2016 World Half Marathon Championships Preview: Kenyan Rivals Mary Wacera & Cynthia Limo Square Off For the World Title And Lead Super Strong Kenyan Squad

By LetsRun.com
March 24, 2016

Indoor track may be over, but the excitement didn’t end in Portland as Saturday’s IAAF World Half Marathon Championships promises to be a classic. For the first time, the event comes to Wales (Cardiff, specifically) and the lure of a global championship on British soil was enough to attract Mo Farah, who headlines the 100-man field. He’ll face off against rival Geoffrey Kamworor of Kenya, the defending champion whom Farah defeated over 10,000 meters at the World Championships in August, as well as World Cross Country runner-up Bedan Karoki (also of Kenya) and six other sub-60:00 men.

The women’s race lacks the star power of the men, but it promises to be fast. Two years ago, Kenya made history by sweeping the top five places in the women’s race and it’s well-positioned to do so again in 2016 as four of its five entrants (Cynthia LimoMary WaceraPeris Chepchirchir and Gladys Chesire) have broken 67:00 this year.

Team USA includes Jared Ward, who will represent the U.S. in the marathon in Rio this summer, plus Sara Hall and Olympic Marathon Trials top-six finishers Janet Cherobon-Bawcom and Kellyn Taylor. Details followed by a full preview of the women’s race below. Our men’s preview is here: LRC A Race For The Ages – Mo Farah vs. Geoffrey Kamworor & Bedan Karoki in a World Champs Grudge Match.

What: 2016 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships

Where: Cardiff, Wales

When: Saturday, March 26. Women’s race begins at 9:35 a.m. ET, men’s race at 10:10 a.m. ET. Note, due to an error on the IAAF site, we had the time listed a 6:10 am earlier in the week.

How to watch: In the United States, the race will be streamed live online by NBC Sports Live Extra beginning at 9:30 a.m. ET. In the United Kingdom, the race will be shown on BBC One starting at 1:30 p.m. GMT. UK viewers may want to tune in to BBC One at 1:00 p.m. however as the network will be showing a 30-minute show called “Can Seb Coe Save Athletics?” in which Steve Cram travels to Monaco to follow Coe and question him about the sport’s doping and corruption scandals.

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Women’s Race: Can Kenya Sweep 1-5 Again?

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It’s hard to dominate an even more than Kenyan women have dominated the half marathon over the past three and a half years. Two years ago, at the World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen, Kenyan women swept the first five places for the first time in history — pretty impressive considering each team is only allowed five entrants. On the all-time list (record-eligible courses), Kenya owns spots one through seven, with six of the seven performances coming since the start of 2013 (the other was from way back in 2011).

So it’s no surprise that Kenya is set to dominate at these championships once again. Four of their five entrants have already broken 67:00 in 2016; the rest of the field contains just one woman who has broken 67:00 in her entire life (Ethiopia’s Genet Yalew, who also did it this year). In fact, take out Team Kenya and Team Ethiopia and you’re left with just one woman who has broken 69:00: 36-year-old Italian Anna Incerti, who last accomplished the feat over four years ago.

However, one can’t expect a 1-5 sweep from Kenya as that’s incredibly hard to accomplish. Kenya’s head coach Catherine Ndereba, the former marathon WR holder, realizes a 1-5 goal is an unrealistic expectation. “These are seasoned athletes. I can’t say the women will go for another sweep but they have prepared well. They know the 2014 team set a huge benchmark,” said Ndereba to The Daily Nation earlier this week.

When you analyze it, the women’s individual race should boil down to a battle between two runners: Kenyans Mary Wacera and Cynthia Limo. They’re no stranger to one another (they’ve met eight times since the start of 2015), and with a world title and $30,000 on the line, the latest installment of their rivalry will be the most intense yet. Let’s break it down.

