May 21, 2016
The men’s and women’s races could not have been more different. From the start of the Mattoni Karlovy Vary Half Marathon, a group of seven elite men worked together to set an aggressive pace despite the heat and the hilly course. Kenyan Abraham Akopesha was accompanied by four of his countrymen, plus Moroccan Mustapha El Aziz and Eritrean Simon Tesfay.
Akopesha made his first big push at 15K, and the two least experienced runners in the field went with him – Wilson Too and Evans Kerui were making their half marathon debut. Akopesha was able to separate from them, but then seemed to struggle for a time, allowing the two young upstarts to reel him in. “I was thinking that I needed to win, because I knew my two friends were making their debut. That is what made me push hard the second time.” Akopesha found the strength to pull away again, crossing the line first in 1:02:08. Kerui came second, 19 seconds behind the winner, and Too finished another 21 seconds back. With Amos Kurgat rallying to run 1:03:35, the Kenyan runners swept the top 4 places. The time was not what Abraham wanted, perhaps because of the difficult conditions, but for two first-time runners at this distance the race yielded an impressive start to promising careers.
The women’s race was the exact opposite: by 5K the lead group was down to three, with 23-year-old Kenyan Joyceline Jepkosgei in front followed by veteran countrywoman Caroline Kilel and Ethiopian Ayantu Gemechu. That was the last time Jepkosgei saw her competition. Jepkosgei says, “At 8K, I looked around, and there was nobody. So I had to push myself the rest of the way. The men on the motorbike were my best friends! They were encouraging me to push forward, and the cheering crowd also helped give me strength.” The heat had an effect on her as well, as she felt tightness in her hamstring late in the race that prevented her from shifting gears for one final push. Nonetheless, Jepkosgei broke the race record by clocking 1:09:07, opening up a gap of 2:12 over eventual runner-up Gemechu. Ethiopia got a second runner on the podium when Bekelech Daba moved into third, followed closely by Risa Takenaka of Japan.
Jepkosgei is a member of the RunCzech Racing team, which helps up-and-coming runners by providing lodging and support while racing in Europe. Her breakthrough race, in her first international competition, will certainly earn her more invitations in the future – and she says she knows she can run faster still.
If Jepkosgei had a kindred spirit during the race, it was Milan Kocourek. The top Czech finisher was in the second group of men early, but he was able to separate from them and then forced to pace himself for much of the race. Also like Jepkosgei, he struggled a little bit: “I was not satisfied with the way the race felt. I believe I can go up to a minute faster in the future.” Kocourek battled through his discomfort to post the fastest time ever for a Czech runner in this event, finishing 10th overall in 1:06:51. Petra Kaminkova was the top Czech female, her time of 1:17:55 earning her 7th place overall.
Karlovy Vary lived up to its reputation as a race that young runners can use as a springboard to future success, and both race winners were quick to show their desire to return. “Next year, I guarantee we will challenge the course record,” says Akopesha, with Jepkosgei showing her wide smile and nodding next to him.