Shanghai Preview: Ben Blankenship Takes on Big Boys Silas Kiplagat & Ronald Kwemoi; Eunice Sum (800) & Jairus Birech (Steeple) Open Up In Their Specialties

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By LetsRun.com
May 14, 2015

After an eight-month gap between Diamond League meets, there will now be two in three days as the action shifts to Shanghai on Sunday after the season-opener in Doha on Friday. With the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic on Thursday, most of the American mid-d/distance stars will be sitting this one out, but there are still plenty of international stars who will compete in other events. Shanghai will play host to the first 2015 installment of the Mutaz Essa Barshim – Bohdan Bondarenko high jump rivalry, which will reach its apex three months from now in Beijing. Olympic champions Veronica Campbell-Brown and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica will square off in the 100, as will LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James in the 400. The 110 hurdles also features the last three global champions in Jason RichardsonAries Merritt and David Oliver.

Distance-wise, the highlight is the men’s 1500, which will see Kenyans Silas Kiplagat and Ronald Kwemoi do battle against American Ben Blankenship, fresh off a world record at the World RelaysMolly Beckwith-Ludlow, another World Relays champion, faces world champ Eunice Sum in the 800. Jairus Birech, who was almost unbeatable last year, will also tackle his first steeplechase of the year, while World XC champ Agnes Jebet Tirop faces 2013 WC bronze medalist Almaz Ayana in the women’s 5,000.

What: 2015 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix

Where: Shanghai Stadium, Shanghai, China

When: Sunday, May 17. Field events start at 5:30 a.m. ET, running events at 7:04 a.m. ET.

How to watch: Live on beIN Sports from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. or stream it online through beIN Sports Connect (requires beIN Sports subscription).

Schedule/entries/results * TV/streaming information (including how to get beIN Sports on your computer) *2014 LRC coverage

Men’s 1500 (7:13 a.m. ET): Blankenship vs. The Big Boys

NameCountryPBSB
Bethwell BirgenKenya3:30.773:34.62
Robert Kiptoo BiwottKenya3:36.773:38.0h
Ben BlankenshipUSA3:35.283:35.28
Collins CheboiKenya3:31.533:35.90
Nixon ChepsebaKenya3:29.773:40.0h
Mekonnen GebremedhinEthiopia3:31.45
Pieter-Jan HannesBelgium3:34.493:37.30
Jakub HolusaCzech Republic3:35.263:37.68
Vincent KibetKenya3:31.96
Nicholas Kiplangat KipkoechKenya3:44.07
Silas KiplagatKenya3:27.643:38.15
Ronald KwemoiKenya3:28.813:37.1h
James MagutKenya3:30.61
Ronald MusagalaUganda3:37.75
Hillary NgetichKenya3:35.87
Bram SomThe Netherlands3:42.75

Though a couple of the biggest names in the 1500 — Asbel Kiprop and Ayanleh Souleiman — will be running the 800 in Doha on Friday, the first- and third-fastest men from 2014 will both be in Shanghai. Silas Kiplagat‘s 3:27.64 in Monaco last year was the fastest time since 2004 (he’s #4 all-time) and the 25-year-old Kenyan can always be counted on to run well on the Diamond League circuit as he’s finished first or second in 10 of his last 11 DL 1500/miles. Ronald Kwemoi, 19, emerged last year by winning his DL debut in Lausanne and running a 3:28.81 in that same race in Monaco, which broke the world junior record (he’s tied for #7 all-time). Kwemoi enters in fine form, as he’s 3-for-3 so far in 2015, winning the Kenyan World Relays trials on March 21 (he withdrew from the World Relays for reasons that remain unclear) and two races in Japan in April, all by comfortable margins. While fellow Kenyans Nixon Chepseba and James Magut should not be discounted, Kiplagat and Kwemoi are the class of this field.

