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. The women’s race is 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 race features Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei, who 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 preview is below. The men’s preview is here: LRC World Half Men’s Preview: Joshua Cheptegei Debuts vs. the Next Great Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie.
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…
- Sifan Hassan: Hassan clocked a one-hour world record on September 4 and ran 29:36 for 10,000 meters (#4 all-time) on Saturday. She was slated to run the World Half as well, but strangely withdrew on Tuesday.
“The season was short, but the lead up to it was long,” she said. “Therefore I decided to give myself some rest and focus for next year.”
- 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.
Women’s Race: Who will emerge in battle of world record holders?
Officially, there are two world records in the women’s half marathon — one for a women’s-only race, and one for a mixed-gender race — and over the last four years, those records have been broken a total of six times by four women. All four of those women will be running in Gdynia on Saturday, which makes this one of the greatest — if not the greatest — half marathon fields ever assembled. You can make a case for all four of them to win, so let’s do just that.
Ababel Yeshaneh, Ethiopia, 29 years old, 64:31 pb
The case for her: As the current mixed-gender WR holder, Yeshaneh has the fastest pb of anyone in the field. But it’s still kind of strange that Yeshaneh is the WR holder considering almost no one had heard of her before her world record in February. Heck, even after her WR, I still bet there aren’t many LRC visitors who remember her name.
But what she did at RAK is no joke, handing marathon WR holder Brigid Kosgei her first defeat in 17 months and running 64:31. Yeshaneh hasn’t raced since, but if she’s in similar shape, she’ll be tough to beat.
The case against her: Consistency. Yeshaneh has been a solid runner for a long time — she ran 30:35 and was 9th at Worlds in the 10k all the way back in 2013 — but only recently joined the ranks of the truly elite, taking 2nd at the Chicago Marathon last year before running her WR in February 2020. I’m generally against the idea of “flukes” in running — the clock doesn’t lie — but Yeshaneh doesn’t have many major wins on her resume.
Peres Jepchirchir, Kenya, 27 years old, 65:06 pb
The case for her: We have recent evidence that Jepchirchir is super fit: she ran a women’s-only WR of 65:34 just six weeks ago in Prague, winning by 93 seconds. Jepchirchir was the top half marathoner in the world a few years ago, winning the World Half in ’16 and setting a WR of 65:06 in ’17 but didn’t race at all from February 2017 until November 2018 after giving birth to her daughter Natalia. After getting up to speed again in ’19, Jepchirchir now looks to be as good or better than her pre-child self.
The case against her: Jepchirchir has a great shot at victory, but the main argument against her would be that 65:34, while fast, is still a long way off 64:31. Of course, Jepchirchir didn’t have any male pacers in her run.
Joyciline Jepkosgei, 26 years old, Kenya, 64:51 pb
The case for her: Jepkosgei was LetsRun.com’s Runner of the Year in 2017 after breaking road world records in the 5k, 10k, 15k, 20k, and half marathon. She hasn’t quite reached those heights over shorter distances in the three years since, but she was the World Half runner-up in 2018 and ran 2:22 to win the NYC Marathon in her debut last fall. She’s still a total stud.
The case against her: Jepkosgei hasn’t raced since February and hasn’t run faster than 66:56 in the half since October 2017.
Netsanet Gudeta, 29 years old, Ethiopia, 65:45 pb
The case for her: Gudeta set a (since-broken) women’s-only WR of 66:11 to win the last edition of these championships on a windy day in Valencia, then lowered her overall personal best to 65:45 last year at RAK.
The case against her: Gudeta hasn’t raced since January. And despite her pb at RAK, she lost all four of her half marathons in 2019. Most alarmingly, she wasn’t even close in the last two, running 68:04 and 68:35 in Istanbul and Valencia in races where the winners broke 66:00.
The most likely scenario is that one of the women above win gold — you can argue either Yeshaneh or Jepchirchir as the favorite, depending on whether you place more value on peak vs. recent performance. But there’s depth beyond the WR holders. Kenya’s Rosemary Wanjiru was 4th at Worlds last year in the 10k and ran 29:50 on the roads in January (#4 all-time). And though she finished over a minute behind Yeshaneh at RAK in February, she still managed to run 65:34 — the fastest debut half ever.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, boasts Zeineba Yimer, a 2:19 marathoner who was 5th in 2018, and the winner of the Ethiopian trials, Yalemzerf Yehualaw — though Yehualaw was only 6th at RAK back in February. Outside of East Africa, Bahrain’s Eunice Chumba (4th in 2018) and Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter are the marquee names. Salpeter, in particular, has made incredible progress in recent years. She set pbs in the 5k (14:59), 10k (31:15), half (66:09), and marathon (2:19:46) in 2019 before running the race of her life in March 2020, winning the Tokyo Marathon in 2:17:45.
JG prediction: 1. Jepchirchir 2. Yeshaneh 3. Wanjiru