What A Race: 2021 Istanbul Half Preview: Geoffrey Kamworor vs. Kibiwott Kandie; Will the Women’s WR Go Down?

By Jonathan Gault
April 2, 2021

With the road racing calendar yet to return to full capacity this spring due to COVID-19, any elite event still going forward is in a position to capitalize on top pros eager for competition. That’s exactly what is happening at this weekend’s Istanbul Half Marathon, as there are mouthwatering matchups on tap in both the men’s and women’s races. Kudos to Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and Sports Istanbul for putting this thing together as the fields are INCREDIBLE.

Initially, Kenyan stars Kibiwott Kandie and Geoffrey Kamworor were supposed to square off at the RAK Half Marathon on February 19. That race was ultimately cancelled, but the Kandie-Kamworor matchup is back on in Istanbul on Sunday as Kamworor will get the chance to take on the man who broke his half marathon world record in Valencia in December.

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On the women’s side, Ababel Yeshaneh‘s 64:31 world record is in danger. Yeshaneh isn’t running, but pretty much every other relevant women’s half marathoner is. All three medalists from October’s World Half Marathon champs are entered: Kenya’s Peres Jepchirchir (65:06 pb), Germany’s Melat Kejeta (65:18), and Ethiopia’s Yalemzerf Yehualaw (64:46). Plus marathon WR holder Brigid Kosgei, marathon world champ Ruth Chepngetich, and the half marathon debut of two-time 5,000m world champ Hellen Obiri.

Race details and preview below.

What: Istanbul Half Marathon
Where: Istanbul, Turkey
When: Sunday, April 4, 3 a.m. ET, 10:00 am in Istanbul (GMT+3)

*Elite fields (Obiri was a late addition)

How to watch: The race will be shown live on TRT Spor 2, though it’s unclear if that stream will be available worldwide.

Men’s race: Kamworor goes for revenge

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It was good to be Geoffrey Kamworor in the 2010s. Bursting onto the scene with a win in the junior race at World XC in 2011, Kamworor starred for much of the decade, racking up two senior World XC titles, two NYC Marathon titles, three World Half titles, and a 58:01 half marathon world record.

The 2020s have not been as kind. First, the pandemic hit. Then, in June 2020, Kamworor was hit by a motorcyle while training, sustaining head and leg injuries that required surgery and crutches. That sidelined him for the fall, during which time he had to watch Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo take his World Half title and Kandie take his world record with his stunning 57:32 in Valencia. In fact, that race in Valencia was so fast that Kamworor got bumped all the way down to #5 on the all-time list.

Kamworor finally returned with a win at the Kenyan Police XC champs on January 29. That set the stage for the Kenyan XC champs two weeks later and a shot at revenge against Kandie, who upset Kamworor at the same race in 2020. Instead, Kamworor dropped out on a muddy day in Nairobi (when reached by LRC, his agency did not elaborate on why Kamworor dropped out).

Can Kamworor, who is targeting the Olympic 10,000 meters this year, get back to his best? Or has Kandie usurped his crown as the man to beat in the half marathon? I can’t wait to find out.

Kandie and Kamworor are the undisputed big dogs in Sunday’s race, but there are a couple other sub-59:00 men in the field in Amdework Walelegn (58:53) of Ethiopia and Stephen Kissa of Uganda (58:56). A time in the 58:50s ain’t what it used to be now that the WR is 57:32, but it’s still very solid running. Walelegn, in particular, bears watching, as he was third at the World Half in October, 13 seconds ahead of 5k/10k WR holder Joshua Cheptegei. Kissa, who trains with Cheptegei in Kapchorwa, was only three seconds back of Walelegn in New Delhi a month later.

JG prediction: It feels sacrilegious to pick against Kamworor considering the degree to which he has dominated the half marathon: six wins in his last seven races, including three world titles. But four of those wins came in 2014. In the last six years, he has raced just three half marathons, and while they were all brilliant (2016 World Half, 2018 World Half, 2019 Copenhagen WR), he has yet to show he’s back to form following his accident last year.

Kandie, meanwhile, became the first man in history to break 59:00 four times in one year in 2020, going 58:58 (win, RAK), 58:38 (win, Prague), 58:54 (2nd, World Half), 57:32 (win, Valencia) in a season for the ages. He was also a respectable second at this year’s Kenyan XC champs, just two seconds behind winner Rodgers Kwemoi, so he’s still in good form. Kamworor is only 28 years old and should have plenty of good years ahead of him if he can get back to full fitness. But Kandie is a more reliable option right now.

Women’s race: Will the world record go down?

Jepchirchir won the World Half in October © Dan Vernon for World Athletics

The talent in this race is somehow even better than the men’s. Between Hellen Obiri, Peres Jepchirchir, and Brigid Kosgei, you have the planet’s most dominant 5,000, half marathon, and marathon runners meeting at a crossover distance. Well a crossover distance for Obiri and Kosgei, at least; right now, the half marathon belongs to Jepchirchir, the 2016 and 2020 world champ who ran women’s-only world records of 65:34 and 65:16 in her two half marathons last year before tacking on a 2:17:16 full marathon win in Valencia in December.

And none of them are the fastest half marathoner in the field. That would be World Half bronze medalist Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who clocked the #2 time in history by running 64:46 to win in New Delhi in November. Kosgei is next with a 64:49 pb from RAK last year (though she did run 64:28 at the 2019 Great North Run — the fastest time in history, albeit on a point-to-point course), followed by Joan Chelimo Melly (65:04), Ruth Chepngetich (65:06), Jepchirchir (65:06), and World Half silver medalist Melat Kejeta (65:18). That is some field!

Obviously when you get a race with that many talented women, “world record” is the natural thought. But can we just appreciate this event for what it is: a hell of a race. Matchups like this one, pitting the best athletes from a variety of distances, don’t come around very often, and won’t be as common once track season begins this summer and marathons resume this fall. No, there’s no world title on the line or anything like that, but the battle for the win here is more compelling than a world record chase — especially given how common world records have become recently.

Update by Rojo: What about the weather?

Regular readers know I’m obsessed with weather conditions in world record attempts. The weather could be very good at 10 am local time on Sunday. Overnight, things are going to be very dicey as the wind will be gusting up to 31 mph but by 10 am DarkSky is predicting things will have calmed down to nearly ideal conditions – a temp of 56F (13 C) with a dewpoint of 49F (10C) and winds of just 6 mph.

JG prediction: Jepchirchir was the best runner in the world in 2020 and has won 10 of her 13 career half marathons. I’m picking her until someone shows they can beat her, but I don’t think the WR will fall.

Rojo’s prediction: The WR will fall

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