2019 Zurich DL Final Preview: WR Potential in the 400 Hurdles, Coburn Chases Sub-9:00, Dibaba vs. Hassan, & So Long to the Men’s 5K
By Jonathan Gault
August 28, 2019
After a summer of racing, the 2019 Diamond League season crescendoes with two Diamond League finals, the first of which comes at the Weltklasse meet in Zurich on Thursday. Zurich is one of my favorite meets on the calendar, and the fact that it is the Diamond League final is exciting enough. But what’s even more exciting this year, for the first time in the 10-year history of the Diamond League, the finals will take place before Worlds. Which means that all 16 DL events will serve as de facto World Championship previews a month before the real thing goes down in Doha.
As you might expect from a meet that features $50,000 on the line for the win in each event, almost every field is loaded. There’s world record potential in both 400 hurdles races as Dalilah Muhammad squares off with Sydney McLaughlin and Rai Benjamin faces world champ Karsten Warholm for the first time. And even without Christian Coleman, the men’s 100 is compelling as world champ Justin Gatlin takes on 2018 US champ Noah Lyles.
Zurich will also feature the last men’s Diamond League 5,000 race — the IAAF is getting rid of the distance in DL meets beginning in 2020. The finale promises to be a good one, though, featuring nine sub-13:00 men, including Paul Chelimo, Yomif Kejelcha, Selemon Barega, and World XC champ Joshua Cheptegei. Last year’s final produced one of the fastest races in history. What does Zurich 2019 have in store?
Nijel Amos and Emmanuel Korir, the last two DL champs, lead the way in the 800 in a field that also includes Americans Donavan Brazier and Clayton Murphy. On the women’s side, there’s a battle of world record holders as Sifan Hassan faces Genzebe Dibaba in the 1500 (sadly, Laura Muir, Shelby Houlihan, and Faith Kipyegon are all absent), while Emma Coburn chases sub-9:00 in the steeple against WR holder Beatrice Chepkoech.
A preview of the top events below.
What: 2019 Weltklasse Zurich
Where: Letzigrund Stadium, Zurich, Switzerland
When: Thursday, August 29
*From the LRC archives: “I Love Pre, But This Meet Was Better”: A First-Timer’s Thoughts on Weltklasse Zurich
Men’s 800 (2:13 p.m. ET): Amos returns, Brazier races for first time since USAs
|Amel Tuka||Bosnia & Herzegovina||1:42.51||1:43.62|
The cutthroat nature of 800-meter rounds at global championships means that several of these guys will probably miss out on the World Championship final a month from now, but this race still offers a pretty good glimpse at the main contenders for gold in Doha. In particular, we’ll be watching Nijel Amos and Donavan Brazier. Both men have been mighty impressive in 2019, but neither has raced for a month.
Amos has had the more impressive season, with DL wins in Rabat and Monaco, the latter in 1:41.89 — the fastest clocking since the legendary 2012 Olympic final. But the last time we saw Amos, in London on July 20, he had to be helped off the track after pulling up lame. Heading into that race, he was the World Championship favorite. Will that still be the case after Zurich?
Brazier, meanwhile, has raced somewhat sparingly — at least compared to his Oregon Project teammate Clayton Murphy. After earning his first career DL win in Rome — taking down Amos in the process — Brazier ran a 1500 pb of 3:37 in Azusa and won USAs. After that, he took a quick break to go fishing with his family in Canada, but now he’s back to business and is a genuine contender for the win in his first Diamond League final.
One more note: Brannon Kidder should pay close attention to this one. If Brazier wins, the US gets an extra spot at Worlds, and as the top finisher at USAs with the standard, Kidder would be in line to go.
JG prediction: Amos, assuming the injury in London was not serious, is the favorite. If he’s not fully fit, Brazier or Ferguson Rotich — who ran 1:42 for second behind Amos in Monaco and 1:43 FTW in London — are the two most likely candidates to win this race. I’m going with Amos FTW.
Women’s steeple (2:23 p.m. ET): Coburn gets another crack at Chepkoech (and sub-9:00)
|Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal||Norway||9:13.35||9:22.69|
The last time world champion Emma Coburn raced world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech, at the Prefontaine Classic, the gap between the two women was 9.32 seconds. The obvious question: has it shrunk in the two months since then?
