The 2017 Awards: Runner and Rookie of the Year, Upset of the Year, Doping Excuse of the Year & More

December 22, 2017

We’re continuing our review of the year in track & field with by handing out some awards. We’ve included some traditional categories (U.S. Runner of the Year, Rookie of the Year) in addition to some fun ones (Doping Excuse of the Year, Best Use of Profanity). So join us as we recognize the best, worst, and everything in between that 2017 had to offer.

Note: Since we’re a distance-oriented site, we’re going to limit our first batch of awards to distance runners; for the latter awards, we’ll open up the floor to all event groups. Our awards, our rules.

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U.S. Men’s Runner of the Year: Galen Rupp

Galen Rupp is the obvious choice here. Paul Chelimo (U.S. champ indoors and outdoors, World Champs bronze) and Evan Jager (U.S. champ, World Champs bronze) were brilliant, but with a runner-up finish at the Boston Marathon and the first Chicago Marathon victory by an American man since 2002, Rupp had the best year of any U.S. runner. Rupp’s win was not met with the same universal joy as Shalane Flanagan’s in New York a month later — in part because many people, including Flanagan herself, are waiting for the results of USADA’s investigation into the Nike Oregon Project — but that does not take away from its significance or the dominance of Rupp on the roads this year.

U.S. Women’s Runner of the Year: Shalane Flanagan

This award had to go to either Shalane Flanagan, who became the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon since 1977, or Emma Coburn, who won gold in the women’s steeple at Worlds. Flanagan is our winner as she beat two of the all-time greats to win in NY in Mary Keitany and Edna Kiplagat. Yes, Coburn beat some of the greatest steeplers in history, but that the history of women’s steepling is short and Coburn was also beaten frequently — and by large margins — on the Diamond League circuit. In four DL appearances, she had a best finish of fourth place. Coburn’s supporters would argue in reality there weren’t that many women who could have won the NYC marathon and one of them Keitany had a fluke off day because of her period. True, but we’re still giving the nod to Flanagan.

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International Men’s Runner of the Year: Eliud Kipchoge

Okay, Kipchoge only ran one official marathon this year. But in that race in Berlin, he clocked the 2017 world leader (2:03:32) and turned the ballyhooed showdown between him, Kenenisa Bekele, and Wilson Kipsang into a laugher (though he still had to take care of Guye Adola). Kipchoge’s other “race” came at Breaking2, Nike’s genius publicity stunt, and though his 2:00:25 won’t count for record purposes, it mesmerized the world and was one of the greatest marathon performances of the year. Honorable mention to Kipchoge’s training partner Geoffrey Kamworor, who won World XC and the NYC Marathon.

International Women’s Runner of the Year: Joyciline Jepkosgei

Jepkosgei, a virtual unknown before 2017, broke a stunning seven world records on the roads this year. She made her breakthrough at the Prague Half Marathon on April 1, where she broke four in one race (10k, 15k, 20k, half marathon) and wound up lowering the 10k and half marathon records further, to 29:43 and 64:51, respectively (she also split 14:33 for her first half in the 10k, 13 seconds under the 5k road world record). Honorable mention to Caster Semenya, who went undefeated over 800 and earned 1500 bronze at Worlds.

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Women’s Breakthrough Performance of the Year: Courtney Frerichs

We could give this to Jepkosgei, but we’re instituting a rule for the LetsRun awards that no athlete can win more than one award. That makes Frerichs an obvious choice, as she PR’d by an unthinkable 16 seconds in the World Championship final to take an unlikely silver in the steeplechase.

Men’s Breakthrough Performance of the Year: Sondre Nordstad Moen

Moen earned this award twice, first by running 59:48 for the half marathon in October (#5 all-time among non-African-born runners) and then by becoming the first person born outside of Africa to break 2:06 on a record-eligible marathon course in Fukuoka in December. Both were huge breakthroughs for a guy who had PRs of 62:19 and 2:12:54 before this year.

Honorable mention to New Mexico’s Josh Kerr, who emerged as a stud by winning the mile over Edward Cheserek at NCAA indoors, and to Great Britain’s Josh Griffiths for making the British World Champs team after starting from the mass start at the London Marathon in April.

For more on Moen, check out the thread below, where his coach Renato Canova shares his complete training log from this fall.

MB: Training of Sondre Moen between Valencia HM (59:48) and Fukuoka Marathon (2:05:48)

Upset of the Year: Emma Coburn

Unquestionably, this was the deepest year in the history of the young event that is the women’s steeplechase. Of the 28 fastest times in history entering the World Championships in London, 14 had been run in 2017. Precisely zero of them had been run by Emma Coburn.