Mary Wacera at Falmouth in 2014 Mary Wacera at Falmouth in 2014

Mary Wacera — Kenya, 27 years old, 66:29 pb
Recent races: 1st Houston Half Marathon, 66:29 (Jan. 17), 1st World’s Best 10K, 31:49 (Feb. 28)

Wacera enters as the slight favorite. She is the top returner from two years ago, when she took second behind Gladys Cherono, and has strung together several impressive road race victories since then, including two wins at the Boilermaker Road Race and titles at the B.A.A. 10K and Half Marathon last year. Her most impressive accomplishment, however, was her 66:29 victory at the Houston Half Marathon in January. At the time, it ranked her #9 all-time (record-eligible courses) but she has since been relegated to 12th after the fast RAK Half in February. However the win wasn’t just notable for how fast she ran, but who she beat: Cynthia Limo, who won the RAK Half in 66:04, was 11 seconds behind Wacera in Houston.

Wacera won her final tuneup race at the World’s Best 10K on February 28, defeating 2013 World Championship 10,000 medallist Belaynesh Oljira and 2009 10,000 World champ Linet Masai in the process.

Cynthia Limo — Kenya, 26 years old, 66:04 pb
Recent races:
2nd Houston Half Marathon, 66:41 (Jan. 17), 1st RAK Half, 66:04 (Feb. 12)

Limo winning in New Delhi in November. Photo courtesy of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon. Limo winning in New Delhi in November. Photo courtesy of Airtel Delhi Half Marathon.

As we mentioned above, Limo lost to Wacera in Houston in January, but you could make a strong case that she should be the favorite after moving up to #3 on the all-time list (record-eligible courses) by running 66:04 to win the RAK Half Marathon on February 12. In that race, she defeated reigning World Half champ Gladys Cherono (by three seconds) as well as Ethiopia’s top entrant at the World Half Champs, Genet Yalew (by 22 seconds). In fact, Limo also soundly beat two of the other top contenders in Cardiff in fellow Kenyans Peris Chepchirchir and Gladys Chesire.

But the woman she has to beat on Saturday is Wacera. Here’s how their matchups have gone since the start of 2015:

Date Race Wacera Limo
3/1/2015 World’s Best 10K 7th, 33:08 2nd, 31:58
4/18/2015 B.A.A. 5K 6th, 15:07 7th, 15:12
7/12/2015 Boilermaker 15K 1st, 48:49 2nd, 48:51
7/17/2015 Subaru Buffalo 4-Mile Chase 1st, 20:20 2nd, 20:20
7/25/2015 Bix 7 Miler 2nd, 37:07 1st, 36:57
9/6/2015 Luanda Half Marathon 5th, 70:34 2nd, 68:46
10/11/2015 B.A.A. Half Marathon 1st, 70:21 2nd, 70:22
1/17/2016 Houston Half Marathon 1st, 66:29 2nd, 66:41

As you can see, the two have been very evenly matched, with several close encounters and Wacrea leading the series 5-3. Given that Wacera leads the head to head and has won their last two matchups (and five of the last seven), she’s our favorite but Limo is coming off the fifth-fastest half marathon in history. In all likelihood, one of these two is your champion on Saturday.

Other contenders

Ethiopia’s team is not particularly strong (three of their five runners have never broken 70:00) but they have a couple of women worth watching in addition to the rest of the Kenyan team.

