February 7, 2018
If we told you there was a half marathon that features nine men who have run 59:30 or faster, is that something that you would be interested in?
What about a half marathon that features the world record holder against the greatest marathoner in the world?
Sounds too good to be true, right?
What if we told you could watch all of that for free during primetime?
Well on Friday in the United Arab Emirates (Thursday night U.S. time), Dreams Become Reality as all three of those scenarios will play out at the 2018 RAK Half Marathon. If you consider yourself a serious fan of distance running, you need to watch this race and the good news is that the race organizers are evidently as excited as we are as they embedded the link to the YouTube stream on the official website several days before was set to begin.
While the men’s side has the depth — 11 sub-60 men in all, including defending champ Bedan Karoki, 58:48 man Jorum Okombo, former NYC/Worlds marathon champ Ghirmay Ghebreslassie, and two-time Boston Marathon champ Lelisa Desisa — it’s the women’s side that boasts the star power: Joyciline Jepkosgei — the only woman ever under 65:00 in the half — takes on marathon superstar Mary Keitany (second here last year in 65:13). Add in Fancy Chemutai (65:36 pb, #6 all-time) and Edith Chelimo (65:52 pb, #10 all-time) and you’ve got quite a race.
Usually when we preview a race like this, we go through the contenders one by one, but given the absurdly deep fields, we’re not going to do that because we want to finish this article before the race starts. Instead, we’ll give you the race details below and hit on a few key observations about the race.
What: 2018 RAK Half Marathon
When: The women’s race begins at 9:45 p.m. ET on Thursday, followed by the men’s start at 10:00 p.m. ET (Friday morning UAE time)
Where: Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates
How to watch: You can watch a free live stream of the race embedded on LetsRun.com here
Men’s elite field
|Jorum Lumbasi Okombo||Kenya||58:48|
Women’s elite field
|Joan Chelimo Melly||Kenya||66:25|
|Helen Bekele Tola||Ethiopia||69:48|
The women’s half marathon has gone mad since last year’s race
Here’s what the all-time women’s half marathon list* looked like exactly one year ago on February 7, 2017:
- 65:09 Florence Kiplagat (2015)
- 65:50 Mary Keitany (2011)
- 65:51 Violah Jepchumba (2016)
- 66:04 Cynthia Limo (2016)
- 66:07 Gladys Cherono (2016)
- 66:09 Lucy Kabuu (2013)
- 66:11 Priscah Jeptoo (2013)
- 66:14 Worknesh Degefa (2016)
- 66:19 Joyce Chepkirui (2014)
- 66:25 Lornah Kiplagat (2007)
Here’s what the all-time women’s half marathon list* looks like today:
- 64:51 Joyciline Jepkosgei (2017)
- 65:06 Peres Jepchirchir (2017)
- 65:09 Florence Kiplagat (2015)
- 65:13 Mary Keitany (2017)
- 65:22 Violah Jepchumba (2017)
- 65:36 Fancy Chemutai (2017)
- 65:52 Edith Chelimo (2017)
- 66:04 Cynthia Limo (2016)
- 66:07 Gladys Cherono (2016)
- 66:09 Lucy Kabuu (2013)
*We’re counting record-eligible courses only, so that means no Great North Run
So if you’re scoring at home, Mary Keitany and Violah Jepchumba improved their PRs by a combined 66 seconds and moved a combined four spots down the all-time performer’s list. Six of the seven fastest women in history ran their PRs last year and the world record was broken a total of three times, the first of which came at this race last year when Peres Jepchirchir clocked 65:06, followed by Keitany seven seconds later in 65:13. The record didn’t last long, however, with Joyciline Jepkosgei running 64:52 in Prague seven weeks later before shaving one additional second off with her 64:51 in Valencia in October. Jepchirchir’s 65:06 at RAK, which was a world record when she ran it, only ended up as the #3 performance of 2017.
But the chaos in the half marathon extended far beyond the three world records; with more and more women running the event seriously, the HM was deeper than ever in 2017, with four women joining the sub-66 club — more than doubling its membership. Four of the sub-66 club’s seven members will be on the start line at RAK: Jepkosgei, Keitany, Chemutai, and Chelimo.
Expect this year’s race to be fast once again. To defeat a field of this quality, it will take a massive effort, and given how many studs are running, plus the $100,000 world record bonus (it’s actually 365,000 AED, which currently converts to $99,374) chances are at least one of them will want to take it out hard, causing the rest to follow.
