By Jonathan Gault, LetsRun.com
August 24, 2015
BEIJING — It’s the first rule of track and field: run through the line. Molly Huddle has followed that dictum hundreds of times in her career, and she’ll most certainly follow it in the races to come. But tonight, she let up and celebrated a stride before crossing the finish line in the women’s 10,000-meter final at the 2015 IAAF World Championships, and it cost her the bronze medal as unheralded Emily Infeld swooped in to earn one of the most unlikely medals in U.S. track and field history.
Kenya’s Vivian Cheruiyot won the race at the Bird’s Nest, using a 60-second final lap to sprint away from Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka in the final 50 meters in a tactical affair, winning by .46 of a second in 31:41.31, the third-slowest winning time in race history. The victory showed that Cheruiyot, who already owned three world titles (5k in ’09, 5k/10k in ’11) is very much back following the birth of her son in October 2013. Now the stage is set for a battle royale in Rio between Cheruiyot and Ethiopian all-timers Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar, neither of whom are competing in Beijing.
While Cheruiyot deserves credit for a terrific victory, it is the image of Infeld nipping Huddle at the line (31:43.49 to 31:43.58) that will serve as the enduring memory from this race. All that is great about sport was captured in that single moment, two women who had worked for the incomparable feeling of elation of a world championship medal — one ripping it away from the other at the last possible moment. The joy on Infeld’s face in the aftermath was matched in intensity only by the dejection on Huddle’s. It is not something that either will ever forget.
“I blew it, pretty much,” Huddle said. “That kind of race doesn’t come around a lot and the Olympics are usually really fast from the gun, so, I’m old, so I’m probably not going to get another one of those. It’s frustrating.”
Though it will come as small consolation to Huddle, she was part of the greatest collective American 10,000 performance in history. With Infeld, Huddle and Shalane Flanagan (6th, 31:46.23), the U.S. placed all three of its runners in the top six places. If you were to score it, cross-country-style, the U.S. would have tallied 13 points — better than Kenya (14) and Ethiopia (18).
There’s so much to get to in this race. Let’s start with a recap of how it played out.
With 77-degree temperatures and 60% humidity (that felt like more), conditions were not well-suited to running fast and the pace was extremely slow as the field passed halfway in 16:11.99. Even as late as the 8k mark, the pack consisted of 13 runners as no one wanted to lead for very long. With 1600 to go (27:01.31), Huddle led with reigning bronze medalist Belaynesh Oljira level with her. On the backstretch, world junior 5k champ Alemitu Heroye of Ethiopia made a move to the front on the backstretch but quickly backed off as the pace picked up slightly, from the 76s and 77s they had been running to 74.24.
With 1k to go, Huddle moved to the front as the racing began. She dropped a 74.23 23rd lap and the pack was down to eight. Huddle ramped it up on the penultimate lap with a 70.75, but at the bell there were still eight women in contention — Huddle, Burka (running on her shoulder) and Cheruiyot, followed by 2012 Olympic silver medalist Sally Kipyego and Betsy Saina of Kenya, Heroye and Americans Flanagan and Infeld.
Right after hitting the bell, Saina dropped off; seven women would battle for the medals over the final 350 meters. As they hit the backstretch, all hell broke loose. Burka passed Huddle for the lead with 250 to go before Cheruiyot passed her with 200 to go. Behind them, Infeld, seventh at the start of the backstretch, weaved her way around Heroye and Flanagan before returning from the rail (she had hardly strayed from it the entire race) to pass Kipyego and move into fourth a few meters behind Huddle.
Coming off the final turn Cheruiyot held a small lead as she and Burka started to pull clear of Huddle; Infeld was about four or five meters behind Huddle. Burka drew level with Cheruiyot within a few meters, while Infeld continued to stalk Huddle, her arms pumping in a vigorous but controlled manner.
Burka and Cheruiyot battled for the first half of the home straight before Burka finally cracked 40 meters from the line, allowing Cheruiyot to streak to victory. Behind them, Huddle made a tactical error and left a small gap on the inside of lane 1, enough for Infeld to run through should she get the chance.
Infeld steadily gained on Huddle, but with five meters remaining, she was running out of room. All Huddle had to do was run hard through the line and she would hold off Infeld for her first career world championship medal. Instead, Huddle tossed her arms up in celebration as she began her final stride of the race, slowing her momentum as she crossed the finish line. Infeld threw herself across the line and her torso crossed .09 ahead of Huddle’s, stealing an improbable bronze.
