By Jonathan Gault
March 21, 2018
The more he races, the more it becomes clear: fans of running are very lucky to be living in the age of Geoffrey Kamworor. Do you like cross country? Kamworor has won the last two World Cross Country titles. Do you like the track? Kamworor is one of the world’s best on that surface as well. In 2015, he earned 10,000 silver at the Worlds in Beijing. Last year, in his only 5,000 of the year, he ran 13:01 at the Pre Classic, finishing ahead of studs (and future London 2017 medalists) Joshua Cheptegei, Paul Chelimo, and Paul Tanui. Do you like road running? Well the roads are Kamworor’s passion and Kamworor has won the last two World Half Marathon Championships, owns a PR of 58:54 for the distance, and last fall defeated star Wilson Kipsang to win the New York City Marathon. The 25-year-old Kamworor can do it all.
It’s not just what he wins, however. It’s how he runs. Though Kamworor has shown a fierce kick — he won NYC last fall by unleashing a 4:31 25th mile — his greatest triumphs have come by setting an unrelenting pace from the front. In his first World XC victory, on a twisting, undulating course in China, Kamworor hammered from the gun and, together with compatriot Bedan Karoki, burned off the rest of the field. Five months later, he took it to Mo Farah on the track at the World Championships in Beijing, and though he ultimately came up short of the gold, he took it to the greatest distance runner in the world and made him work harder than he had for any title to that point.
But Kamworor’s finest hour came at the World Half Marathon Championships two years ago. While LetsRun.com praised Kamworor when it happened, the more time passes, the more it becomes clear that Kamworor’s performance that day in Cardiff was one of the most epic in the history of distance running. In case you forgot, this is how that race started for Kamworor:
— LetsRun.com (@letsrundotcom) March 26, 2016
Steve Cram, commentating on the race for the BBC, felt that Kamworor’s chances of winning at that point were essentially zero.
“It’s a shame for the race as well,” Cram said. “You know we build this up. People around the world were really looking forward to Kamworor against his teammate Karoki and Mo Farah.”
But Kamworor was not going to let a fall stop him. Despite being on the ground for seven seconds, Kamworor was at the front of the pack 90 seconds later. To do that, he had to run around 4:00 mile pace (the leaders were going 4:32 pace), and he had to do it while weaving around the mass of bodies in front of him. Despite the fall, and despite a foul day in Wales that forced him to run into cold sheets of rain, he won the race in 59:10. He beat third-placer Farah, one of the sport’s all-time legends, by 49 seconds, and runner-up Karoki, who entered the race 4-for-4 in half marathons, by 26. And those 26 seconds all came in the final mile, Kamworor putting the hammer down on his teammate after they had already succeeded in dropping the rest of the field. Eliminate the fall, and give Kamworor better conditions in which to run, and it’s not hard to imagine him threatening Zersenay Tadese‘s 58:23 world record on that day.
Two years have passed since Kamworor’s legendary run, and on Saturday he will take to the streets of Valencia, Spain, in pursuit of his third straight IAAF World Half Marathon title. Should he succeed, he’d join Tadese as the only man to win this race three times. Altogether, Tadese has five titles, and though Kamworor may never match that number, Tadese had more opportunities as the race shifted to an every-other-year format in 2010.
Let’s take a look at this year’s race in detail and see whether Kamworor can pull off the three-peat in Valencia.
What: 2018 IAAF / Trinidad Alfonso World Half Marathon Championships
When: Saturday, Women’s race is at 12:05 pm ET, men’s race is at 12:30 pm ET
One interesting wrinkle about this race is that it will be held in the evening (5:30 p.m. local start time for the men, 12:30 pm ET) so it will be great and easy for local spectators to watch. It also will make it very easy for American viewers to watch on. Usually it’s a pain for U.S. viewers to get up for European road races, but the late start means that even West Coasters shouldn’t have a problem watching it.
Weather: Temperature-wise, things look great as the high on Saturday is only 63 degrees F in Valencia but the forecast is for 20-30 mph winds early in the day. They are supposed to die down later in the day but it will be interesting to see if that means before race time.
Is Geoffrey Kamworor still the favorite?