Jepkosgei was only third here last year but since then she’s been on a historic tear and has to be considered the favorite in this year’s race. How’s this for a stat: in her last four road races, Jepkosgei has set seven world records/world bests. She set the 10k, 15k, 20k, and half marathon records in Prague in April, won the Gifu Half Marathon three weeks later in Japan, broke the 10k world record again at the Birell 10K in Prague in September (and nabbed the 5k world best en route), and ended her season by breaking the HM record again in Valencia in October.
Jepkosgei has raced once already this year, taking second at the Kenya Defence Forces XC Champs in Nairobi on January 12, and though she was second in that race, the result doesn’t concern us for two reasons: 1) The winner of that race was 5,000m world champ Hellen Obiri; 2) Jepkosgei was only 17th at the Kenyan XC Champs last year before embarking on her historic season on the roads.
At 36, Keitany is 12 years older than Jepkosgei, but the diminutive Keitany, one of the greatest road racers in history, is still a threat to win any race she enters. Remember, when she finished second at RAK last year, it was her first half marathon defeat in almost 10 years and she still ran 65:13; it took a world record to beat her. Keitany has also said that she wants to attack Paula Radcliffe‘s 2:15:25 marathon world record in London in April, and history has shown that a good run at RAK has been a strong indicator of Keitany’s spring marathon result. In 2011, Keitany ran a world record of 65:50 at RAK and ran 2:19:19 to win London two months later. In 2012, Keitany again won RAK (this time in 66:49) before going on to win London again in 2:18:37. Last year, Keitany ran her fastest half marathon ever at RAK and two months later ran her fastest marathon ever in London.
Since Keitany has openly stated her goal of running a WR in London, we’re assuming she’s pretty fit right now, and as a result, we expect her to be in similar shape to last year. And if Keitany can surpass her performance at the 2017 RAK Half, it will be a good sign for her world record chances two months from now.
Can anyone defeat Jepkosgei and Keitany?
Defeating both Jepkosgei and Keitany in a half marathon is a Herculean task, but with the depth in this race, we can’t cede the title to one of those two women just yet. Like Jepkosgei, 23-year-old Fancy Chemutai rose from obscurity to become one of the world’s best in 2017. She began the year with only one result to her name in the Tilastopaja database (a 32:21 10k road race in Kenya in 2016), but ran 66:58 in her debut half in Prague (for context, that’s 27 seconds faster than the American record), won the Gothenburg Half in May, and finished second to Jepkosgei in her last two races, clocking 30:06 in the Birell 10K and 65:36 at the Valencia Half. The latter performance put her sixth on the all-time HM list; the former put her third on the all-time 10K list. If her fitness has progressed in the ensuing four months, she’ll challenge for the win on Friday.
Edith Chelimo is another woman who broke 66 in the half last year, but considering she was only fifth at the Houston Half Marathon last month, she’s unlikely to win here. Her breakthrough last year was far more surprising than either Jepkosgei or Chemutai’s; when she turned 30 years old in July 2016, Chelimo had never broken 70:00 in 11 career half marathons. Since then, she’s lowered her PR by almost five minutes.
We’ll also be keeping a close eye on two women who posted big marathon wins last fall. Gladys Cherono ran her HM pb of 66:07 to take second at RAK two years ago and won the Berlin Marathon in September in 2:20:23. Brigid Kosgei won half marathons in Verbania and Bogota last year and set her PR of 66:35 in Copenhagen in September, but was even more impressive in the marathon, running 2:20:22 for second in Chicago behind the legendary Tirunesh Dibaba and returning two months later to win Honolulu in a five-minute course record of 2:22:15.
Finally, Caroline Kipkirui is coming off a three-minute PR of 66:48 for second in Houston in January, though the competition at RAK represents a step up from Houston.
Who wins the men’s race?
Compared to the women’s race, the men’s race at RAK is wide open. The most credentialed guy in the field is 27-year-old Bedan Karoki of Kenya, who pulled away with just over a mile to go to win last year’s race in a PR of 59:10. Karoki went on to finish second at the Kenyan XC champs a week later before taking third in the London Marathon and fourth at Worlds in the 10,000 in a PR of 26:52. 13.1 miles may be his sweet spot as he’s also the reigning silver medalist at the World Half Marathon Champs. He’ll be using this as a tuneup race before running the London Marathon in April.