 Ben Blankenship © Getty Images for IAAF

A jubilant Blankenship at World Relays two weeks ago © Getty Images for IAAF

American Ben Blankenship will make his Diamond League debut in Shanghai (he ran the Pre Classic in 2013 but not in the DL portion of the meet) and it will be interesting to see how well he runs. Quite simply, the man has been on fire in 2015. Since January 1, he’s accomplished the following:

  • Outkicked Galen Rupp in a 2-mile
  • Ran 3:53.13 for the mile and 3:35.28 for the 1500
  • Took second in the mile and 2-mile at USA indoors
  • Split 3:51 on the anchor leg of the DMR at the World Relays to lead Team USA to a world record

The first few accomplishments caused running fans to ask, “Who the heck is Ben Blankenship?” As the outdoor season starts to heat up, the answer is clear: one of the best milers in America who has a legitimate shot to make Team USA in 2015. At the start of this week, if you were to pick Team USA based solely on what they’ve done so far this year, Matthew Centrowitz is your #1 choice and Blankenship a clear #2. That doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed a spot — defending U.S. champion Leo Manzano always runs well at USAs and there are a ton of other guys who have a shot at the team.

It won’t be easy for Blankenship to place highly here. Traditionally, the top Americans have struggled in the 1500 on the Diamond League circuit — the highest finish by an American in a DL 1500/mile last year was 7th by Centrowitz in Lausanne. A top-five finish for Blankenship would be terrific, even if the field isn’t quite as deep without Kiprop, Souleiman, Centrowitz or Manzano. If he can manage that, or lower his 3:35.28 PR from indoors (which seems very realistic if the race goes out fast enough), the trip to Shanghai will register as a success for the man from Minnesota.

Men’s 3000 steeplechase (7:46 a.m. ET): Who Can Stop Jairus Birech?

NameCountryPBSB
Nicholas BettKenya8:28.838:43.8h
Jairus BirechKenya7:58.41
Hamid EzzineMorocco8:09.728:30.57
Victor GarciaSpain8:15.20
Clement KemboiKenya8:16.968:25.32
Benjamin KiplagatUganda8:03.81
Festus KipronoKenya8:39.0h8:56.2h
Brimin Kiprop KiprutoKenya7:53.64
Conseslus KiprutoKenya8:01.16
Barnabas KipyegoKenya8:17.03
Gilbert KiruiKenya8:06.968:31.04
Paul Kipsiele KoechKenya7:54.31
Haron LagatKenya8:15.80
Abel MutaiKenya8:01.67
Jonathan NdikuKenya8:07.75
Bernard NgangaKenya8:05.888:23.77
Ilgizar SafiulinRussia8:20.29
Tao YangChina8:38.89
Hillary YegoKenya8:03.57
Hurdles, not humans, were Birech's biggest competition last year

Hurdles, not humans, were Birech’s biggest competition last year

Generally, Diamond League steeplechases played out in the same way last year: Jairus Birech sticks on the rabbits’ tail early and pushes the pace for the first half of the race; Birech creates a huge gap; Birech wins. After placing fourth in the DL opener in Doha last year, Birech proceeded to win the remaining six DL steeple events in dominant fashion (his average win margin was 6.27 seconds; none were closer than 4.33 seconds). While the steeplechase produced some memorable moments in 2014, the competition was generally lacking. Ezekiel Kemboi, winner of the last five global titles, finished just four races on the year and broke 8:19 in precisely one of them. Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, the bronze medalist at Worlds in 2013, ran just three steeples, only one on the DL circuit. Conseslus Kipruto, who earned World Championship silver at age 18 two years ago, did not make any progress, running an SB of 8:09.81, a time he bettered four times in both 2012 and 2013.

The hope is with Worlds on the schedule this year, the men’s steeple will be more competitive on the circuit, though Mekhissi-Benabbad is out for the season following foot surgery. American Evan Jager was one of the few steeplers who did improve last year, lowering his PR to 8:04.71 and collecting top-three finishes in Oslo, Brussels and at the Continental Cup. He won’t be in Shanghai, however, as he waits until the Pre Classic to make his debut. Still, with sub-8:00 men Brimin Kipruto (2008 Olympic champ) and Paul Koech (4th at Worlds in ’13) and 8:0x guys Abel Mutai and Jonathan Ndiku (who defeated Birech to win the Commonwealth Games last year), there are several men who could challenge Birech.