Kamworor was incredible in Cardiff, but that was a long time ago. At the start of March 2016, Paul Chelimo was still a total unknown, Galen Rupp had just made his marathon debut and Hillary Clinton was the favorite to become President of the United States. A lot has changed.
Fortunately for Kamworor, one thing hasn’t changed: he is still very, very good at running.
After winning the World Half in 2016, a lung infection slowed Kamworor during the second half of the year (he was only 11th in the 10,000 at the Olympics and did not run a fall marathon) but he returned to top form in 2017, winning World XC again in March, running 26:57 to finish 6th at Worlds in the 10,000 in August, and winning the NYC Marathon in November. And his early results in 2018 suggest that he may be ahead of where he was last year. In 2017, recovery from his lung infection the previous year caused him to get a late jump on his winter training, and he only finished 3rd at the Kenyan XC Champs in February. This year, however, Kamworor was able to win his fifth Kenyan Police XC Champs title in six years on January 13. A month later, he added the Kenyan national XC title. Those were the same two races Kamworor won heading into the World Half two years ago.
So, to answer our question. Given his past results at these championships, his incredible 2017 season, and his success so far in 2018, the answer is yes: Kamworor has to be regarded as the favorite on Saturday. Now let’s take a look at the men who could beat him.
The King of Valencia
While Kamworor’s repeated victories on the global stage make him the LetsRun.com favorite in Valencia, you can make a very compelling case that the man to beat is actually Kenyan-born Abraham Cheroben of Bahrain. Because Cheroben hasn’t won a world title or a major marathon, he lacks the name recognition of Kamworor, but he might be an even better half marathoner.
Cheroben, 25, broke out in 2014 when he ran 58:48 in Valencia, tying him for 7th on the all-time half marathon list (record-eligible courses). Since then, only one man has run faster in a record-eligible half marathon: Cheroben himself, who clocked 58:40 (the fourth-fastest time ever) in Copenhagen in September 2017. That makes Cheroben and world record holder Tadese the only men in history with two times among the world’s all-time top 10.
Another reason to like Cheroben is that he’s had a lot of success in Valencia in the past as he won the Valencia Half Marathon in 2014, 2015, and 2017. Though the World Half course, which hugs the Turia Gardens, a large urban park that runs along the site of a former riverbed, is not the same as the Valencia HM course (Valencia HM course here, World Half course here), it is in the same part of town and shares one key characteristic with the regular Valencia course: it should be very fast. Cheroben’s three winning times in Valencia were 58:48, 59:10, and 59:11, and Joyciline Jepkosgei set the women’s world record of 64:51 there last year.
In fact, the World Half course should be even faster than the regular course. Race organizers are calling it the “fastest course ever seen in Valencia,” and there is very little elevation change, as seen in the chart below.
If you want to visualize the course (and get a tour of Valencia in the process), check out this cool video:
Cheroben has the fastest PR in the field and is used to running fast to win his races; if this race turns into a time-trial-style affair, that may favor Cheroben.
The knock on Cheroben is that his international championship experience is not particularly impressive: he’s raced three global championships and never finished higher than 10th.
Abraham Cheroben at global championships
2016 Olympics: 10th, 10,000 meters
2017 World XC: DNF
2017 Worlds: 12th, 10,000 meters
We should point out that while he beat Kamworor in Rio (though Kamworor was not 100%), Kamworor crushed him in their last two encounters: Kamworor won 2017 World XC while Cheroben DNF’d; on the track five months later, Kamworor beat him by over 10 seconds in London. Though Cheroben has won his last two half marathons, he’s raced just once in the last five months, taking fourth in a New Year’s Eve race in Austria where he clocked 19:13 for 6.8 kilometers (4:32 mile pace).
The Other Kenyans
Of the 19 men to have broken 59:00 for the half marathon (all courses), 15 hail from Kenya. Three of those men will be suiting up for Kenya this weekend. Here’s how strong Kenya is: even though reigning silver medalist Bedan Karoki, who ran 58:42 to win the RAK Half last month, had to scratch from this race with a hamstring injury, they were able to replace him with another sub-59:00 guy in Alex Oloitiptip. Oloitiptip would be the U.S.’s top guy by a mile — his 58:51 pb is almost a minute faster than Ryan Hall‘s American record (okay, so he’d actually have beaten Hall by about 300 meters). In Kenya, he’s a backup. Heck, Geoffrey Kamworor is only the third-fastest guy on his own team, behind Oloitiptip and Jorum Okombo (58:48).
