By Jonathan Gault
October 14, 2020
October has been quite a month, huh? We’ve had a major marathon. We’ve had world records. And this weekend, over 250 athletes will descend on the Polish city of Gdynia, nestled into the southern tip of the Baltic Sea, for one of the most-anticipated World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in recent memory.
The excitement for this year’s World Half is high not just for what it represents — the sport’s first World Championships since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic — but for who is competing. Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, after breaking world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, will make his half marathon debut and attempt to become just the second man to win global titles on the track, road, and in cross country. Countryman Jacob Kiplimo — who has run 7:26 and 12:48 on the track this year — is also debuting and will hope to help Cheptegei reprise their 1-2 finish at last year’s World Cross Country Championships. Standing in their way: Kibiwott Kandie, who could be the next great Kenyan star, and one of the planet’s top marathoners in Birhanu Legese of Ethiopia.
The women’s race is just as compelling, highlighted by a classic Ethiopia-Kenya battle. For Ethiopia: world record holder Ababel Yeshaneh and reigning World Half champ Netsanet Gudeta. For Kenya: former world record holder Joyciline Jepkosgei and 2016 World Half champ Peres Jepchirchir, fresh off a 65:34 women’s-only world record in Prague last month. Sparks will fly.
The men’s preview is below. The women’s preview will soon be published here: LRC World Half Women’s Preview: Yeshaneh Leads Battle of WR Holds in Women’s Race
Race details below, followed by a preview of each race.
What: 2020 World Athletics Half Marathon Championships
Where: Gdynia, Poland
When: Saturday, October 17. Women’s race at 5:00 a.m. EDT, men’s race at 6:30 a.m. EDT.
Wish you were here
Before getting into this year’s race, let’s pour one out for some of the people who won’t be at the World Half this year…
- Geoffrey Kamworor: The world record holder and winner of the last three editions won’t be defending his title after being hit by a motorcycle on a training run in June. Kamworor is still working his way back to full fitness after that incident, but hopes to compete at some point later this year.
- Callum Hawkins: The Brit, who finished 4th in the marathon at the last two World Championships, scratched on Monday with an ankle injury.
- Anyone from the USA, Canada, Japan, Australia, or New Zealand: None of those countries will be sending teams to Poland this weekend, ostensibly for health safety reasons — even though plenty of American and Australian athletes have been competing in track meets in Europe this summer.
USATF never announced publicly it would not be sending a team. LetsRun reached out to them for a statement on Tuesday, and a spokesperson provided the email USATF sent to athletes informing them of its decision on September 9:
With just over five weeks to go, the pandemic does not appear to be on the decline. Per the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. remains at a Level 3 travel advisory to Poland, which means that U.S. citizens should reconsider travel to Poland. While we feel that the event can and will be held with protocols that mitigate virus transmission risks, our concern is with international travel, as well as the lack of an onsite “championships bubble” for housing, meals, etc. The consensus opinion of our COVID-19 Working Group is to not put athletes, coaches, and staff (and their loved ones / co-workers, etc. upon return) at added risk with international travel at this time. Accordingly, we will not be sending a team to Poland for this year’s World Half Marathon.
While the decision is a blow for Americans hoping to take advantage of one of the few remaining elite competition opportunities, their absence won’t have much of an impact on the results. In 23 editions of the World Half, the US has just one medal. That was Dathan Ritzenhein‘s bronze in 2009, which is also the last time an American finished in the top 10.
Men’s Race: Can Cheptegei close out a historic season with a debut win?
Should Joshua Cheptegei win in Gdynia, he would become just the second man to earn global titles on the road, track, and in cross country.
That’s pretty incredible. Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, and Geoffrey Kamworor have all tried it, and all claimed titles on two surfaces. But Geb never won World XC and Tergat and Kamworor never won a title on the track (Kenenisa Bekele has never run a World/Olympic road race). Only Morocco’s Khalid Skah has won all three: World XC in 1990 and 1991, the Olympic 10,000 in 1992, and the World Half in 1994.
Cheptegei is definitely the favorite on Saturday. After running world records 12:35 and 26:11 on the track this year, he has shown a level of fitness a cut above anyone in the field. Yes, the half marathon represents a step up in distance, but he’s also the world record holder at 15k. Let’s not overcomplicate this: anyone who just ran 26:11 for 10,000 is going to be in incredible half marathon shape (World Athletics’ scoring tables say a 26:11 10,000 is worth 57:21 in the half marathon). Would a prime Kenenisa Bekele be favored at World Half? Of course he would. And that’s the level of talent we’re dealing with here.
