2019 Pre Classic Women’s Distance Preview: USA vs the World in the Steeple, Semenya (and Kipyegon & Houlihan & Ayana) Returns
By Jonathan Gault
June 27, 2019
It’s coming to us a little later than usual, and it’s being held outside Hayward Field (RIP) for the first time ever, but the best part of the Prefontaine Classic has always been the stacked races. And that’s not changing in 2019. As always, meet director Tom Jordan has assembled stellar fields up and down the schedule for Sunday’s Prefontaine Classic, the IAAF Diamond League track and field meeting that will be held this year at the Cobb Track and Angell Field at Stanford University while a new track is built in Eugene, Oregon.
The fields are so good, in fact, that one preview isn’t enough to talk about them all. We’ve broken our distance previews into separate men’s and women’s articles (you can read the men’s article here), and we have another story coming that takes a look at the major storylines across the entire meet, including the Sha’Carri Richardson vs. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce showdown in the women’s 100 plus young US sprint stars Michael Norman and Christian Coleman in the 400 and 100, respectively.
And starting Friday, we’ll have boots-on-the-ground coverage from Stanford (it still seems weird not to be going to Eugene this year), where we’ll have updates from the press conference on Saturday and on-site analysis and interviews from all the top races on Sunday. It’s going to be an epic weekend.
The women’s distance races are especially epic. Seriously, we can’t remember a year when the races were so full of talent and storylines. Olympic/world champ Faith Kipyegon racing for the first time in two years in a 1500 against Shelby Houlihan (making her outdoor debut) and Laura Muir? Caster Semenya running her first 800 since the Swiss Federal Tribunal suspended the IAAF’s DSD rules (again)? Americans Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs taking on the world’s best in the steeplechase? And how about one of the best 3,000 fields ever assembled, with Genzebe Dibaba, Hellen Obiri, Sifan Hassan, and 10k world record holder Almaz Ayana, racing for the first time since 2017?
Grab some chips and dip, stock the beer fridge, and settle in for two hours of drama on Sunday afternoon: this is going to be good.
What: 2019 Prefontaine Classic
Where: Cobb Track and Angell Field, Stanford, California
When: Sunday June 30, 2019
Women’s steeplechase (4:11 p.m. ET): America’s best takes on the world
We’re in year 10 of the Diamond League, and during that span, only once has an American woman won a DL steeple: Emma Coburn‘s shock 2014 victory in Shanghai, which spurred the women’s steeple revolution in the US.
If the US is going to add to that tally, Sunday’s race at the Pre Classic is one of the best chances they’re going to get. Okay, technically the best way to get a win would be to hope for a watered-down field without Beatrice Chepkoech, Norah Jeruto, etc. But against a legit, Diamond League-quality field — and that’s definitely what we’ve got here, as six of the eight fastest women of all time are entered — things are set up as well as you could hope for the US.
For one, all the top Americans are running: Courtney Frerichs, Emma Coburn, and Colleen Quigley, who rank 1-2-3 on the US all-time list. Plus three-time NCAA steeple champ Allie Ostrander of Boise State and Mel Lawrence, last year’s USA 3rd placer coming off a 9:29 PR in Oslo. We already know that Coburn and Frerichs, the reigning gold and silver medalists at Worlds, can compete with the world’s best. But Quigley has the potential to do so as well — if she can stay healthy. Remember, this is a woman who beat Shelby Houlihan to win the USA indoor mile title this year and ran 9:10 last year despite missing a chunk of the season due to injury.
The other advantage the Americans have is that they’ll be running on home soil. You can decide for yourself exactly how much that’s worth, but a quick flight to California from Utah or Colorado is certainly a much easier trip than one from Kenya or Europe.
Frerichs and Quigley, per Bowerman TC tradition, have not raced steeples yet this year, but Coburn has, clocking 9:08 in Oslo on June 13. After that race, Coburn said she expected to run faster. If she can manage that at Stanford, she’ll be in PR range (9:02) and potentially battling for the win.
Of course there are non-Americans running here too. Norah Jeruto upset world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech last time out in Oslo, ending her win streak at seven. Chepkoech’s 8:44 PR remains leaps and bounds beyond what anyone else in world history has run, so the question is whether she can get back to that level, or if we’re going to continue seeing winning times right around 9:00. If it’s the latter, the Americans (and everyone else) has a chance. But if Chepkoech herself starts to improve and approach last year’s form and goes well under 9:00, it’s game over.
LRC prediction: With a fast track and a fast field, and cool temps 72 degree temps, the potential for incredible times is there. We think Chepkoech gets back on track with a W and picks up the first sub-9:00 of 2019 in the process.
Women’s 800 (4:47 p.m. ET): Semenya returns
|Caster Semenya||South Africa||1:54.25||1:54.98|
Obviously the major storyline here is that Caster Semenya, initially slated to run the 3,000, is instead running the 800 — her first since the Swiss Federal Tribunal temporarily suspended the IAAF’s DSD guidelines. During Semenya’s two-race absence — she missed Stockholm and Rabat — the 800 slowed down, as expected, with winning times of 2:00 and 1:59.
Now that Semenya is back — and it’s not exactly clear for how long, but it could be the remainder of the season — expect the event to revert to what it has looked like for the last four years. If Semenya is entered in a race, she will win. Back in May, she crushed everyone in Doha, running 1:54 in a race where the first non-XY runner (Ajee’ Wilson) could only manage 1:58. We see no reason why that will change at Stanford.
