By Jonathan Gault
December 2, 2020
Looking at the fields for this weekend’s Valencia Half Marathon and Valencia Marathon, I feel Stefon from Saturday Night Live.
The fall’s hottest race is VALENCIA. Located on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s got everything: major champions, major debuts, some guy named Rhonex.
Valencia calls itself Ciudad del Running (City of Running), and over the last few years, it has truly earned that title. It hosted a memorable edition of the World Half Marathon Championships in 2018, and has played host to four world records in the last 13 months, including two in October. Now, in a year when four of the six World Marathon Majors bailed on staging a race, Valencia has poured a staggering $6.4 million (€5.3 million) into an elite half marathon and marathon on the same day. $5.6 million (€4.6 million) of that comes from the Trinidad Alfonso Foundation (specifically from the wallet of the organization’s chair, billionaire Juan Roig), which has turned Valencia into a global hub of running.
Combine the enormous budget with the dearth of major races this fall, and it’s no surprise the fields in Valencia are comically LOADED. I’d call them World Marathon Major-quality, but honestly, that’s selling Valencia short. The top-end talent is major quality, but the depth is unprecedented.
Since the start of 2017, we at LetsRun.com have been tracking the personal bests of the elite fields at the six major marathons. And the depth on display in Valencia on Sunday far, far exceeds anything we’ve seen during that period. Check out the numbers:
|Deepest Marathon Ever|
|2020 Valencia||Next-best major|
|Sub-2:05 men||9||8 (2015/2019 London)|
|Sub-2:06 men||14||11 (2020 Tokyo)|
|Sub-2:07 men||23||14 (2020 Tokyo)|
|Sub-2:08 men||25||15 (2019 Boston)|
|Sub-2:21 women||8||8 (2019 London)|
|Sub-2:22 women||9||9 (2019 London, 2020 Tokyo)|
|Sub-2:23 women||13||11 (2019 Boston)|
|Sub-2:24 women||17||12 (2019 Tokyo, 2019 Boston)|
|Sub-2:25 women||19||12 (2019 Tokyo, 2019 Boston, 2020 Tokyo)|
Go deeper and the numbers are even crazier. There are 35 men who have broken 2:10 and 44 who have broken 2:12.
We may never see this kind of depth again. It is a unique situation: shoe technology has driven personal bests down, and a lack of competition this spring and fall means there are a ton of marathoners desperate for a race. Things will certainly be different next year, when all six majors (and Valencia) will be held in the fall (after an Olympics, no less), cannibalizing the marathon talent.
With fields this deep (I haven’t even mentioned the studs making debuts or the loaded half marathon, which gets its own preview coming soon), it’s impossible to run through every single athlete competing this weekend. Instead, let’s hit the seven most interesting storylines in what promises to be one of the best running marathons of the year.
What: 2020 Valencia Marathon
Where: Valencia, Spain
When: Sunday, December 6
How to watch: There will be a live stream on the race website. The half marathon starts at 8:00 a.m. local (2:00 a.m. ET) and the marathon at 8:30 a.m. ET (2:30 a.m. ET).
1) Can anyone emerge to challenge Eliud Kipchoge’s status as World #1?
From his victory at the London Marathon in April 2015 until his defeat at the same race in October 2020, Eliud Kipchoge was the undisputed world’s greatest marathoner. Even after his earache-induced 8th-place finish in London, Kipchoge probably deserves to hold that title, sans the “undisputed” part. But there are several men closing in on him (this may sound harsh, but the marathon is fickle). Shura Kitata, the Ethiopian who beat Kipchoge and everyone else to win London, is one contender.
The others are all in Valencia. If one of the three guys listed below wins on Sunday, they’ll have a strong case to be considered World #1.
Birhanu Legese, Ethiopia (2:02:48 pb): Legese won Tokyo in 2019, running 2:04:48 on a foul weather day in which his closest competitor was two minutes back. He repeated in 2020 over one of the deepest fields in history (17 men broke 2:08). His only marathon defeat in the last two years came in Berlin last year, when he ran 2:02:48 (#3 all-time) to finish second behind Kenenisa Bekele.
Lawrence Cherono, Kenya (2:04:06 pb): Cherono has won five of his last six marathons, including back-to-back course records in Amsterdam in 2017 and 2018 and back-to-back major wins at Boston and Chicago in 2019. He usually brings the excitement as well: his two major wins last year came by a combined three seconds.
Lelisa Desisa, Ethiopia (2:04:45 pb): Other than Kipchoge, no current marathoner has been as good for as long as Desisa. In 13 career marathon finishes, Desisa has finished off the podium just once. His last three finishes: 1st at 2018 New York in 2:05:59 (#2 time ever run in NYC), 2nd at 2019 Boston in 2:07:59 (two seconds behind winner Cherono), 1st at 2019 Worlds in 2:10:40 (in steamy conditions in Doha). The biggest test for Desisa will be the presence of pacemakers: this will be the first time he has been in a race that uses them since Dubai in 2015. As a result, he hasn’t PR’d since his debut marathon in 2013 (also Dubai). That will have to change if he is to win on Sunday.
2) What will Joyciline Jepkosgei do for an encore?