Perhaps the more interesting question to ask, then, is how Cheptegei could lose? It’s not impossible: just four years ago, Mo Farah entered the World Half as the world’s top 5k/10k man but wound up getting spanked by Kamworor on a raw day in Cardiff, with Kamworor’s win being all the more remarkable considering he was trampled at the start. Farah and Cheptegei are different kinds of runners, of course. Farah had incredible wheels that allowed him to run 3:28 for 1500, but he lacked Cheptegei’s ability to hammer a fast pace from the front of a race (one of the reasons why Farah, whose personal bests were “only” 12:53/26:46, never made a serious attempt at the 5k/10k record during his track career). 2020 Cheptegei would certainly be favored in a half marathon race over 2016 Farah.
One possible weakness for Cheptegei could lie in the scheduling. Initially, this race was scheduled for March 29, where it would have been the focus for Cheptegei’s winter training block. That’s not the case anymore.
“It was sad they were forced to postpone the original race back in March because we had enjoyed the perfect preparation,” Cheptegei’s coach Addy Ruiter told the NN Running Team website. “In recent months we have been preparing to run the 5000m and 10,000m world records, so this time has not been perfect preparation.”
But fitness is fitness. Cheptegei doesn’t need to be “perfect” to win, and Ruiter knows it.
“Even without an ideal build up, he is capable of winning the race,” Ruiter said.
Then there’s the gap between races: the World Half comes just 10 days after Cheptegei set the 10,000 world record in Valencia. Again, this shouldn’t be a huge issue. In 2016, Galen Rupp finished 5th in the Olympic 10k and medalled in the marathon eight days later. Cheptegei has more rest than Rupp did, and a half is way easier on the body than a full marathon. Recovery shouldn’t be much of an issue.
No, if Cheptegei loses, it’s likely going to be for one reason: there are a bunch of studs in this race. Chief among them is Kibiwott Kandie. The 24-year-old first made a name for himself back on February 15 by beating Kamworor to win the Kenyan XC title, though there was some confusion about that outcome — various reports had Kamworor making a wrong turn or being tripped by a fan at the finish, allowing Kandie to come through for the win. But just six days later, Kandie proved he was no fluke, taking down a strong field to win the RAK Half by 18 seconds in 58:58. Most recently, he ran 58:38 in Prague on September 5 — #5 all-time — to win by a margin of 1:18. That made him just the second man in history to break 59:00 twice in one year. The other? The late, great Sammy Wanjiru in 2007. The World Half will be his toughest test yet, but Kandie has all the makings of Kenya’s next great road runner.
As always, Ethiopia is sending a strong team and the biggest name on it is Birhanu Legese, 26, who ran 2:02:48 in Berlin last year (#3 all-time) and won the Tokyo Marathon in 2019 and 2020. He hasn’t run a half since 2017, but he has won many of the most prestigious halves in the world in the past (RAK in 2016, Delhi in 2015 and 2017) and has sub-59:00 ability (59:20 pb).
One other monster talent on Cheptegei’s radar: Jacob Kiplimo of Uganda. Though Kiplimo is, officially, only 19 years old, he’s already accomplished a ton: World XC junior champ in ’17, World XC senior silver in ’19, and pbs of 7:26 and 12:48 this year. He’s relatively untested at the half (he ran a 61:53 at altitude in Uganda last year) but he’s super fit and it wouldn’t be a huge upset to see him win on Saturday.
Eritrea — which has had a men’s medalist in nine of the last 10 editions — isn’t sending a team, which means the podium should be an exclusively Ugandan/Ethiopian/Kenyan-born affair. Aside from the guys mentioned above, here are a few other guys to keep an eye on:
- Abraham Cheroben, Bahrain (58:40 pb): The sixth-fastest man in history was the silver medalist in 2018 behind Kamworor.
- Benard Ngeno, Kenya (59:07 pb): Ran sub-60 four times in ’19 and finished 2nd at the Houston Half in January.
- Andamlak Belihu, Ethiopia (59:10 pb): 26:53 man was 8th at World XC, 5th at Worlds in 10k, and won the Delhi Half last year.
- Guye Adola, Ethiopia (59:06 pb): He’s inconsistent, but his upside is enormous. He took bronze at the World Half and won the Delhi Half in ’14, and in ’17 he ran 2:03 and almost beat Eliud Kipchoge in his marathon debut in Berlin. His last half wasn’t great (64:12 for 8th at the African Games in August 2019), but he followed that up with a 2:04 marathon in Valencia in December.
- Hailemaryam Kiros, Ethiopia (61:08 pb): According to his Tilastopaja and World Athletics profiles, Kiros was the bronze medalist in the steeple at the 2013 African U18 and didn’t race at all from 2014-2018. Then he came out of nowhere and won the Ethiopian World Half trials on September 23. That’s about all we know about him, but anyone who wins the Ethiopian trials has to be regarded as a medal threat.
- Julien Wanders, Switzerland (59:13 pb): The European record holder is the favorite for top non-African-born honors, but he was only 11th in his last half, running 60:46 at RAK in February.
JG prediction: 1. Cheptegei 2. Kandie 3. Belihu