The 2020 Awards Are Here: Best Runner, Best Comeback, Biggest Disappointment, Most Inspirational & More

December 30, 2020

The strangest year in running any of us has ever seen is almost over. And unlike a few other noted publications, we waited until the very end of 2020 to hand out our year-end awards (since this was one of the busiest Decembers ever from a running perspective).

In this year of woe, there were highs (the Olympic Marathon Trials, Monaco Diamond League, London Marathon) and lows (pretty much everything else that happened in 2020). Yet despite the cancellation/postponement of several major events, there was still plenty of drama on and off the track in 2020. Sixteen world records. American records by the likes of Shelby Houlihan, Karissa Schweizer, Elle Purrier, and Donavan Brazier. World champions Christian Coleman and Elijah Manangoi banned from the sport.

We run through it all below, handing out some serious (and not-so-serious) awards from the year in running.

Men’s Distance Runner of the Year: Joshua Cheptegei

12:35 and 26:11. We really don’t need to say any more than that when talking about Joshua Cheptegei in 2020, but we will. Entering the year, the 24-year-old Ugandan was already the best all-around distance runner on Earth: in 2019 alone, he won world titles in cross country and at 10,000 meters, a Diamond League title at 5,000 meters, and set a world record of 26:38 for 10k on the roads.

But 2019 was merely a precursor to a year in which Cheptegei went from superstar to all-time great. When the Olympics were postponed, Cheptegei set his sights on the world records at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, which had remained unchallenged since Kenenisa Bekele set them in 2004 and 2005. It seemed a tall order for a man who had never run faster than 12:57 or 26:48 on a track to break Bekele’s records of 12:37 and 26:17. But Cheptegei, who doesn’t even have access to a track in his training base of Kapchorwa (he does interval workouts on a narrow, egg-shaped dirt path behind a school), blasted through both marks, clocking 12:35.36 in Monaco on August 14 to claim the 5,000 WR and 26:11.00 in Valencia on October 7 to take the 10,000 WR.

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The debate as to whether Cheptegei’s performances are more impressive than Bekele’s record runs rages on — Cheptegei clearly benefited from Nike’s new Dragonfly spikes and the Wavelight pacing system, which allowed him to log metronomic splits in Valencia, but his greatness is beyond doubt.

And he’s not done. Cheptegei has said he doesn’t just want to be the best in the world; he wants to be the best of all time.

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I want to do amazing things like Kenenisa, like Gebrselassie, like Eliud,” Cheptegei told LetsRun in August. “…12:30 could be possible, maybe also sub-26:00? I don’t know. It’s possible.”

We love his big dreams, but making everything all the more dramatic is at the end of the year, we don’t even know if Cheptegei is the greatest distance runner in his own country. Remember, Jacob Kiplimo beat Cheptegei at the World Half to win gold. Kiplimo is four years younger and was undefeated on the track this year, racking up PBs of 7:26 for 3,000 and 12:48 for 5,000 in the process. Heck, if Kibiwott Kandie wasn’t in the picture, Kiplimo might be our male distance runner of the year as it would very to pick against a guy who was undefeated on the year while racking up PBs of 7:26, 12:48, and 57:37 while also defeating Cheptegeit.

Women’s Distance Runner of the Year: Peres Jepchirchir

Jepchirchir after winning the World Half in October © Dan Vernon for World Athletics

When Peres Jepchirchir put her career on pause in 2017 to give birth to her daughter Natalia, she was the best half marathoner on the planet, winning the world title in 2016 and setting the world record of 65:06 in 2017. Now in her second year back after her pregnancy break, she’s all of that and more.

In September, she ran 65:34 to set a women’s-only world record in the half marathon — a mark that barely lasted a month, as Jepchirchir herself lowered it to 65:16 in winning the world title in Gdynia.

Those two runs alone would have earned Jepchirchir strong consideration for this honor. She cemented her status as the premier performer of 2020 in December by running 2:17:16 to defeat a stacked field in Valencia and become the fifth-fastest female marathoner of all time.

While Jepchirchir gets the nod in our book, can we just take a moment to rip all of the publications that ranked Hellen Obiri or Sifan Hassan ahead of Letesenebet Gidey in their distance rankings? Athletics Weekly, Track & Field News and others, we are talking about you. Please.

Track & Field News justified their decision to rank Obiri ahead of Gidey in the 5,000 with the following logic, “Sure, Gidey claimed the World Record, but our Rankings have always rewarded competitive wins over fast times and Obiri solidly beat the Ethiopian in their head-to-head matchup.”

Stop. A world record is not simply a fast time, it’s the fastest time in history. If Obiri had won a world title or Olympic gold over Gidey, then that would be one thing, but she beat Gidey in Gidey’s season opener.

And AW had Hassan ahead of Gidey in their distance rankings. We’re sorry. Gidey beat Hassan in the Monaco 5,000 and 14:11 is better than a 29:36 10,000. Hassan’s one-hour world record on the track was a PR stunt.