Huddle, all set to celebrate a medal barely a second earlier, seemed to realize what happened as she crossed the line, her expression turning to that of ultimate dejection. But Infeld wasn’t celebrating quite yet, it needed to be made official on the scoreboard. After Huddle briefly congratulated Infeld, all three Americans – Huddle, Infeld and Flanagan – stared at the scoreboard waiting to see who officially had won bronze. Soon, it was official: Infeld.
All that was left for Huddle to do was fend off tears and walk away to ponder what might have been. Infeld, meanwhile, was congratulated by Kipyego, Saina, and most of all, Flanagan, the mother figure in Jerry Schumacher’s Bowerman Track Club. Flanagan, who earned her own bronze on this track at the Olympics seven years earlier, showed Infeld how to celebrate as her protegé grabbed an American flag and posed for the cameras.
Race video, results and analysis appear below.
Huddle’s early celebration:
Results courtesy All-Athletics.com
|Pl.||Athlete / Team||Cnt.||Birth||Result||Score|
|1.||Vivian Jepkemoi CHERUIYOT||KEN||83||31:41.31||1156|
|19.||Ana Dulce FELIX||POR||82||32:26.07||1116|
|24.||Nazret Weldu GHEBREHIWET||ERI||90||35:14.18||974||SB|
|–||Alia SAEED MOHAMMED||UAE||91||DNF|
Quick Take #1: Bring on Rio
Cheruiyot flashed some of her old form earlier this year by running 14:46 at Pre, but the question still remained whether she could regain the title she won four years ago in Daegu. Cheruiyot answered that definitively tonight and said he was never worried about the race coming down to a kick with a 3:58 runner in Burka even though Cheruiyot’s PR is only 4:06.
“I was not worried about the kick with Burka, because she goes for marathon sometimes, sometimes 5k, sometimes shorter,” Cheruiyot said. “So I say if somebody is running 1500, I can even run the 1500 too because normally in Kenya I normally do the 1500 at nationals (Editor’s note: Cheruiyot won the Kenyan nationals — separate from the World Championship trials — in the 1500 this year). I like running the 1500 and I was believing in myself and my kick. I said [to myself], ‘Burka is very strong but I am going to attack her.'”
When asked if she was confident coming in, Cheruiyot gave props to her American competition. “I was like, ‘There are some other ladies too that are very strong from American and Ethiopia,’ so I said, ‘I’m going to run my own race. I can’t [worry] about who is there, who is there – I need to run my own race as Vivian.'”
Cheruiyot also added that coming back from childbirth wasn’t particularly hard, but that it was difficult to get back to her racing weight after carrying a child.
Now her attention turns to Rio next year, and a likely showdown with Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar. Dibaba denied Cheruiyot in the 10,000 in London (Cheruiyot was third), while Defar edged her out in the 5,000 (Cheruiyot was second).
“That [the gold medal] is what I want so much [in the Olympics], because I [just] missed in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.”
Quick Take #2: Emily Infeld’s progression in 2015 has been absolutely phenomenal
At the start of 2015, Infeld had a 5,000 PR of 15:28 and had never even run a 10,000 on the track. Tonight, she closed her final 5,000 in 15:30 to earn the bronze medal at the World Championships in the third 10,000m of her life.
She suffered a stress fracture at the end of 2013, limiting her to four races in 2014; finally healthy again last fall, she overcompensated by crushing training and developed another stress fracture in December. Entering 2015, no one was talking about her as a threat to make the U.S. team, let alone contend for a medal.
When she entered her first 10,000, at Payton Jordan on May 2, Infeld had only six weeks of running under her belt and instructions from Schumacher to go out at 5:16 pace, which she ignored after feeling better than expected. The result was a 31:38 world qualifier. From there, Infeld ran 31:42 to place third at USAs in much tougher conditions (she was also fourth in the 5k) and tonight she ran 31:43, just five seconds off her PR, despite a big negative split (16:13/15:30) and warm, humid conditions.
Infeld was a talented collegian (4th at NCAA XC as a senior, 2012 NCAA indoor 3k champ) but for anyone to say they saw this result coming, especially after her injury struggles in 2014 and the first half of 2015, would be false.
