Joshua Cheptegei Is Going For The 5000 WR In Monaco – Can He Break It?

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“If You Can’t Win Medals, the Only Thing You Can Do Is Go For World Records”

By Jonathan Gault
August 12, 2020

Even under normal circumstances, traveling from Kapchorwa, Uganda, to the principality of Monaco requires a long journey. Throw in a global pandemic, and Joshua Cheptegei‘s trip to the city on the Mediterranean coast for Friday’s Herculis Diamond League meeting was downright Odyssean.

It began last Friday morning, with a seven-hour drive from Kapchorwa, site of Cheptegei’s training base in eastern Uganda, to the capital of Kampala. Cheptegei ran a workout the next morning, then traveled to the State House, where he and the three other Ugandans competing in Monaco — training partner Stephen Kissa and mid-distance runners Halimah Nakaayi and Winnie Nanyondo — were seen off in an official ceremony presided over by Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni.

Saturday evening, Cheptegei and the other athletes boarded a chartered Uganda Airlines flight to Nairobi — specially organized by the president, since Uganda’s borders are closed for regular travel — arriving around 9:00 p.m. Nairobi time. Next up, at roughly 4:00 a.m. on Sunday, was a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, followed by a 22-hour layover. Finally, on Monday morning, a flight from Istanbul to Nice, before shuttling from Nice to Monaco, 20 miles away. Cheptegei finally arrived at the meet hotel, the Riviera Marriott, on Monday afternoon, roughly 80 hours after departing Kapchorwa.

“There’s easier ways to get to Europe,” Cheptegei’s manager Jurrie van der Velden, tells LetsRun.com, “but the virus situation changed everything.”

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World XC was just one of several big victories for Cheptegei in 2019

In addition to his travel plans, the coronavirus also changed Cheptegei’s ambitions. Cheptegei, the reigning 10,000-meter and cross country world champion, began 2020 hoping to capture an Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. When the Olympics were postponed in late March, Cheptegei, like so many others, lost his biggest target. Fairly quickly, however, his goals shifted.

“If you can’t win medals, the only thing you can do is go for world records — well not everybody, but this guy can go for world records,” van der Velden says.

Cheptegei, who ran 12:51 in Monaco in February to break the 5k road world record, had already planned on racing a 5,000 at Herculis, originally scheduled for July 10. After the Olympic postponement, van der Velden reached out to Herculis organizers and told them that Cheptegei still wanted to run a fast 5,000 in Monaco this summer. Just let them know when the meet was, and Cheptegei would be there.

The coronavirus, obviously, presented some issues. With his marquee spring event postponed — Cheptegei was slated to run the World Half Marathon Championships in Poland on March 29 — and Uganda under lockdown, Cheptegei backed off his training in the early stages of the pandemic in March. But the larger plan has remained mostly the same. Cheptegei had always planned to peak for early August; it’s just that now he’s peaking for Monaco rather than Tokyo.

Cheptegei’s aim on Friday is to better Kenenisa Bekele‘s 12:37.35 world record, which has stood since 2004. It is a formidable target; in the 16 years since it was set, no man — save for Bekele himself — has come within five seconds of it. And Cheptegei’s own personal best of 12:57.41 — set to win last year’s Diamond League final in Zurich — does not even crack the top 200 times in history (he’s the 73rd-fastest performer).

Yet Cheptegei’s camp believes the record is firmly within his grasp. van der Velden points out that Cheptegei ran 12:51 — solo — on the streets of Monaco in February, and says he is considerably fitter now.

“He’s in the best shape ever,” van der Velden says. “We know the 5k world record will be very tough for him, because he’s more endurance-based than speed-based, but he made such a progression in the last two years in speed work that we say, yeah, this is the time.”

Another factor in Cheptegei’s favor: with travel restricted and most of the global racing calendar wiped out, he has been able to zero in on this race like no other in his career. His coach, Addy Ruiter, who traditionally splits time between Uganda and the Netherlands, elected to stay in Kapchorwa during the pandemic. And the reopening of Cheptegei’s training camp in May (at reduced capacity) brought with it a renewed sense of focus: there was nothing to do but train.

Cheptegei outkicked Paul Chelimo to win the 2-mile at Pre last year (Phil Bond photo)

“I’m not sure if we will ever be in a situation that a coach is able to be with Joshua for six months and working toward this goal for such a long time,” van der Velden says. “…All of his sessions have been better than before…He’s sleeping more, he’s relaxing more…These guys are normally a little bit more on the road. They are not all Eliud Kipchoges who are pretty much 24-7 in a training camp relaxing…[With COVID-19], everybody had to stay at home, and everybody had to respect those rules, and it made them rest more, concentrate more on running rather than other things.”