Karoki is the favorite not just due to his ability but his consistency: he’s been one of the planet’s best from 10,000m to the half marathon ever since he burst onto the scene by winning the Payton Jordan 10,000 in 2011. That stands in stark contrast to the rest of the field at RAK. Scanning through the elite field bios in the race media guide, there are a ton of fast PRs, but many of them are accompanied by phrases such as these…”enormous young talent who emerged from nowhere in late 2017″…”unheard of prior to 2016″…”unheard of prior to 2015.”
Let’s play a game.
Below, we’ve listed five names. Without scrolling back up and checking the entries, please tell us which of these guys are sub-59:30 half marathoners.
And the answer is…
Okombo (58:48), Wangari (59:07), and Tanui (59:22) are racing RAK on Friday. We made up the other two names. The depth in Kenya is simply astounding. Those three guys have run significantly faster in the half marathon than any American, ever, yet they’re barely recognizable. But if one of them can win RAK — ideally in another fast time — that will help them to go from Who’s that? to Oh, that guy.
Given that Okombo has a PR 19 seconds faster than anyone else in the field (and the #8 PR ever), he’s a serious challenger to Karoki, though he was only fifth in his last half marathon in New Delhi in November (he still ran 59:58). But looking through the rest of the very talented field, it’s hard to find anyone else who stands out from the pack. Six of the eight fastest entrants all set PRs last year, but most of them also had some less-than-stellar results as well. Predicting which one of them is in the best shape right now is like throwing darts.
Before we finish, we’ll note a few more guys that you should have heard of. Augustine Choge is one of the most versatile runners in history, having run 1:44 for 800 and 59:26 for the half marathon at RAK last year; he’s back for more in 2018 after finishing seventh at the Kenyan Police XC Champs on January 13. Ethiopia’s Lelisa Desisa (59:30 pb) has raced just one half marathon since 2014, but it went well (he won Houston in 2016) and he has a tremendous marathon pedigree with wins in Dubai and Boston (x2). He’ll be back in Boston going for a third title in April. Eritrea’s Ghirmay Ghebreslassie (60:10 pb) has likewise shifted to focus primarily on the marathon (he’s run just two halves since 2014), and the 2015 world champ/2016 NYC champ will be using this race as part of his preparations for the London Marathon in two months’ time. There’s also one notable guy making his debut: Ethiopia’s Jemal Yimer, who ran 26:56 last year to take fifth at Worlds.
Big-time money and perfect time of the year = incredible fields
If you are wondering why the fields are so insanely good, we think the reason is two-fold:
1) It’s a perfect time of year for a big half. Someone can still run this and have plenty of time to get in a huge block of marathon training for Boston (9.5 weeks from now) or London (10.5 weeks from now.
2) The prize money is quite large.
Last year, RAK was the richest half-marathon in the world, paying out 712,250 AED in prize money which is $193,917.18 US dollars. Now more than half of that prize purse was for RAK event (18,000) and world record (365,000) bonuses for Jepchirchir.
Barring double world records, the RAK Half will probably be the third-richest half of 2018. The Aramco Houston Half Marathon is almost certainly going to be #1 as Houston paid out a crazy $218,000 in prize money and time bonuses this year. The time bonuses in Houston were insane. Jordan Hasay made $10,500 even though she was just 8th in the race as she got $10,000 for breaking 69:00.
The AirTel Delhi Half in November will likely be #2 as last year they paid out $120,315 in prize money but $31,315 of that was limited to Indian runners.
Joyciline Jepkosgei was our 2017 Runner of the Year and no one has proved capable of stopping her on the roads since she began her hot streak a year ago. We’re picking her for the win. On the men’s side, in a field of uncertainty, we’d normally pick the most consistent runner — Bedan Karoki — to defend his title but don’t like his chances at all as he just ran the Fukuoka Marathon in December. If he took 2-3 weeks off after that, he’ll barely have run since then. Okombo, just 20, is the fastest guy in the field but he’s never won a half marathon. We’re very excited to see Desisa back racing at 13.1 where he’s got a very high win rate. He’s won 7 of his last 8 races at 13.1 according to Tilastopaja.org, so he’s our pick.