So Gidey had a great season in our book but not as good as Jepchirchir. Her dominating in 2020 shouldn’t be a surprise — remember, she ran 65:06 back in 2017 without the help of super shoes as she was and is an adidas athlete. Now that she’s got super shoes, she’s totally dominant.

US Men’s Distance Runner of the Year: Donavan Brazier

Brazier brook the indoor 800 AR at Millrose in February (Phil Bond photo)

One of the many disappointments of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it cost us a full season of Donavan Brazier in his prime. Coming off a world title and American record in 2019, the sky was the limit for Brazier this year, who turned 23 in April. And while we didn’t get the chance to see him compete at his first Olympics or race a full Diamond League schedule, what he did do was still pretty incredible.

Remember the Millrose Games in February, where Brazier screwed around for three laps and still ran a 1:44.22 American indoor 800 record with a huge negative split (53.04-51.18)? Outdoors, he won all five of his races. He logged a world-leading 1:43.15 in Monaco (and was responsible for three of the four sub-1:43’s run in 2020) and ran the easiest 3:35 you’ll ever see, setting up dreams of an eventual 800/1500 double at a major championship.

US Women’s Distance Runner of the Year: Sara Hall

Yes, Hall failed in her biggest race of 2020, dropping out after 22 miles in Atlanta when it became clear her Olympic dreams were not going to become a reality.

“It was the hilliest course, literally, in elite marathoning history,” Hall said on the Track Talk Podcast last week. “I did everything I could to prepare for that, but at the end of the day, that just crushed my legs.”

But Hall responded from that setback at the Olympic Marathon Trials with admirable grit, taking advantage of every opportunity that came her way to produce the by far the greatest year of her career at age 37. She finished the year #2 in the US in the half marathon (68:18, #6 all-time) and #1 in the marathon for the second year in a row, thanks to her 2:20:32 at the Marathon Project. And, perhaps most impressively, she became the first American (male or female) to finish on the podium in London — the world’s most competitive marathon — since Deena Kastor won it in 2006.

Given Hall’s high-profile failure at the Olympic Trials, we understand why some of you think the award should go to Shelby Houlihan. Indoors, Houlihan won US titles at 1500 and 3k and then outdoors obliterated her own American 5k record by running 14:23.92. So Houlihan did two things that Hall didn’t do this year: win a US title and set an American record. But we gave the award to Hall mainly because she took on the world’s best in London whereas Houlihan was content to time trial against her teammates.

If Houlihan and not Karissa Schweizer had set the American indoor 3000 mark (remember, Schweizer outkicked her for the US record), or if Houlihan had run 14:23 in Monaco to get 2nd, we probably would have given her the award.

Recency bias probably impacted us a bit as Hall has had two great runs since Houlihan’s 14:23 on July 10. We’d better stop typing as the more we type, the more we think we should give this to Houlihan.

Comeback of the Year: Trayvon Bromell

There were plenty of deserving nominees this year. Even if you limited the field to Americans, there were Galen Rupp and Jake Riley coming back from Achilles surgery to make the US Olympic marathon team, Sally Kipyego coming back from pregnancy to do the same, and Keira D’Amato coming back from a seven-year break from the sport to run one of the fastest marathons ever by an American woman. 

But no one has had a harder road back than Bromell, who ran 9.84 in the 100m as a teenager but spent most of the last four years battling a series of injuries stemming from 2016 Achilles surgery and a botched recovery. Finally healthy again in 2020, Bromell — who is still only 25 — clocked 10.04 on July 4 in Montverde, Fla., his fastest time since the 2016 Olympics. Three weeks later, Bromell showed the world he will be a medal contender in Tokyo, running 9.90 in Clermont — the #2 time in the world this year. And with Christian Coleman suspended for the Olympics, that medal could well be gold. What a story that would be.

From January: LRC Trayvon Bromell Is Back; Hoping That This Comeback Will Be His Last

Most Disappointing Performance Of The Year: 4 Of The “Big 5” Women Bomb The US Olympic Marathon Trials

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Heading into the 2020 US Olympic Marathon Trials, we previewed the women’s race by saying there was a “Big 5” of Sara Hall, Emily Sisson, Molly Huddle, Des Linden, and Jordan Hasay. At the Trials, three of the five didn’t finish (Hall, Sisson, and Huddle) and only Linden (4th) was close to making the team as Hasay was just 26th.

While we can debate the logic of picking a super hilly marathon course for the Trials race when the Olympic marathon isn’t going to be super hilly, the reality is everyone knew the course was going to be hilly and four of the five women were nowhere close to making the team.

On the men’s side, the pre-race “Big 4” of Rupp, Leonard Korir, Scott Fauble, and Jared Ward put forth more credible performances. While only one made the team, they went 1-4-12-27.

Dumbest Administrative Decision Of The Year: Banning Super Shoes From The Track But Not The Roads

In January, World Athletics decided not to ban the new “super shoe” technology for road races. Yet they did decide to ban the super-high stack height shoes (which first came to market with the Nike Vaporflys) for track races.