Only six men in the 19-person field have run a steeple so far this season (Kenyan Bernard Nganga is the early world leader at 8:23.77) so Sunday’s race should give us an early look at the steeple pecking order, even though Jager and Kemboi are absent. Birech is the favorite, and he’s been busy so far this year, running several cross country races and, recently, half marathons. According to All-Athletics.com, he ran 61:05 at the Lago Maggiore Half Marathon on April 19 and 62:51 at the Placentia Half Marathon for Unicef on May 3. That 61:05 would be impressive enough on its own, but track databases All-Athletics and Tilastopaja  also have Birech down as running 13:38 on the track — at altitude — the day before in Kenya. And the day before that, Birech ran 13:46 at the same meet. 13:46, 13:38 and 61:05 in three days? Don’t be surprised if Birech runs something quick on Sunday.

Women’s 800 (8:06 a.m. ET): A Truly International Affair

NameCountryPBSB
Malika AkkaouiMorocco1:57.642:05.77
Marina ArzamasovaBelarus1:58.15
Angelika CichockaPoland2:00.20
Janeth JepkosgeiKenya1:56.04
Yekaterina KupinaRussia1:59.21
Molly Beckwith-LudlowUSA1:59.122:01.09
Tintu LukkaIndia1:59.172:01.86
Lenka MasnaCzech Republic1:59.562:02.19
Jenny MeadowsGreat Britain1:57.93
Winnie NanyondoUganda1:58.63
Yekaterina PoistogovaRussia1:57.63
Eunice SumKenya1:57.38
Jing ZhaoChina1:59.48

Without the top Americans, this 800 is somewhat lacking, but it still boasts the reigning world champion in Kenyan Eunice Sum and half of the top 10 in LRC’s 2014 Year-End Rankings (#1 Sum, #3 Marina Arzamasova, #6 Winnie Nanyondo, #7 Janeth Jepkosgei and #8 Yekaterina Poistogova). The absence of Americans such as Ajee Wilson, Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez means that this will be an extremely diverse event — 13 women from 11 different countries (though 13 is way too many women for a Diamond League 800). Compare that to the event that precedes it, the men’s steeplechase, in which 14 of the 19 participants are Kenyan.

Sum won the DL title handily last year (winning four DL races in addition to Commonwealth and African titles) and with no Wilson, there’s no reason to think she won’t win in Doha, either. Sum ran well in her only 2015 outing — a 4:09.7 1500 victory at altitude in Kenya on April 18 — so she’s in shape. As the world’s dominant force in the 800 over the past two years, she’s the woman to beat.

2009 Worlds bronze medalist Jenny Meadows enjoyed a renaissance indoors as she was the only woman to break 2:00 (she did it twice). Her 1:59.21 in Vienna on January 31 was her fastest time, indoors or out, since 2011. She entered Europeans Indoors in March as the heavy favorite but looked sluggish in her semifinal and scratched from the final due to a virus. Now, after a 54.65 400 last weekend, she’ll run her first 800 outdoors.

It’s certainly possible that Meadows, 34, could return to the top of the sport. Last year was one of the shallowest years in recent memory for the event, as only three women broke 1:58 and none ran faster than 1:57.67. Those times pale in comparison to the preceding years:

Year# of sub-1:58s (performers)# of sub-1:57s (performers)World-leading time
20143 (3)0 (0)1:57.67
20138 (6)1 (1)1:56.72
201223 (11)4 (3)1:56.19
20117 (5)3 (2)1:55.87

With doping enforcement up – top Russians such as 2012 Olympic/2011 World champ Mariya Savinova are  now facing heavy scrutiny after being linked to doping – as well as the IAAF scrutinizing intersex conditions for the likes of Caster Semenya (and others from Africa that you don’t hear about) who no longer seems capable of producing a super fast time, running 1:57/1:58-low puts you in the medal hunt at Worlds. If Meadows can run 1:59.21 indoors, getting into that range is very doable.

One other name to watch is Molly Beckwith-Ludlow, the lone American in the field. She has been running very well so far outdoors, splitting a great 1:59.50 solo leg to help the U.S. win 4×800 gold at the World Relays two weeks ago and was taking second to Ajee Wilson in Jamaica last weekend, running 2:01.09 to Wilson’s 2:00.65. She could challenge 2:00 in the right race.