In 2017, Joyciline Jepkosgei authored one of the greatest seasons the distance running world has ever seen, breaking no less than seven world records on the roads (including two in the half marathon). And, just as it does any time someone runs anything fast on the roads, it produced one question: when is she going to make her marathon debut?
The answer changed a few times. Jepkosgei was supposed to run Honolulu in 2018 but withdrew with a twisted ankle. She was supposed to debut in Hamburg in 2019, but switched at the last minute to pace London. By the time Jepkosgei finally debuted in New York last year, the hype around her debut had largely subsided.
Then she went out and crushed it, running a remarkable 2:22:38 to miss the NYC course record by just seven seconds. Time to fire up the hype machine again.
Jepkosgei, who was 6th at the World Half in October, is running marathon #2, and a win here on top of her NYC victory would cement her status as one of the world’s elite marathoners.
3) Can Peres Jepchirchir become a marathon star?
Jepchirchir is one of the hottest runners in the world right now. She’s broken the women’s-only half marathon world record in each of her last two races: first in Prague on September 5 (65:34), then in Gdynia on October 17, where she won her second World Half Marathon title (65:16).
Now Jepchirchir will look to take the next step and become a top-tier marathoner. She has only run one marathon outside of her native Kenya, running 2:23:50 to win in Saitama last year. Clearly, she has the talent. Can she get it done against a world-class field on Sunday?
As great as Jepchirchir and Jepkosgei are though, neither is the favorite on Sunday. That’s because there really isn’t a favorite — but there is a ton of talent. A few other of the top contenders:
Ruti Aga, Ethiopia (2:18:34): Aga has the fastest pb in the field and a major victory on her resume (2019 Tokyo), but she was a well-beaten third in her last marathon in New York, finishing over three minutes behind Jepkosgei in third.
Birhane Dibaba, Ethiopia (2:18:35 pb): A two-time Tokyo champ, Dibaba has run 2:18 in her last two marathons (2:18:46 for third at 2019 Valencia, 2:18:35 for second at 2020 Tokyo).
Degitu Azimeraw, Ethiopia (2:19:26 pb): Azimeraw made a splash in her marathon debut, crushing a 2:19:26 course record to win Amsterdam last year. She was only ninth at the RAK Half back in February.
4) Will Kenya re-think its Olympic marathon team after the race?
Back in January, Kenya named its Olympic marathon teams: Kipchoge, Cherono, and Amos Kipruto for the men, Brigid Kosgei, Ruth Chepngetich, and Vivian Cheruiyot for the women. But that was before the Olympics were postponed. Will Kenya really honor a squad named in January 2020 for a race held in August 2021?
The question is particularly important given two of the three prospective Olympians (Cherono and Kipruto) are entered in Valencia, alongside a host of other Kenyans who will be trying to take them down. A few of the challengers: 2017 Boston/world champ Geoffrey Kirui, 2019 Abu Dhabi champ Reuben Kiprop (2:04:40 pb), and two-time world champ/2012 Olympic silver medalist Abel Kirui. Also Philemon Rono, whom I will mention only because he has one of the greatest nicknames in running: “Baby Police.” If one of the Olympians bombs or one of the challengers wins, there could be chaos at Athletics Kenya (what else is new?).
On the women’s side, Kosgei and Chepngetich went 1-3 at London, so their spots would seem to be secure. But Cheruiyot dropped out of that race, and finished just fourth in her last pre-pandemic race at 2019 Valencia (granted, she still ran 2:18). If Jepkosgei wins in Valencia, would AK keep her off the team?
Valencia could have a major impact on the Ethiopian selection process as well, with many of the country’s top marathoners slated to compete on Sunday.
5) How will the big-time debutants fare?
In addition to all of the stars mentioned above, there are two major studs making their marathon debuts in Valencia. On the men’s side, it’s Ethiopia’s Jemal Yimer. A 26:54 man on the track (he was 5th in the 10k at the 2017 Worlds) and the fourth-placer at 2017 World XC, Yimer has run 59:14 or faster for the half four times since debuting in 2018, including 58:33 in Valencia in 2018 (#4 all-time). This will be his first race since the pandemic broke out; in his last one, the Houston Half in January, he ran 59:25 to win.
On the women’s side, it’s Kenya’s Fancy Chemutai, who began the year as the second-fastest half marathoner in history at 64:52. She’s since moved down to #5 after RAK and Delhi, but still bears watching. Jepkosgei (64:51 pb) was phenomenal in winning her marathon debut in NYC last year; Chemutai’s pb is just one second slower.
6) How fast will Jordan Hasay run?
A great question, and one I asked Hasay’s coach Paula Radcliffe earlier this week. This will be Hasay’s first marathon since the Olympic Trials, and her recent track record isn’t great: she DNF’d Chicago last fall after suffering a hamstring injury, rushed her Trials prep and finished just 26th in Atlanta, and clocked just 74:27 in her tuneup half marathon last month. Can she get back on track in Valencia?
For Radcliffe’s take on Hasay’s preparation and her goals for Valencia, join the LRC Supporters Club to get early access to our story on Hasay: LRC Jordan Hasay Looking to Get Back on Track at Valencia Marathon. It will be opened up to the masses on Saturday.
Talk about this article and the incredible Valencia fields on our messageboard. MB: Are you ready for the DEEPEST marathon EVER? Sunday’s Valencia Marathon is laughably good.
Full Elite Marathon Fields