LRC prediction: Wilson, who won in Stockholm, seems like the obvious pick for second. But as usual when Semenya is in the field, the only interesting question is how fast will she run; the outcome has already been decided.
Women’s 3,000 (5:05 p.m. ET): Ayana returns to face Obiri, Dibaba, & Hassan
|Dominique Scott||South Africa||8:41.33|
|Laura Weightman||Great Britain||9:02.62|
From a pure talent perspective, this is the race of the day in the distances. You’ve got the world champion at 5,000 meters and cross country, Hellen Obiri, the world record holder at 1500 meters, Genzebe Dibaba, another woman who just ran 3:55, Sifan Hassan, and to top it all off, the first race since 2017 for the world record holder/world and Olympic champion at 10,000, Almaz Ayana.
Picking a winner here is tough. Ayana’s pb (8:22) says she can win this race, but she doesn’t have the wheels of the other three in this field and hasn’t raced on a track in almost two years. We don’t trust her against this caliber of competition.
Obiri, Dibaba, and Hassan should all be in the thick of it, however. Obiri was on a roll at the start of the year and beat Dibaba over 3k at the DL opener in Doha, but struggled her last time out, finishing 12th in the 5k in Stockholm after a fall. Dibaba, meanwhile, has looked her best since her world record year of 2015, ripping off a 3:56 win in Rome and a 3:55 win in Rabat. Historically, she’s been exceptional at the 3k, with three straight World Indoor titles at that distance and the indoor WR (8:16) — the fastest non-Chinese time ever, indoors or out (though there are questions about Dibaba’s time too). And then there’s Hassan, who ran Dibaba close in Rabat — she may have won had she not attempted a foolish pass on the final turn — and who would seem to have an edge at 3k considering she’s supposedly aiming for the 5k/10k at Worlds this year.
Americans Shannon Osika, Rachel Schneider, and Karissa Schweizer are entered, as is NCAA champ Weini Kelati, but they look to be overwhelmed against this stacked field.
LRC prediction: Hassan was very close to Dibaba in Rabat, and at double the distance, we give her the slight edge. Hassan FTW. No non-Chinese woman has ever broken 8:20 outdoors, but if the field gets after it early (and the wind cooperates), that could change on Sunday. That’s how loaded it is up front.
Women’s 1500 (5:31 p.m. ET): Kipyegon & Houlihan’s returns highlight a fascinating field
|Laura Muir||Great Britain||3:55.22||3:56.73|
Thanks in large part to the super-deep Rabat race from two weeks ago, 2019 is becoming a banner year for the women’s 1500. The year isn’t even halfway done and we’ve already seen eight women break 4:00, just one shy of the total from all of 2018. It wouldn’t be a shock to see that number balloon into the double digits on Sunday, as two high-profile stars are returning to action. Plus don’t forget about Canada’s Gabriela DeBues-Stafford has run 4:00 this year; could she become the first Canadian woman to break 4:00 and take down Lynn Williams‘ 34-year-old national record of 4:00.27?
So about those two returning stars…how about we start with Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon? Remember her? In case you forgot, she’s only the reigning world and Olympic champion. In addition to those crowns, Kipyegon racked up five DL victories across 2016 and 2017, with wins at Pre in 2016 and 2017. In 2017, her last year before giving birth (her daughter Alyn celebrated her first birthday this week), Kipyegon was nearly unbeatable, losing just once on the track (and she ran 3:57 in that race). Kipyegon is still only 25 years old, and we’ve seen plenty of Kenyans return from childbirth to do big things in the sport (Vivian Cheruiyot, Hellen Obiri, and Mary Keitany, to name but a few). The question is, will we see vintage Kipyegon in 2019, or will we have to wait until 2020?
Shelby Houlihan is returning from a foot injury, not childbirth, and she has already raced three times this year. The last of those was on February 24 at USA Indoors, where she won the 2-mile a day after Bowerman teammate Colleen Quigley upset her in the mile. Houlihan’s win at Pre last year served as a coming-out party for the new version of Houlihan capable of contending with the world’s best. This year, she won’t be catching anyone by surprise, but given she hasn’t raced in four months, who knows how sharp she will be right now? All we know is that, at her best, Houlihan can certainly win this race.
Other storylines we’ll be monitoring:
- How fast can collegiate stars Jessica Hull of Oregon and Dani Jones of Colorado run against a field of pros? Ten years ago at Pre, Jenny Simpson became the first (and so far, only) US collegian to break 4:00. Can either Hull (who just turned pro) or Jones come close?
- Can Alexa Efraimson break her four-year-old PR? Efraimson ran 4:03.39 at Pre as a high school senior in 2015 and has never run faster. But after running 4:04 twice in a four-day span in May, could a PR be in the cards for the 22-year-old?
LRC prediction: The return of Kipyegon and Houlihan make for a fascinating race, but our money is on Laura Muir. Her PR (3:55) is faster than both of them, and she just ran 3:56 in Rome on June 6. Last year, Muir almost won this race despite just finishing up her final exams at vet school. Now she’s focused full-time on running and it’s showing.
Want more Pre analysis? We spent about 45 minutes talking about Pre on this week’s podcast. Check it out here.
Talk about Pre on our world famous messageboard / fan forum: MB: Pre Classic 2019 (6/30) – official discussion thread.