The guess here is that it has. Coburn ran 9:04.90 at Pre, her second-fastest time ever, despite a mid-race fall. Since then, she has won her sixth straight US title and set a personal best of 4:04 in the 1500 meters. She’s fit.
Chepkoech, meanwhile, didn’t look completely convincing her last time out in Birmingham. Yes, she amassed her traditional massive lead, but she only closed in 76 seconds for her final lap, almost letting the rest of the field back into a race in which she ran 9:05 — her slowest clocking on the DL circuit since May 2018. Remember, too, that Chepkoech has already been beaten once this year, by Kenyan countrywoman Norah Jeruto in Oslo on June 13.
So yes, Coburn could challenge Chepkoech here. But so could Jeruto, or 8:58 woman Celliphine Chespol (second in Birmingham) or 2015 world champ Hyvin Kiyeng. Coburn may be the world champ, but she’s only won one Diamond League race in her career, and that was all the way back in May 2014. It’s hard to do.
That said, Coburn appears to be in the shape of her life (or close to it), which means she could finally become the first American to break 9:00 in the steeple. She’d love to wrest the American record back from rival Courtney Frerichs — who is skipping this race to train instead. A win would also help her chances at Worlds, as it would mean Kenya can only enter three women; if a Kenyan wins this race, they’ll get four entries in Doha.
JG prediction: I’m tempted to pick Coburn in an upset, but I’m going to keep rolling with Chepkoech until she loses. Her upside is just too high. But after consulting with LetsRun.com co-founder Weldon Johnson on this week’s LRC podcast, I’m calling it: sub-9:00 for Coburn.
Women’s 1500 (2:48 p.m. ET): WR holders Dibaba & Hassan square off
|Eilish McColgan||Great Britain||4:00.97||4:00.97|
|Jemma Reekie||Great Britain||4:02.09||4:02.09|
With Laura Muir out with injury, and Shelby Houlihan and Faith Kipyegon not qualifying, this isn’t exactly a World Championship preview, but we do get a matchup that we probably won’t see at Worlds: a battle between 1500 WR holder Genzebe Dibaba and mile WR holder Sifan Hassan.
Hassan, who has said she is doing the 5k/10k double in Doha, hasn’t raced since July 21. Prior to that, however, she was all over the place, running 3:55 in Rabat, 8:18 in Stanford, 4:12 in Monaco, and 14:22 in London. Dibaba faced Hassan in two of those races, defeating her in the 1500 in Rabat but losing in the 3k in Stanford. Though she hasn’t raced since July 9 (and hasn’t raced a 1500 since June 16), Dibaba has run 3:56 and 3:55 in her two 1500’s this year, winning both. Oh, and her PR is five seconds faster than Hassan’s. She is formidable.
Given that Houlihan is MIA and Muir and Kipyegon both have questions surrounding them, a win by Dibaba here could set her up as the favorite for Worlds.
Aside from rabbit Chanelle Price, Jenny Simpson is the lone American in the field. Simpson is better in championships than on the circuit, and, at 33, her days of running PRs (her best is 3:57.22 from 2014) may be behind her. So don’t expect her to contend for the win here, especially if it’s another 3:55/3:56 race. But I’m not counting her out a month from now in Doha.
Should Simpson somehow win this race, USAs 4th-placer Sinclaire Johnson would get to go to Worlds.
JG prediction: Do you realize how rarely Dibaba loses 1500/mile races? Since the start of 2015, she’s lost just twice in 19 attempts at those distances (the 2016 Olympics, where she was 2nd, and the 2017 Worlds, where she was 12th). This isn’t a global championship, so why pick against her?
Dibaba FTW. And with Dibaba, Hassan, and noted pace-pusher Gudaf Tsegay in the field, expect this one to go fast.
Women’s 400 hurdles (3:02 p.m. ET): Could the WR go down again?
|Zuzana Hejnova||Czech Republic||52.83||54.11|
Dalilah Muhammad broke the world record in this event her last time out running 52.20 in Des Moines, and said after the race she thinks she can go even faster. Which means we’re officially on WR alert during every Muhammad race for the rest of the season.
Asking Muhammad to repeat her feat in Zurich isn’t fair; world records are, by their nature, outlier performances. But she’ll have to run pretty fast just to ensure she wins this race: Sydney McLaughlin beat Muhammad earlier this year in Oslo and ran 52.88 — a very strong time in its own right — to finish second at USAs. And Ashley Spencer tied her PR by running 53.11 in that race.