We already have evidence that a similar approach can lead to stellar performances when time is the only goal: just look at what the Bowerman Track Club has done in recent weeks, most notably Shelby Houlihan and Moh Ahmed‘s North American records on July 10. The coronavirus may have robbed us of the spectacle of the Olympics, but the result, for a few elite athletes like Houlihan, Ahmed, and Cheptegei, is the creation of an opportunity that would not have otherwise existed this year: to go as fast as possible, without worrying about peaking for a major championship.

“I believe if there is a time to attack the world record, it is this year,” Cheptegei said in an article for then NN Running Team website. “It is now or never.”

***

Breaking Down Cheptegei’s Chances

So Cheptegei is going for the world record on Friday, as part of what should be an exceptional Herculis meeting in Monaco. That’s great for the sport. But we at LetsRun.com aren’t just here to be cheerleaders. Can Cheptegei actually take down Bekele’s record? Let’s break it down.

First of all, let’s put 12:37.35 in context, because it is phenomenally fast: three 4:03.7 miles, back-to-back-to-back, plus another 182 meters. It’s running 7:34.41 for 3,000 — faster than the pbs of Ben TrueMatt Tegenkamp, or Evan Jager — and then cranking out another five laps at the same pace. Bekele’s record has stood for 16 years and counting — by far the longest a 5k WR has ever stood. Heck, you’d have to go back to Sweden’s Gunder Hagg, who broke the record in 1942 in the middle of World War II, for the last time a 5k WR lasted even half as long as Bekele’s. For Cheptegei to break it will require a truly special performance.

Here’s what we know about the attempt:

Cheptegei’s fitness

Cheptegei won his first track world title last year in Doha (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for IAAF)

Bad News: Cheptegei’s track pbs (7:33/12:57/26:48) aren’t as impressive as Bekele’s (7:30/12:49/26:49) when Bekele broke the record. But there’s a case to be made that Cheptegei isn’t that far off Bekele’s fitness from 2004.

Good News: The first thing to consider: Cheptegei has run significantly faster on the roads (12:51/26:38) than he has on the track. We can debate whether, with the introduction of the Nike Vaporflys, the road is actually faster than the track, but those times show two skills Cheptegei will need if he is to sniff 12:37: he can run very fast, and he can grind from the front.

In addition, last year, Cheptegei became just the second man in history to win World XC and Worlds on the track. The only other guy to do that? Bekele, in 2003 and 2005 (he also pulled off the World XC/Olympic double in 2004 and 2008). In his track victory in Doha, Cheptegei ran a near-identical time to Bekele (26:48 vs. 26:49) and closed in 55.39, not far off Bekele’s 55.01 last lap in 2003 (though Bekele’s performance was clearly superior, as that 55.01 came at the end of a 12:57 final 5k — the same as Cheptegei’s outright 5k pb). Additionally, the 5k time the Cheptegei ran in February on the roads (12:51) is very similar to the time the Bekele ran indoors in February 2004 (12:49) — the year he ran 12:37 outdoors.

The most recent data point we have for Cheptegei is a two-mile time trial he ran at altitude in Kampala on July 22. In that event, Cheptegei passed through 3k in 7:41 (van der Velden didn’t know Cheptegei’s time for the full two miles). That’s well behind WR pace, but it also came at 3,900 feet of altitude on what van der Velden says was a windy day. It was a solid tuneup for the WR attempt.

“That was clear: if you can do this alone [at] altitude, then you should be okay for a world record,” van der Velden says.

More Good News: One other X-factor: van der Velden says Cheptegei will race in the Dragonfly, the same spike Ahmed used to run 12:47. We don’t have anywhere near the evidence that the Dragonfly is a gamechanger on the scale of the Vaporfly on the roads, but it’s better than what Bekele was racing in 16 years ago.

Objectively, Bekele had a stronger resume when he broke the WR in 2004 than Cheptegei does now. If the two men were to race head-to-head, based only on what Bekele had done prior to running 12:37, you’d pick Bekele. But Cheptegei is clearly capable of running much faster than his 12:57 track pb.