The five women responsible for those times — Celliphine Chespol (8:58.78), Hyvin Kiyeng (9:00.12), Beatrice Chepkoech (9:00.70), Ruth Jebet (9:01.99), and Sofia Assefa (9:07.06)  — were all entered at Worlds, and though Coburn had run an American record of 9:07.63 to earn Olympic bronze in Rio the year before, a gold medal seemed out of the question. But Coburn pulled it off by running the race of her life and catching a break when Chepkoech — the pre-race favorite — missed the first water jump and fell after trying to catch up.

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Note: From this point on, all event groups are eligible for nomination — distance runners, sprinters, throwers, jumpers.

Best Use of Profanity: Shalane Flanagan

Flanagan’s win in New York brought with it a pair of powerful emotions. One was joy, for the biggest victory of her life. The second was relief, not only because she had finally won a major marathon in her 10th try at the age of 36, but because she did so with the knowledge that no one can take it away from her.

One of the great tragedies of Flanagan’s career is the uncertainty she has had to deal with when it comes to her results. Results are supposed to be final, unchanging, but that has not always been the case in Flanagan’s world. Flanagan earned a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but had to sit on a bronze for nine years until the doper in front of her was finally busted. Flanagan crossed the line seventh when she set the U.S. course record of 2:22:02 at the 2014 Boston Marathon. But the winner that day, Rita Jeptoo, has been stripped of her title, and two more women who finished ahead of Flanagan have also faced doping bans since that race. Who knows what place Flanagan truly earned.

But in New York, there was no “What if?”, no “Maybe in a few years.” There was only victory. And yeah, Flanagan may have let slip an expletive while she celebrated. Who can blame her?

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And yes, we’re breaking our own rule about no athlete being able to win two awards. Sue us.

Honorable mention to Donavan Brazier. After the 20-year-old failed to advance automatically in the first round of the 800 at USAs in 100-degree heat (he later made it on time), he walked through the mixed zone without stopping, saying only, “It’s hot as shit out there!”

Doping excuse of the year: Gil Roberts

The 28-year-old Roberts, who finished second at USAs this year in the 400, blamed his positive test for the masking agent probenecid on “frequent and passionate kissing” with his girlfriend, who herself ingested the substance through a medication prescribed to her from a questionable Indian chemist. Roberts’ excuse was wild, but he still loses points for originality: Canadian pole vaulter Shawn Barber successfully beat a positive test for cocaine in 2016 after claiming he ingested it as part of a Craigslist hookup gone wrong.

An arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association found that Roberts had no fault. He received no ban and all of his results were allowed to stand.

Biggest travesty of the year: The Isaac Makwala saga

After an incredible 19.77/43.92 same-day 200/400 double in Madrid on July 14, Botswana’s Isaac Makwala had established himself as one of the biggest challengers to world record holder Wayde van Niekerk in the men’s 400. And through two rounds at Worlds, Makwala looked the part, winning his prelim in 44.55 and his semi in 44.30. But on August 8, the day of the final, Makwala was forced to withdraw by the IAAF Medical Delegate based on the results of a medical exam on August 7 as there was a norovirus outbreak in London. Public Health England guidelines recommended a quarantine period of 48 hours, which would have ended at 2 p.m. on August 9 — too late for Makwala to race the final.

What followed was, in the words of sports scientist Ross Tucker, “a hot mess.” Makwala showed up to the stadium anyway on the night of the final but was barred from entry:

Makwala fired back by saying there had never been an exam on August 7, resulting in an ugly saga and sniping between Makwala, the Botswana team, and the IAAF.

The question we keep coming back to: what would have happened if the IAAF determined Usain Bolt or Mo Farah was sick and they showed up to the stadium to race anyway? The fact that Makwala, 32, likely missed his last, best chance at a World Championship medal, is a real shame.

Grunewald and her competitors at USAs Grunewald and her competitors at USAs

Inspiration of the year: Gabe Grunewald

Grunewald is not the first professional runner to battle cancer. But few have done it so publicly, and none — to our knowledge — have done so while simultaneously attempting to qualify for the USATF Outdoor Championships. Grunewald chose to let the public in by sharing her story, and in so doing brought awareness to her rare cancer (adenoid cystic carcinoma) while providing inspiration to others. Grunewald achieved her goal, making it to USAs in the 1500, and produced one of the most touching images of the year when her competitors gathered in a group prayer after her prelim in Sacramento.

Victory lap of the year: Laura Muir

Great Britain’s Laura Muir won her first senior international medal at this year’s European Indoor Championships in Belgrade. But after crossing the line first in the 1500 meter run, she was met with an official who informed her that there was no time for a victory lap.