McLaughlin said after USAs that it would be hard for her to reach the level Muhammad was at in Des Moines — “there’s only so much you can do in two months,” McLaughlin said. Which, intuitively, makes sense, since, you know, no one else in the history of the world has ever reached that level. But given what the 20-year-old McLaughlin has already shown in her remarkable career, it should still be fun to see her try.
JG prediction: McLaughlin is so good that you still can’t call Muhammad a total lock, even after her WR at USAs. But Muhammad is clearly the favorite here, and I’m not betting against her. Muhammad FTW.
Men’s 100 (3:13 p.m. ET): Gatlin vs. Lyles, part II
|Adam Gemili||Great Britain||9.97||10.04|
|Zharnel Hughes||Great Britain||9.91||9.95|
|Akani Simbine||South Africa||9.89||9.93|
If Christian Coleman winds up missing Worlds, this race could actually be more competitive than the World Championship final. That’s because of the presence of Noah Lyles, who would likely have earned a gold or silver in the 100 in Doha should Coleman not compete. “Would” because, as we all know, Lyles is running the 200 only at Worlds. But, to his credit, he’s dropping down from his specialty to come out and run the 100 in Zurich.
Lyles has the best chance of anyone in this field — and anyone in the world, save Coleman — to take down reigning world champ Justin Gatlin, who will start this race as the favorite. At 37, the convicted doper is still putting up phenomenal performances, running 9.87 at Pre (no one that old has ever run as fast) and running 9.92 and 9.91 to earn wins in Lausanne and Monaco. But Lyles was only .01 behind Gatlin in Monaco, and his season’s best of 9.86 is a time Gatlin hasn’t touched since the 2016 Olympic Trials. Considering Lyles ran that time all the way back in May and has only gotten faster over 200, it’s not a stretch to think he could PR in Zurich.
JG prediction: As smooth as Lyles has looked all year in the 200, Gatlin has been the best 100m man in the world this year not named Coleman. He’s my pick, but he better open a gap early. You don’t want Lyles anywhere close to you in the final 50 meters of a race.
Men’s 5,000 (3:21 p.m. ET): Say goodbye to the men’s 5k
|Andrew Butchart||Great Britain||13:06.21||13:06.21|
It’s still hard to believe that the IAAF is scrapping the 5,000 from its list of Diamond League events in 2020. The last two Diamond League finals have produced two of the most thrilling 5ks in recent memory: first the epic four-way kick in 2017 that doubled as the final track race of Mo Farah‘s career; then the crazy-fast affair in 2018 that saw three men break 12:48 in the same race for the first time in history. Now we’re down to one last Diamond League 5,000.
Take a moment to consider the significance of that. The Diamond League offers prize money, fast races, and exposure. Without that structure, all three of those things could disappear in 2020. Yes, Diamond League meets are still free to offer the 5,000 as a non-Diamond League event (as London did this year), but how many will do that now that they are no longer required? The men’s 5,000 is a 12.5-lap event dominated by Ethiopians, many of whom have limited English skills. If meet directors wanted to keep the event so badly, it wouldn’t have been announced as a cut before the 2019 season even began.
A few years from now, it’s not hard to imagine the 5,000 occupying the same space as the 10,000 currently does — an event that is only relevant at major championships and otherwise mostly ignored. Diamond League meets have produced 43 of the 50 fastest men’s 5,000s in the world this year. That’s because they have the prize money and travel/lodging budget to attract top fields and pay for pacemakers. Without that infrastructure in place — and in particular, without the prize money — some of the event’s top talents may turn to the roads. Which, in turn, lowers the overall level of competition and makes the event even less interesting.
“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,” said US 5,000m ace Paul Chelimo in March. “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…”
So savor Thursday’s race, because moving forward, you may not get to see the world’s top 5,000 runners chase a fast time together very often.
The assumptions is the top guys will be looking to run fast. There are rumblings on the LRC messageboard that Stewart McSweyn wants Craig Mottram‘s Australian record of 12:55.76, and the presence of his Melbourne Track Club teammate Ryan Gregson on the start list lends credence to that claim.