All of which is to say that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see any of the Kenyans contend for the win in Valencia. Barselius Kipyego (who ran a PR of 59:14 to win the Usti Nad Labem Half Marathon last year) and Leonard Barsoton (World XC silver in ’17, 59:28 in Copenhagen last fall) round out the squad.
The Young Ethiopian Hopes
Ethiopia put four men in the top 11 two years ago in Cardiff, but their five-man squad for Valencia 2018 is entirely different. One could argue the leader of the Ethiopian team may be a guy with just a 60:34 pb, Getaneh Molla. Molla has some international experience (18th at World XC last year), and though his 60:34 pb is incredibly modest compared to the top men in this field, he beat Team Kenya’s two fastest guys, Oloitiptip and Okombo, as well as 2:03 marathoner Guye Adola to win the $266,650 first prize (SAR 1,000,000) at the Riyadh Half Marathon a month ago (as we highlighted in the Week That Was) so we know he’s in good form. He could make some noise on Saturday.
There are two other Ethiopians, however, with much better credentials in terms of time, who really intrigue me. Both of them come into Worlds off of big debuts earlier this year — one at the 26.2-mile distance and one at the 13.1-mile distance. Leul Gebresilase ran 2:04:02 in Dubai two months ago, the second-fastest debut marathon ever on a record-eligible course. He’s also got experience in Valencia as he ran 59:18 to place second at the Valencia HM last fall, just seven seconds behind Abraham Cheroben. Jemal Yimer, on the other hand, is also running and he may be the best-suited of all of Ethiopians to the half marathon distance as his 59:00 second-place at the RAK Half last month was the fastest half marathon debut in history, and he has put up some impressive performances at World XC (4th) and Outdoor Worlds (5th in the 10,000, ahead of Kamworor) in 2017. If only one Ethiopian medals in Valencia, he’s my pick.
The Ethiopian squad is rounded out by two teenagers, Jiksa Tolosa and Getesfa Betahun, neither of whom have ever broken 62:00.
Other Names to Watch
- Aron Kifle, Eritrea (61:08 pb): An Eritrean has medalled in eight of the last nine editions of this race (granted, six of those medals belong to the same guy, Zersenay Tadese). The 20-year-old Kifle, who was the World U20 silver medalist at 10,000 meters in 2016, is Eritrea’s best bet for a medal this time around. Last year, he finished 5th at World XC and went on to place 7th (in the 5,000) and 11th (in the 10,000) at Worlds on the track. This will be just his second half marathon, though his first was impressive — he ran 61:08 in his debut at the Eritrean Champs last month, and though the time won’t turn heads, the conditions were warm and humid and Kifle beat the runner-up (60:10 man Amanuel Mesel) by 2:26.
- Julien Wanders, Switzerland (60:09 pb): The 22-year-old Wanders burst onto the scene in February by running 60:09 in Barcelona, a PR of 1:34. Like the Robertson brothers and Norway’s Sondre Nordstad Moen, Wanders has spent a significant amount of time training in Kenya over the past few years. This race will be his first senior World Championship; his most recent global competition came in the junior race at World XC in 2015, where he finished 36th. For more on Wanders, you can check out a cool video on his life in Kenya here.
- Albert Rop, Bahrain (debut): Rop, who owns a 12:51 5,000 pb, has, as far as I can tell, only run one road race in his life, a 6.8k race in Austria in 2013. Heck, he’s never even run a 10,000 on the track. But he’s listed in the entries and he’s easily the fastest 5,000 guy in the field, so he at least merits a mention here.