Muir wasn’t having it. Her competitors couldn’t stop her in the race, and there’s no way an official was going to stand in the way of the lap of honor that she so richly deserved.

Harry Houdini Award: Mary Cain and Taoufik Makhloufi

This award was easy to award. Mary Cain won the women’s disappearing act as she managed to go the entire year without racing at all. Even more impressive is that there was hardly any media talk about her.

In what other sport would a former number one pick in the draft not compete for an entire year without any media mention? We noticed Cain’s absence and got a statement from her representatives last month: Not Done Yet: Mary Cain Has Been Injured in 2017, Planning On Racing Again in 2018.

Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria wins the men’s award. History seems to be repeating itself every four years with this guy. In Olympic years, he is incredible (1500 gold in 2012, 800 and 1500 silver in 2016) and then the year after he does nothing. In 2013, he only raced at Pre (11th in 3:52.94) whereas this year he absolutely did nothing as he missed the entire year with a calf injury.

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Biggest Disappointment of the Year: Keni Harrison at Worlds

American Keni Harrison has won 17 of her 19 100-meter hurdle races over the past two years. Unfortunately, those two losses came in huge races oeach year: the 2016 Olympic Trials and the 2017 World Championships. We don’t like calling anyone a choker because the sport is really hard, but the fact is this: Harrison ran her worst two races of the year in 2017 — by far — in the World Championship semis and final.

A month before Worlds, on the same track in London, Harrison ran 12.39 (+0.2 wind) to win at the Anniversary Games (she also set the world record on that track last year). No other woman ran faster than that in 2017 (Harrison did run 12.28 at another meet). Yet in London, with near-identical wind readings, she ran 12.86 (+0.2 wind) in the semis — her slowest time of the year — and 12.74 (+0.1 wind) in the final — her second-slowest time of the year.

Sally Pearson’s winning time in the final was 12.59 — a time that Harrison matched or exceeded in nine of her 10 races before Worlds. The only time she ran slower than that (apart from Worlds, where she ran 12.60 or slower in all three rounds) was the final at USAs. And even then, she ran 12.60 — into a massive 1.7 headwind.

Harrison is an enormous talent, but to be the world’s most dominant hurdler for two years and come away with zero global medals is a massive disappointment.

Winning Streak of the Year

You can’t do any better than winning every meet, so rather than try to choose between them, this award goes to all of the athletes who went undefeated this year in World Championship track/field disciplines. That would be Mutaz Essa Barshim (high jump), Sam Kendricks (pole vault), Luvo Manyonga (long jump), Caster Semenya (800), Hellen Obiri (5,000), Maria Lasitskene (high jump), Katerina Stefanidi (pole vault), Anita Wlodarczyk (hammer). Special props to Wlodarczyk, who enters 2018 riding a 42-meet win streak that dates back to July 2014.

Women’s Rookie of the Year: Konstanze Klosterhalfen

Rookie is kind of an ambiguous term in the world of track and field, but Klosterhalfen, who turned 20 in February and made her Diamond League debut in June, fits the bill. And what a debut it was. Klosterhalfen came into the Rome Diamond League meet with a PR of 4:06, and even though the race was being rabbitted for a sub-4:00, Klosterhalfen still felt it was slow enough to pass the rabbit before she dropped out, hitting 800 in 2:07. Though Sifan Hassan ran down Klosterhalfen for the win, Klosterhalfen succeeded in breaking 4:00 and went on to lower her PR to 3:58 in Berlin on August 27. She also ran 1:59, 8:29 (defeating 5k world champ Hellen Obiri in the process), and 14:51 during her tremendous “rookie” year.

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Men’s Rookie of the Year: Noah Lyles

An injury forced Lyles to withdraw from USAs, but had he been able to run, he would have made the team and been a good bet to medal — and possibly win gold — in London. Even still, the 20-year-old Lyles, who turned pro straight out of high school last year, made adidas look smart for handing him a pro contract. He ran a world indoor record of 31.87 to win the 300 at USA indoors, ran 19.90 for 200 to win his Diamond League debut in Shanghai (just the fourth teenager ever under 20) and, after over two months without racing, returned to win the Diamond League final in Brussels.

Comeback Performer of the Year: Sally Pearson

As the 2016 Olympics began, reigning 100 hurdles champion Sally Pearson was sitting at home in Australia, mapping out her comeback. Pearson, who missed the 2015 Worlds with a broken wrist and last year’s Olympics with Achilles and hamstring injuries, was a month shy of her 30th birthday and entering uncharted territory: she was coaching herself for the first time. It was a risk, but with the support of her friends, family, and fans, the gamble paid off. Pearson only won one of her last seven races before Worlds, but, five years after becoming Olympic champion in London, she returned to the same track in August and won her first world title.

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