LetsRun.com reached out to Gregson, who confirmed that he is indeed pacing, but he said they hadn’t spoken about the Australian record; the goal is sub-13 (he’s slated to take the field through 2k in 5:11, with Pat Tiernan going through 3k in 7:47, which is 12:58 pace). That’s attainable for McSweyn, and well within the wheelhouse of the top Ethiopians such as Yomif Kejelcha, Selemon Barega, Telahun Bekele, and Hagos Gebrhiwet. And how will American Paul Chelimo respond after being beaten at USAs by Lopez Lomong?
Then there is Ethiopian Yomif Kejelcha who is undefeated this year at 5k, but only the 5th fastest Ethiopian in the race. Last year when Selemon Barega won the final in 12:43, it was because Kejelcha was fearless in pushing the pace in the middle to latter stages of the race. If Kejelcha feels he needs a fast time to secure his spot on the Ethiopian team for Worlds, once again we could see something special.
JG prediction: Kejelcha, who has won all three of his 5ks this year (including DL wins in Shanghai and Lausanne), is my pick FTW, but you can make a case for Barega (fastest PR), Bekele (world leader), Gebrhiwet (Ethiopian 10k trials champ), or Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei (World XC champ, won Pre 2-mile). Hopefully they deliver a fitting sendoff to the 5,000 meters.
Men’s 400 hurdles (3:44 p.m. ET): Benjamin and Warholm meet at last
|Kyron McMaster||British Virgin Islands||47.54||48.33|
The men’s 400 hurdles has been one of the most talked-about events in track & field this year, and though some of that talk has focused on the impressive times put up by Karsten Warholm (47.12), Rai Benjamin (47.16), and Abderrahman Samba (47.27), much of it has centered on what happens when the three finally meet up at Worlds.
That showdown may be in doubt, considering Samba hasn’t run a hurdles race since May (he did run 45.00 in the flat 400 in Monaco in July), but we will, finally, get a showdown in Zurich between the world’s two fastest men of 2019. Warholm and Benjamin have never raced each other before, but separately they have been setting the track on fire. Benjamin has run sub-48 in all four of his finals this year, clocking 47.80 in Shanghai in a defeat to Samba before going 47.58 in Rome, 47.16 at Pre, and 47.23 at USAs, all victories.
Warholm has been even more prolific. His 2019 line: five races, five wins, five sub-48s.
The two men are a study in opposites. Warholm is short, powerful, a ball full of energy; he attacks races early and looks spent by the finish. Benjamin is long, graceful, and reserved; at his best, he glides over the hurdles with his long stride as if they aren’t even there. The hope is that, in Zurich, each man brings out the best in the other. If both men can run 47.1 solo, surely one of them can join Samba and Kevin Young in the sub-47 club if they get another stud to push them? And once you’re sub-47, there isn’t that much farther to go to get to Young’s 46.78 world record.
That might be getting a little ahead of things, but given how fast Benjamin and Warholm have run on their own, the WR is absolutely on the table in Zurich.
JG prediction: Young’s mark has stood for 27 years for a reason. I don’t think they’ll get it in Zurich, but I do think Benjamin, who has looked smoother than Warholm in his victories this year, gets the win in the first meeting of young stars.
On our weekly podcast we discussed Zurich in detail.
Listen in the player below, or on your favorite podcast platform. (Click on a Zurich timestamp to start at that point)
[38:09] No Bowerman Track Club at Diamond League Final
[46:01] Diamond League Final Preview: Men’s 800: Donavan Brazier vs Nijel Amos, Murphy, & Crew
[51:03] Can Emma Coburn Go Sub 9 in the Steeple?
[53:50] Women’s 1500: Sifan Hassan vs Tirunesh Dibaba and Jenny Simpson
[58:33] Final DL Men’s 5000 Ever: What Does Kejelcha Need to Do?
[62:30] 400m Hurdle Talk: Rai Benjamin vs Karsten Warholm, Dalilah Muhammad vs Sydney McLaughlin
[67:26] Which Diamond League meet should be cut? How to broadcast it better?
[72:04] Men’s 100: Talk: Noah Lyles vs Justin Gatlin
*IAAF preview of Zurich (you’ve also got 3 men who have gone over 6 meters in the pole vault squaring off, a stacked women’s 200 and Manyonga and Echevarria in long jump)