Only one America, male or female, has ever medalled at these championships: Dathan Ritzenhein earned bronze in 2009, following a year in which he finished 6th in the 10,000 at Worlds and broke the American record at 5,000 meters (the World Half was contested in the fall back then). Here’s who is running for the US this year:
|Sam Chelanga||33||60:37||His 60:37 for 6th in Houston in Jan. was a PR by 27 secs|
Debuted with a 60:51 in Houston in 2015 but hasn’t approached that since. 61:46 for 14th in Houston in Jan.
|Bernard Lagat||43||62:00||Track legend PR’d in Houston in Jan. to make the team|
|Jared Ward||29||61:42||Has struggled a bit since his huge 2016 but his 62:10 in Houston was a solid effort|
|Leonard Korir||31||59:52||His 59:52 in New Delhi last year made him #2 U.S. A-T; undefeated in ’18|
First of all, can I say how it is amazing that Bernard Lagat is still making U.S. teams? Lagat earned the bronze medal in the 1500 at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and now, over 17 years later, he’s still competing at the sport’s highest level. Meb was 40 when he made his last Olympic team, and Lagat is three years older than that (though the World Half team is obviously easier to make than the Olympic team). It’s truly incredible, and very cool that Lagat is still setting PRs this late in his career.
Lagat won’t contend for the win in Valencia, but he could give Haile Gebrselassie‘s masters’ world record of 61:09 a scare. Fifty-one seconds is a lot to cut off, but remember, Lagat went out hard chasing Geb’s record in his last race in Houston — he hit 10k in 28:43 (60:35 pace) — before fading late. Lagat fans will definitely want to tune into this race as it will almost certainly be the last time he dons a U.S. singlet in international competition. Below is an interview LetsRun.com conducted with Lagat about the half marathon when we saw him at Millrose in February.
As for the rest of Team USA, three of the other four guys raced alongside Lagat in Houston two months ago, with Sam Chelanga finishing tops among them in 60:37. That’s a good time for Chelanga, but it won’t sniff a medal at Worlds this weekend.
To be honest, the World Half is so loaded — remember Kenya and Ethiopia get to enter five people each, not just three like at global championships on the track — that there’s only one active American that I think who would have a greater than 10% chance of medalling in this race, and he’s not running in Valencia (Galen Rupp). But of the guys who are running, the guy with the best chance to do something in Valencia for Team USA is Leonard Korir. Korir had a great year at 13.1 last year as he won the Houston Half in January, won the U.S. Half Champs in April, and ran 59:52 in New Delhi in November, the second-fastest time ever by an American (record-eligible courses). He’s continued to roll in 2018, winning the Great Edinburgh XCountry in January, defeating Rupp to win USA XC in February, and, most recently, winning the U.S. 15K champs in Jacksonville two weeks ago, where he beat training partner Chelanga by nine seconds.
Now before you freak out and say that sounds like a medal contender’s resume, let’s pump the brakes a little. Korir entered World XC on a similarly hot streak last year (wins at Great Edinburgh, Houston Half, USA XC, and the USA 15K) but could only manage 20th. Yes, maybe he would have finished higher if he hadn’t gone out with the leaders, but it’s one thing to be the best in the U.S., and a whole other thing to be one of the very best in the world as the step up in competition at the world stage is sharp. Korir’s 59:52 was amazing by American standards, but Kenya has two guys on its team who have run over a minute faster than that (granted, Korir did beat one of them in New Delhi).
A medal on Saturday would require Korir to run the race of his life, but if he runs well, top 10 is definitely achievable. And top 10 would be a fine finish. No American man has done that since Ritz’s medal in 2009 (the best result since then was 15th by Augustus Maiyo in 2012).
LRC prediction: We’re very excited for this race. Can Geoffrey Kamworor add yet another gold medal to his collection? Or will Abraham Cheroben, who has run incredibly fast but never done anything internationally, back up his performances by winning in Valencia? Both guys also love to run fast, and with a fast, flat course, there’s a chance that one of them (or perhaps one of the other sub-59/low-59 guys in the field) could challenge Tadese’s 58:23 WR. Remember, two years ago Kamworor said he wanted to break the WR during the race but the fall and poor conditions derailed him. As of Monday, the forecast doesn’t look good for race day (rain and 19 mph winds) but that could change in the next few days.
Kamworor has come through too many times on the championship stage, so he’s our pick for the win.
Talk about the 2018 IAAF World Half Marathon champs on our world famous messageboard. MB: Official 2018 IAAF World Half Marathon Champs Discussion Thread.
More: Women’s Preview: Kenyans Joyciline Jepkosgei & Fancy Chemutai Set to Duke It Out As Jordan Hasay Leads Team USA The two fastest women in history are expected to put on a terrific battle for gold. Behind them, could Jordan Hasay break the American record or sneak a medal?