  • Genet Yalew, Ethiopia, 23 years old, 66:26 pb: Yalew, who was 10th at the World Half Champs in 2014 and 10th at World XC last year, enters the race fresh off an Ethiopian record of 66:26 at the RAK Half. Unfortunately, that was only good for third place behind Limo and Cherono. She was also fourth at the New Delhi Half last fall (lost to Limo and Gladys Chesire, both of whom will race in Cardiff). She has a good shot at a medal and is the best bet for someone to break up another Kenyan sweep.
  • Peris Chepchirchir, Kenya, 22 years old, 66:39 pb: Ran her pb at the RAK Half but lost to Limo and Yalew in that race. She doesn’t have much big-race experience, but she’s got a lot of promise and looked impressive in winning several lower profile races last year at age 21 such as the Prague 10K (30:55), Marseille-Cassis Classique Internationale (66:01 for just under 20K) and Usti nad Labem Half Marathon (67:17).
  • Gladys Chesire, Kenya, 23 years old, 66:57 pb: Yet another woman who ran exceptionally fast at RAK this year (she was 5th in 66:57), Chesire was also third at the New Delhi Half last year and finished fourth at the Kenyan World Champs Trials at 10,000 meters. Like Chepchirchir, she’s a solid prospect but may not be ready yet to challenge the likes of Wacera and Limo (though she did beat Yalew in New Delhi).
  • Netsanet Gudeta, Ethiopia, 25 years old, 67:31 pb: Gudeta was sixth in this race two years ago, making her the #2 returner behind Wacera, and earned the bronze medal at World XC last year. So far in 2016, she’s finished fifth and second in a pair of cross country races in Spain (both solid performances as the fields were strong) and won a half marathon in Cuba on February 14 in 73:45. She was only sixth in the New Delhi Half last fall but won Valencia in October in 67:31 over Yalew, among others.
  • Pascalia Kipkoech, Kenya, 27 years old, 67:17 pb: Kipkoech took bronze in this event four years ago but her record the past few years has been spotty. She didn’t race at all in 2014 and her best time in three half marathons last year was 71:36, which was only good enough for 10th in Valencia. So far this year she took seventh in the Kenyan Police XC Champs and eighth at the Kenyan Discovery XC Champs in January before winning a 10K road race in Casablanca in 31:14 on March 6. She is a wild card for Saturday’s race.

Team USA

The US squad is as follows:

Janet Cherobon-Bawcom – 37 years old, 69:55 pb, 5th at Olympic Trials.
Hillary Montgomery – 
23 years old, 71:49 pb, graduated from Texas A&M last year.
Sara Hall – 32 years old, 70:09 pb, DNF at Trials. 
Brianne Nelson –
35 years old, 70:16 pb, 34th at the Marathon Trials
Kellyn Taylor – 29 years old, 71:01 pb, 6th at Marathon Trials.

Kellyn Taylor will look to lead the U.S. women in Cardiff Kellyn Taylor will look to lead the U.S. women in Cardiff

On paper, the U.S. squad is pretty good but the problem is that four of the five women will be coming back from last month’s Olympic Marathon Trials. The only one that isn’t is Hillary Montgomery, who happens to have the slowest HM pb of anyone on the team (71:49). The good news is that both Janet Cherobon-Bawcom (5th) and Kellyn Taylor (6th) ran very well at the Trials and Sara Hall laid down a fast half in January in Houston (70:07) before dropping out of the Trials. It’s not impossible to rebound from a marathon and run well — Hall did just that last year, bombing in her marathon debut in Los Angeles before coming back two weeks later to finish as the top American (20th) at World XC.

In the team standings (which you get by adding up the times of each country’s first three finishers), the Americans were fifth two years ago thanks to strong runs by Annie Bersagel (13th) and Lauren Kleppin (14th). In fact, if they had had another woman right behind Kleppin, they would have made it onto the podium. Assuming Kenya wins and Ethiopia gets second, Japan, Spain, Italy and the U.S. could all be in the mix for the other medal spots.

Top 5 Results from 2014
1 Kenya 3:23:05
2 Ethiopia 3:27:05
3 Japan 3:31:33
4 Italy 3:31:57
5 United States 3:32:48

We highly doubt the US gets a medal but weirder things have happened. Given the fact that most of the women are likely in the early stages of their track/summer road race buildups, replicating the fifth-place finish from 2014 would be an impressive accomplishment.

Vote in the polls below and talk about the race on our world famous fan forum / messageboard:

MB: Official 2016 World Half Marathon Discussion Thread
MB: Kamworor talking smack? “I know most Kenyans are waiting for the day we shall beat Farah. That day is coming soon.”
MB: Farah’s handlers lowering hopes for W Half – “a bout of sickness is believed to have pegged back his preparations”
MB: World Half Champs – US Team? 

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