Paul Chelimo Pushes Back Against Recent IAAF Decisions & Explains Why He’s Making His Half Marathon Debut in New York This Weekend

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By Jonathan Gault
March 11, 2019

In the immediate aftermath of the 2017 IAAF World Championship 5,000-meter final in London, Yomif Kejelcha was not a happy man. He had finished .21 of a second out of the medals in 4th, the same place he had finished at the World Championships in Beijing two years earlier. Though he had won the World Indoor title over 3,000 meters in 2016, Kejelcha did not even make the Ethiopian Olympic team that summer. He was frustrated and nearing his breaking point.

“He said, ‘I will see you guys on the road races, I’m not doing track anymore,'” said Paul Chelimo, the American who beat Kejelcha out for the final medal in London.

Like many bold proclamations made in the heat of the moment, Kejelcha reconsidered, though he felt he still needed a change. Four months later, the news broke that Kejelcha had joined the Nike Oregon Project.

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In his debut season with NOP in 2018, Kejelcha successfully defended his World Indoor title and ran a big personal best of 12:46 for 5,000 in Brussels to move to #7 on the world all-time list. He has spent the first three months of 2019 launching an assault on the world record books, culminating with his blistering 3:47.01 mile world record in Boston on March 3.

Chelimo believes it’s not hard to tell why Kejelcha — a man who failed to medal in two tactical World Championship finals where the winning times were 13:50 and 13:32 — spent this winter focusing on the 1500 and mile.

“For Yomif, he doesn’t have that top-end speed,” Chelimo said. “He’s working on the top-end speed, which is his weakest point.”

In a way, Chelimo can relate. While Chelimo’s closing speed carried him to Olympic silver in 2016 and World Championship bronze in 2017, it didn’t help him in his biggest race last year, the Diamond League 5,000-meter final in Brussels. While Kejelcha was ripping off 60- and 61-second laps, propelling himself and countrymen Selemon Barega (1st, 12:43) and Hagos Gebrhiwet (2nd, 12:45) into the 12:40s, Chelimo was a straightaway behind, finishing 6th in 12:57. Though the time was a six-second PR for Chelimo, the race had exposed a weakness. Like Kejelcha, he resolved to do something about it this winter. But for Chelimo, that meant moving in the opposite direction: on Sunday he will run the United Airlines NYC Half, his first career race over 13.1 miles.

“It’s not like I didn’t have any speed, but just the turnover, the strength, I didn’t have that strength [in Brussels],” Chelimo said. “This year, I figured out it’s better to work more on strength. Now [Kejelcha]’s on the other side, working more on speed.”

The course, which runs from Prospect Park in Brooklyn to Central Park in Manhattan, is not especially fast; it features hills at the start and finish as well as the Manhattan Bridge. As a result, Chelimo said he does not have a time in mind and is simply trying to win the race, which includes 2016 Olympian Jared Ward, Canadian marathon record holder Cam Levins, and defending champion Ben True. Regardless of the outcome, Chelimo is hoping that the strength gains he has made logging 100-mile weeks this winter will pay dividends at the World Championships in Doha in October.

“I don’t want to go run really, really fast early in the season,” Chelimo said. “I just want to get strong.”

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When Chelimo was announced as part of the professional field in New York, he made waves by saying that he’d like to return to the Big Apple “in the near future” to make his debut over the full 26.2-mile distance. Today, while speaking on a conference call with reporters ahead of the NYC Half, Chelimo reiterated his desire to eventually move up in distance, but added that he does not want to rush into it and has no definitive timeline as of now.

Chelimo at 2016 World Indoors

Once I feel like I’ve accomplished enough on the track, that’s the time that I will think about moving to the marathon,” Chelimo said. “I feel like my future is in the marathon…I know I’m going to be a great marathoner. I respect the marathon a lot, I really respect it and I really, really want to take my time before I decide to do the marathon.”

One thing that could potentially accelerate Chelimo’s timeline is the IAAF’s announcement this morning that, as of next year, the 3,000 meters will be the longest distance contested at Diamond League meets.

“Based on how they changed it and they’re talking about 3ks in the Diamond League, maybe [the time to move up to the marathon] becomes pretty, pretty soon,” Chelimo said. “I don’t know how I’ll cope with that. It’s tough. I’ll just see how it goes, but if it doesn’t work for me, there’s the road races. Thank God there’s the road races. I don’t know what the future is. If they’re going to push everyone to the road races and, like two people do the track…”

Chelimo, never one to shy away from speaking his mind, was not pleased with the IAAF’s decision, pointing out that elite 10,000-meter races have been all but eradicated from the Diamond League circuit and top-level meets. Now the 5,000 seems destined for the same fate, and Chelimo is worried that it won’t stop there and the Diamond League eventually won’t feature any races longer than 1500 meters.

“It went down to the 5k and then now they’re going to the 3k,” Chelimo says. “The next thing you’re going to hear, the next distance event is only the 1500 going down.

“…I don’t know if they’re trying to kill distance running or what. It should be motivating people to get into, especially running as an event. Distance running is an event to help people socialize and [it’s] also big for the health of the people. When you’re trying to encourage sprints and short distance, technically it’s like you’re telling people: don’t stay healthy. It’s just tough.”

Chelimo’s criticism extended to the other big news to come out of the IAAF Council meeting in Doha this weekend: the new qualification system that will be implemented for the 2020 Olympic Games. Last night, Chelimo registered his disappointment on Twitter, saying track & field was “killing itself.”

Chelimo may not be exactly right here: though he did not run faster than the new Olympic standard in 2016 (his PR heading into the Olympics was 13:21), he likely would have been in position to earn an Olympic invitation from the IAAF by virtue of his world ranking (had the system been in place at the time), bolstered by strong runs at the USATF Indoors and the Olympic Trials. But that also presumes that USATF would have actually accepted the IAAF’s invitation; had it used the system it currently employs, where it does not wait for IAAF invitations (currently based on a global descending order list, rather than world ranking) for athletes without the standard, Chelimo could have been left out in the cold.

If you’re struggling to follow along, well, that illustrates Chelimo’s larger point: the new Olympic qualification system is confusing, particularly for up-and-coming athletes. When Chelimo entered the 2016 Olympic Trials, he had yet to reveal his true potential but had done enough to hit the Olympic standard (13:25.00, compared to 13:13.50 in 2020), allowing him to rely on the knowledge that a top-three finish would get him on the team to Rio. Next year, an athlete with the same credentials as 2016 Chelimo won’t enjoy the same certainty. The elegant finality that makes the US Olympic Trials the best track meet in North America every four years is under threat.

“We just have to respect and deal with it, but I am not a big fan of that,” Chelimo said. “The standards, it doesn’t really affect me that much, but it changes the whole thing, it just changes the perspective of the Olympic Trials. For example, it’s always motivating if you know you’ve run 13:20 and you know the standard, you have hit the standard going into the Trials. You’re going there motivated for top-three, you want to qualify automatically. Now it’s like you come in, it’s way more confusing, just talking about the rankings. And 13:13 for the standard is just mind-boggling, especially for upcoming athletes.”


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