Women’s 5,000 (8:26 a.m. ET): WC Bronze Medalist Almaz Ayana vs. World XC Champ Agnes Tirop

NameCountryPBSB
Birtukan Fente AlemuEthiopia16:02.29
Gelete BurkaEthiopia14:31.20
Irine Chebet CheptaiKenya14:50.99
Stella ChesangUganda15:53.8517:04.91
Dera DidaEthiopia
Changqin DingChina15:12.51
Sentayehu EjiguEthiopia14:28.39
Alemitu HaroyeEthiopia14:52.39
Alemitu HawiEthiopia15:10.46
Irene JelagatKenya15:01.7315:50.6h
Viola KibiwotKenya14:33.48
Magdalene MasaiKenya15:10.4615:10.46
Perine NengampiKenya15:16.50
Xu QiuziChina15:46.41
Senbere TeferiEthiopia16:20.99
Agnes Jebet TiropKenya14:50.36
Tamara TverdostupUkraine
Lydia WafulaKenya

There is quality in this field but more than any Diamond League mid-d/distance event this weekend, the women’s 5,000 in Shanghai feels incomplete. Meseret Defar, who has captured the last two global titles, hasn’t raced a DL event since 2013. Vivian Cheruiyot, who won the two before that, hasn’t raced a DL event since 2012. And the two women who dominated the circuit last year at 3,000 (Mercy Cherono) and 5,000 (Genzebe Dibaba) won’t be in Shanghai either. With only seven of the 18 women in the field having broken 15:10 in their careers, this race doesn’t have much depth and should string out pretty quickly.

’13 WC bronze medalist/’14 African champ Almaz Ayana (second-fastest woman in 2014) and ’13 WC fourth-placer Viola Kibiwot (third-fastest woman in 2014) have been two of the best 5,000 runners in the world in recent years and lend legitimacy to this field. Add in World XC champ Agnes Tirop and World Junior champ Alemitu Haroye, there are certainly some women in the field who could challenge for a medal in Beijing.

Tirop, who owns a 14:50 pb and is still only 19, could be capable of something very special this year if recent history is any guide.

What World XC champs did on the track that year

YearName5,000 sb10,000 sbWC/OG finish
2013Emily Chebet14:46.8930:47.024th (10,000)
2011Vivian Cheruiyot14:20.8730:48.981st (5,000 + 10,000)
2010Emily ChebetN/A32:49.43N/A
2009Florence Kiplagat14:40.1430:11.5312th (10,000)
2008Tirunesh Dibaba14:11.1529:54.661st (5,000 + 10,000)
Tirop has already had success in China this year, winning World XC in March

Tirop has already had success in China this year, winning World XC in March

Aside from 2010, a non-championship year in which Emily Chebet mostly focused on the roads (her sole track race was the Kenyan Championships 10,000), the last five women’s World XC champs have either run very fast on the track, run well at Worlds/Olympics or accomplished some combination of both. While it’s unlikely Tirop’s World XC win will serve as the springboard to a historically dominant season, such as Cheruiyot in 2011 or Tirunesh Dibaba in 2008, it’s clear that we should expect great things from Tirop on the track in the near future.

One other woman who could make some noise in this race is the World XC runner-up, Senbere Teferi of Ethiopia. Teferi has only run one 5,000 in her life (winning the Ethiopian Champs in 16:20 two years ago) as she’s been mainly a 1500/3000 type so far. Though she was World Junior bronze medalist at 1500 in 2012, her World XC runner-up finish (on an 8k course) is her best result to date so it’s wise for the 20-year-old to explore her options at 5,000. There is one issue with Teferi, however: she’s also entered in the 1500 in Doha on Friday. Either she’s planning on running both, in which she’ll have to fly 4,200 miles and race twice in the span of 45 hours or she’s only doing one event this weekend. If we were Teferi, we’d suggest skipping the 1500 and testing herself at 5,000 as that event likely represents her best chance for a medal this year.

What do you think? Discuss the meet in our running fan forumOfficial 2015 Shanghai IAAF Diamond League discussion thread.