By David Monti (@d9monti)
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(15-Oct) — While the women’s division of Saturday’s World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland, will feature powerful young stars like world record holders Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia and Peres Jepchirchir of Kenya who hope to win the world title, the race will also showcase some of the sport’s best over-40 women who are still running at a high level. Out of the 126 women from 49 countries who are entered, seven are at least 40 years-old.
The oldest is Italy’s Valeria Straneo, who turned 44 last April. The seemingly ageless Straneo, who won silver medals in the marathon at both the 2013 World Athletics Championships in Beijing and the 2014 European Athletics Championships in Zürich, is still running at a high level. Late last month, she won Italy’s national 10,000m title on the track in Vittorio Veneto, clocking 32:55.25. She’s run three half-marathons this year, and the *slowest* was 1:13:32 in Monza last month which was essentially a time trial. Saturday’s race will be Straneo’s first in the Italian national uniform since the 2016 Olympics in Rio where she finished 13th in the marathon and was the second European.
“I am always very proud to be able to wear the blue (national kit),” she told the Italian athletics federation, FIDAL, in an interview earlier this week. “I have been missing since the 2016 Olympics in Rio; I almost don’t realize it. And I’m excited too. Yes, you never get used to these emotions, even if you are an expert. There is an extra responsibility, because you don’t compete only for yourself and you have to give your all.”
Straneo has a half-marathon personal best of 1:07:46 set in the famously-fast Roma-Ostia race back in 2012. Her fastest time in the last two years was 1:11:34 which she ran in Verona last February. Her recent 10,000m time is equivalent to 1:13:10 half-marathon using one popular conversion formula. She is ready to run faster than that, she said, but not the 1:08:55 she ran at these championships in Copenhagen in 2014 where she was the second-fastest European.
“I certainly don’t think I’ll repeat that performance,” she admitted. “But, I think I can be worth a time around one hour and eleven minutes.”
Straneo, who has two children with her husband Manlio Esposito, was a late bloomer. She was a club runner until 2010 when she was diagnosed with a rare, hereditary blood disease and had to have her spleen removed as part of the treatment (her spleen had grown to a massive size of one kilogram). After the surgery and follow-up treatment, her times dropped dramatically. Her marathon best went from 2:41:15 in 2009 to 2:26:33 in 2011, then down to 2:23:44 in 2012 which remains the Italian record. In the last several years she has battle knee injuries, but has enjoyed good health this year under the coaching of 2004 Olympic Marathon champion Stefano Baldini.
“I am finally starting to feel good again,” she said, “and fortunately for more than a year now I have no physical problems. My fitness is improving and it is a good omen to do a race to the maximum of my current possibilities, if there are no surprises.”
The other over-40 women are as follows:
Ann Marie McGlynn, IRL, 40
Lisa Marie Bezzina, MLT, 40
Hanna Lindholm, SWE, 40
Samira Mezeghrane, FRA, 40
Fanny Pruvost, FRA, 41
Annemari Kiekara, FIN, 43
Kiekara, née Sandell, has had a preposterously long career at the top levels of athletics. She competed in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the 10,000m when she was only 19 and finished 12th in the 10,000m. Back then, 10,000m competitors had to run both a preliminary round and (if they made it) a final. Kiekara ran 31:40.42 in the first round (sixth in her heat) before running 32:14.66 in the final. Remarkably, she hasn’t competed in a World Athletics Half-Marathon Championships in 22 years.
“Back then, when I competed at my first World Half-Marathon Championships, I had no idea that 22 years later I’d still be competing internationally,” she told Jon Mulkeen writing for World Athletics last week. “It feels great to represent Finland again. I’m so thankful to have the chance to run again after such bad injuries. I’ve learned to always listen to my body, especially my legs.”
Kiekara has raced many times this year, despite the pandemic. She won three Finnish titles this year: 5000m, 10,000m, and the half-marathon. She has run near the 1:14:00 mark three times this year, with a best mark of 1:13:46 in Santa Pola, Spain, back in January. Her personal best is 1:09:58, a mark she achieved more than 20 years ago in Lisbon.
“There are so many good runners competing in Gdynia,” she acknowledged. “I know the competition will be really tough. But if everything goes well, I’d like to run somewhere in the region of 1:11 to 1:12.”
Interestingly, there are only two over-40 men on the entry list: Oleksandr Sitkovskiy, 42 of Ukraine and Adhanom Abraha, 43, of Sweden.