We agree with coach Renato Canova on this one: it is a poor decision. Canova went to the LetsRun messageboard to sound off about the rule, arguing that you should allow whatever stack height you want in a track race as long as the shoe doesn’t have a spike on it. Canova believes that since all of the top competitors in the 5,000 and 10,000 at Worlds in 2019 chose to wear spikes, not shoes with large stack heights, spikes must be faster than large stack height shoes for the track. He’d like distance runners to be able to wear the large stack height shoes simply to save their legs and so road runners who occasionally dabble in the track don’t get hurt.

We also don’t like the rule, but our logic is different. We believe a shoe should be illegal all the time or legal all the time. If you are going to let distance runners wear super shoes in on a 10k on the road, you should let them wear them in a 10,000 on the track. If you don’t want them to wear them on the track, then you should ban them from the roads as well. 

MB: The nonsense of the rule regarding racing shoes not allowed on track

Dumbest Personal Decision Of The Year: Christian Coleman Goes Shopping Instead of Taking A Drug Test (We Hope That Chipotle Tasted Really Good)

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In reality, Christian Coleman’s third whereabouts failure took place in 2019, not 2020, but we didn’t find out about it until this year so we are listing it in this year’s awards.

The fact that Coleman, whom the entire world knew was sitting on two missed drug tests, decided to go out to Chipotle (and then later to Walmart), on December 9, 2019, instead of staying at home during his one-hour drug testing window was incredibly short-sighted. Coleman may have cost himself millions in the process as the Olympic 100-meter champion normally rakes in BIG dough.

LRC Christian Coleman’s Ban For Missing Three Drug Tests Is Upheld; World’s Fastest Man Will Miss the 2021 Olympics

Anti-Doping Rule Violation of the Year: Whereabouts Failures

It’s not that we didn’t know about whereabouts failures before 2020 (see: Christian Coleman Saga, Part I). It’s just that they weren’t especially common. Just three suspensions were announced in 2018 and 2019 combined.

In 2020, 10 athletes were suspended for whereabouts failures, including some of the biggest names in the sport: former marathon world record holder Wilson Kipsang and world champions Coleman, Elijah Manangoi and Salwa Eid Naser (Naser’s suspension was overturned; the other three are all serving bans, though Coleman is appealing to the Court of Arbitration for Sport). While it was encouraging to see the Athletics Integrity Unit willing to take on the biggest names in the sport, it was alarming how many big names struggled to use a relatively straightforward system. At least, we’re assuming that’s why they registered three whereabouts failures — and not more sinister reasons. 

LRC 2020 Has Been the Year of Whereabouts Failures. Why?

Event of the Year: Olympic Marathon Trials

As the last major running event in the US that allowed fans (and it attracted a lot of fans), the Trials almost wins this by default. But even if 2020 had featured a full calendar of events, it would have been hard to top the energy and excitement on display in Atlanta. The men’s race was one for the ages, with Jake Riley, Abdi Abdirahman, and Leonard Korir kicking together for the final two Olympic spots; the gap from second to fourth was just four seconds. The women’s race was wonderfully unpredictable. And the atmosphere was incredible; the record number of entrants and hard work of the Atlanta Track Club made for an unforgettable day.

Inspirations Of The Year: Abdi Abdirahman and Keira D’Amato

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We’re not sure who is a bigger inspiration so we gave it to both of them. Making one Olympic team is a big accomplishment. Making five — the most ever for a male US track and field athlete — including your fifth at age 43 like Abdi Abdirahman did this year in Atlanta is absurd.

Abdi made his first Olympic team way back in 2000. Back then, Molly Seidel was just five years old, only 41.5% of the US had internet access at home, Blockbuster Video was huge and reportedly turned down the opportunity to buy Netflix for $50 million and the first camera phone was invented. The iPhone was still seven years away.

D’Amato’s rise after a seven-year absence from the sport is equally inspiring. In 2020, she did the following:

-lowered her marathon pb from 2:34:55 to 2:22:56
-lowered her half marathon pb from 73:32 to 68:57
-lowered her 5000 pb from 16:09 to 15:04

If not for a bout of food poisoning, she likely would have lowered her 10,000 pb from 33:43 to 31:20ish. All at the age of 36 and as a mother of two and a realtor. Along the way she even spent several thousand of her own dollars so she could set a US women’s-only 10-mile record (51:23). Crazy.

LRC Keira D’Amato Is Trying to Break the American 10-Mile Record on Monday. It Could Cost Her Thousands of Dollars.

LRC Keira D’Amato DESTROYS American women’s-only 10 mile record; Runs 51:23 to smash 52:12 record at Up Dawg Ten Miler

What do you think of our awards? Talk about it on our messageboard.

MB: The 2020 Awards Are Out – Best Runner, Best Comeback, Biggest Disappointment, Most Inspirational & More

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