European Championships. Kuciapski was injured over the winter, hasn’t raced at all in 2015 and didn’t make it onto the team.
Who anchors for Team USA?
When we look at this race, one question we have is, ‘Who anchors for Team USA?’ Yes Duane Solomon is by far the most credentialed American. We’re not 100% sure that makes him the best anchor leg. Solomon is great at running as fast as he freaking can which is the type of guy you want to often have leg #2 or #3. On the anchor, if the US got the baton way behind or way ahead, we’d want Solomon running as he could go out fast and catch up or go out fast and run away from the chasers.
But Robby Andrews is a great racer, with an incredible sense of the finish line who made a name for himself in the collegiate ranks by turning on the jets and outkicking everyone on the last turn. If the US got the stick even, particularly if it’s a little bit windy (and the forecast for Saturday calls for ‘breezy’ weather with gusts up to 23 mph but we don’t know if that will still be the case at 8pm) then we think Andrews might be the better anchor bet for Team USA as the legs can turn tactical. There are few guys better at getting to the finish line first in a 1:44-1:47 race than Robby Andrews. He’s great at tracking people down and getting the win and Andrews seems to be coming back into his old form now that he’s been reunited with coach Jason Vigilante.
Could we see a ridiculous close like this?
That’s a great video, isn’t it?
Of course, Team USA coach Vin Lananna will have to balance memories of closes like that with the fact that Kenya’s Kipketer likes to take it out very fast, which my not play into Andrews’ wheel house. But then again, maybe Andrews would still work if that’s the case as the best strategy may very well be to let Kipketer take it out too hard and commit 800 suicide.
We know one thing. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Breaking a world record brings a $50,000 bonus, which, when added to the $50,000 for the win, breaks down to $25,000 per leg. $25,000 for less than two minutes of work during a free trip to the Bahamas? Yes, being a professional athlete has its benefits.
Of course, breaking a world record is hard, and though the relay marks are generally easier than the individual records, the 4×800 (7:02.43) isn’t a cakewalk. That comes out to 1:45.61 per leg, which is slower than the PB average for Kenya (1:43.85) and the U.S. (1:43.99). Of course, even with a running start, a professional runner is unlikely to match his pb in a relay. Last year, Kenya’s winning time of 7:08.40 was almost six seconds off the world record, and Kenya is sending a weaker team than it did last year. We’d be quite surprised if the world record went down. And since the American record (7:02.82) is just 0.39 of a second off the world record, that seems unlikely to fall as well.
An easy payday
Finally, we are once again confused why more countries aren’t taking advantage of the IAAF’s prize money for this event. The top eight teams in each event receive prize money (it’s $4,000 for finishing eighth) and yet in the men’x 4×800 and DMR, only seven teams are entered (eight are entered in the women’s 4×800 and DMR). It’s hard to ask fans to support an event when you can’t fill out the fields even by offering prize money.
The good news is, at least one country is taking advantage. Papua New Guinea, a country where the men’s 1500 national record is 4:00.02, is sending a total of 10 athletes in three events to compete in the Bahamas this weekend (three of the runners on its men’s 4×200 squad are also entered in the DMR, which should be interesting, to say the least).
But as long as its runners finish the race, Papua New Guinea will take home at least $10,000 as there are only seven teams in the men’s DMR and eight in the women’s DMR.
Papua New Guinea isn’t the only small country to send a team to World Relays — Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and the Virgin Islands are all entered in the meet — but it was the only one to recognize the IAAF is basically giving away free money for entering the distance relays.
More: Take a trip down memory lane and re-live the 2014 IAAF World Relays Championships.