Quick Take #3: Infeld felt bad for the way she beat Huddle — she shouldn’t
Infeld learned the same lesson earlier this season at USAs that Huddle learned tonight. After finishing third at USAs, Infeld was approached by Flanagan (who was second, .31 ahead).
“She was like, ‘You know why I beat you? You’re faster than me — you let up. You’re never doing that again,’” Infeld said. “And we’ve really worked on that in practice. I didn’t think I had a chance to medal and it just kind of happened.”
Infeld was justifiably overjoyed with her bronze but said that she felt a little guilty about the way it happened.
“The only thing I feel guilty about is that I know Molly let up and I don’t think she knew I was there. I hate to take a medal away from a teammate and fellow American, and she’s amazing and phenomenal but I’m really happy.”
Infeld said that her instructions from Schumacher were just to hang on with the pack for as long as possible, and since the pace never got going until the very end, she was able to hang in and kick for a medal in the final lap. Infeld, running in her first World Championships, ran like a veteran, hugging the rail almost the entire way to conserve energy and only moving outside at the end when she needed to. A fine run from a fine runner.
Quick Take #4: Molly Huddle: “This one is going to be tough to swallow”
We couldn’t get a video with Huddle as she came through the mixed zone during the men’s steeplechase final, but we were able to hear her reaction thanks to some audio (below) shared by friend of LetsRun Cathal Dennehy. Huddle explained that she didn’t know Infeld was coming and when she threw her hands up in the end, it was more in relief than celebration.
“It was relief there was no one battling me down the home stretch, but she did, she was there the whole way, and I just wish I had that one last step,” Huddle said.
Huddle said that because the pace had been so slow throughout, she didn’t want to move early on the last lap like she did at USAs and that’s why she waited to really kick the last 200.
Huddle was depressed not only because she lost the medal, but because she felt (likely because of the slow pace and relatively weak field compared to past years) this was a unique opportunity.
“That race was an opportunity for someone to medal who will probably not get that chance again,” Huddle said, adding that she is getting old and that the Olympics are generally faster races.
Huddle obviously has reason to be upset right now, and it should be harder to medal next year at the Olympics assuming Dibaba runs. And of course, there are no guarantees about future race dynamics or whether Huddle can remain healthy or hold this level of fitness going forward.
But think there is a silver lining. 2015 has been the most successful year of her career. Huddle turns 31 next week, but is she really going to be that much worse in 2016 or 2017? The one concern is that Huddle may decide to move up to the marathon (in the past, she’s spoken about doing one in 2016 or 2017) and once she goes that route, it will become harder for her to win a medal.
Huddle handled a difficult situation with class, also doing an interview on Universal Sports.
Editor’s update at 10:03 pm ET: Messageboard poster “To be honest, it’s two…” has made a good point. This isn’t the first time Huddle has celebrated too early in a big spot. At the 2012 US cross country championships, she also celebrated before the line and lost to Sara Hall (photo on right).
Quick Take #5: This race was eerily similar to USAs
The USA final went out in 15:55, but the winning time (31:39) was just two seconds off Cheruiyot’s winning time tonight. Just as they were tonight, Huddle, Infeld and Flanagan were all together at the bell. But while Huddle destroyed the two Bowerman Track Club runners at USAs, putting over three seconds on them, she couldn’t gain the same separation tonight on Infeld. Flanagan finished 2.65 seconds back of Huddle tonight (she was 3.09 back at USAs), so really we should give credit to Infeld for seriously improving her kick over the last two months.
Quick Take #6: Flanagan was happy to have helped Infeld on her path to a medal
As one of the few American women with a medal in a long distance event, Flanagan was uniquely positioned to mentor the 25-year-old Infeld and said that they had a lot of heart-to-hearts when Infeld was contemplating giving up the sport due to her injuries.
“I’m living vicariously through her tonight,” Flanagan said.
Flanagan, a noted front-runner, said she wasn’t surprised that the race went slowly, and added that she was giddy at the end of the race when she saw three Americans in medal contention. Though she was a little disappointed in herself for not believing she could contend in a sprint finish (remember, she is primarily a marathoner), she was extremely proud to be a part of a 3-4-6 finish for the Americans.
Interview with 5th-placer Sally Kipyego
Discuss this race on our world famous messageboard: Infeld beat Huddle at the line for the bronze! incredible lean!