Pacemakers

Good News: The plan is to have three of them. Dutchman Roy Hoornweg, who paced Cheptegei during his road world records at 10k and 15k, has been assigned the first kilometer in 2:31-2:32. Cheptegei’s training partner Stephen Kissa (13:10,27:47,60:00 pbs) will aim to go through at least 1800m. And Aussie Matthew Ramsden — who in recent weeks has clocked 4:55 for 2k and 13:27 for 5k — will try to make it halfway.

The best-case scenario would be to find a sub-13:00 guy to take Cheptegei through 3k or longer. But practically, that’s tough to arrange — most sub-13:00 guys want to run fast on their own, not pace others. Bekele, for the record, led the final 3k when he set the record.

“Joshua in his mind is prepared that from 2k onwards, he has to do everything by himself,” van der Velden says. “…So we hope maybe to split around 7:35 at 3k and then to finish it off in the last 2k…Joshua likes to be in a rhythm, and then from there speed up.”

More Good News: The meet will be using the Wavelight laser technology to provide the pacers and Cheptegei with perfect pacing guidance. The technology was a huge success at the Impossible Games earlier this summer and van der Velden says the plan is to use it in Monaco as well.

Conditions

Good News: The race will take place in Monaco, at 9:13 p.m. local time on Friday. By then, the sun will have been down for 40 minutes.

Bad News: Dark Sky forecasts the temperature will be in the upper 70s F, with a dew point approaching 70 at race time. Both figures are significantly higher than ideal. When the last two men’s 5,000 world records were set, the fans in the stands were wearing jackets.

Here is a chart made by LetsRun.com comparing the conditions that are expected for Friday’s race to the conditions in the four fastest 5000s ever run.

Time Athlete Date Location Temp Dew Point
12:41.86 Haile Gebrselassie August 8, 1997 Zürich low 70s (82 at 4:20, 70 at 9:20) 57-66
12:39.74 Daniel Komen August 22, 1997 Brussels low 70s (70-72 between 2 pm and 10 pm) 66-67
12:39.36 Haile Gebrselassie June 13, 1998 Helsinki high 50s/low 60s (high was 63 at 3 pm, 57 at 9 pm) 45-53
12:37.35 Kenenisa Bekele May 31, 2004 Hengelo 57-60 between 2 pm and 10 pm 53-55
??? Joshua Cheptegei August 14, 2020 Monaco 78-79 69-70

Data from LRC moderator and former American steeple record holder George Malley from 2005 revealed that the average temperature during the 10 fastest 5,000’s in history (at the time) was 70 degrees…but none of the top five times were run in temps above 72 degrees. The low in Monaco on Friday is 73 — and again, that’s with some not insignificant humidity. I’m not willing to call the weather a dealbreaker, but 12:37 was already an ambitious goal, and the conditions won’t help Cheptegei.

MB: Monaco forecast: Too hot for 5000 WR?

Conclusion

Predicting a world record is a good way to look foolish: there’s a reason no one has approached Bekele’s 12:37. The odds that Cheptegei runs faster than that on Friday are well under 50%. Heck, they’re probably under 10%. But Cheptegei’s attempt is absolutely worth watching, and there is a world in which he walks away with this record.

Joshua Cheptegei was the best long distance runner in the world last year (marathon excluded). He won World XC, won the 10k at Worlds, and won the Diamond League 5k final, where he beat guys like Selemon Barega (12:43 pb), Hagos Gebrhiwet (12:45 pb), and Yomif Kejelcha (12:46 pb). If he’s beating those guys, it’s reasonable to assume that, in ideal conditions, he was capable of running in the mid-12:40s last year. And if, as his manager suggests, Cheptegei is fitter than he was in 2019…well, now we’re in the low-12:40s and the world record is in the ballpark.

Of course, the conditions in Monaco won’t be ideal — in a perfect world, it would be 20 degrees cooler, and someone like Barega or Kejelcha would be present to push the pace during the third and fourth kilometers — but Cheptegei is at least going in with the stated intention of trying to run as fast as possible, and he’ll have Wavelight tech to follow when the physical rabbits fall off. This sort of attempt is something we haven’t seen from the world’s best 5k/10k runner since the days of Bekele; Mo Farah may have ruled the sport in the 2010s, but championships were always his priority. Had Farah tried something like this, he may not have run 12:37, but his PR would probably have been a lot faster than 12:53.

Prediction: Expect Cheptegei to run a sizable pb, but the world record will remain out of reach. Cheptegei is a fantastic talent, but he’s more of a 10k guy than 5k guy. 12:45.


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