Making Sense of Letesenbet Gidey’s INCREDIBLE 62:52 Half Marathon World Record in Valencia

By Jonathan Gault
October 24, 2021

This morning, Letesenbet Gidey ran a world record of 62:52 at the Valencia Half Marathon. The mark broke the existing world record by 70 seconds — meaning Gidey wasn’t just the first woman to break 63:00. She was also the first woman to break 64:00, a Beamonesque improvement. It became, immediately, one of the most impressive runs in the history of distance running.

When an athlete produces a performance like that in the year 2021, there are three typical reactions:

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1) Who cares? She must be doping.
2) Who cares? Super shoes have made times meaningless.

Most running fans are feeling some combination of those three right now. Let’s try to make sense of it all.

Was this the greatest performance in the history of distance running?

When Gidey ran her 15k world record of 44:20 in 2019, we praised it as one of the greatest performances in the history of distance running. Today in Valencia, Gidey came through 15k in 44:29 — and ran another 6.1k to smash the half marathon world record (though she did slow down over the final 5k). This was a better performance than her 44:20. But was it the best ever?

According to World Athletics scoring tables, yes. 62:52 for the half is worth the following performances at other distances — all of which are far superior to the current world records:

800 meters – 1:51.22
1500 meters – 3:45.54
5000 meters – 13:39.43
10,000 meters – 28:38.00
Steeple – 8:29.24
Marathon – 2:11:17

But those scoring tables are not a definitive measuring tool, something World Athletics president Seb Coe admitted when the most recent edition was published in January 2017. That date is also noteworthy because it’s just before Nike released the first version of the Vaporfly, meaning the tables don’t account for the fact that it is significantly easier to run a 62:52 half marathon in October 2021 than it was in January 2017.

Of course, Nike and other companies have now started to release super spikes on the track, further muddying historical comparisons across events. But if you’re curious what Gidey’s time would equate to in a pre-super shoe world, here’s what it might look like:

Shoes worth 0.5% 1% 1.5% 2% 2.5% 3%
Adjusted time 63:10 63:30 63:49 64:08 64:28 64:48

Given that the pre-super shoe world record in the women’s half was 64:51 by Joyciline Jepkosgei (she ran it in 2017 wearing adidas shoes), even under the strictest conversion, Gidey’s run today is still clearly the greatest half ever run by a woman.

Another way to look at Gidey’s mark would be to compare it to the second-best half marathon in history — which also happened to come in Valencia today, Yalemzerf Yehualaw‘s 63:51. Yehualaw’s time was 1.56% slower than Gidey’s. What if we did that for every distance event? Let’s call it the Outlier Index:

Event WR #2 performer Difference
W steeple 8:44.32 8:52.78 1.61%
W half marathon 62:52 63:51 1.56%
W marathon 2:14:04 2:15:25 1.01%
W 5,000 14:06.62 14:11.15 0.54%
M 10,000 26:11.00 26:17.53 0.42%
W 10,000 29:01.03 29:06.82 0.33%
M 5,000 12:35.36 12:37.35 0.26%
W 1500 3:50.07 3:50.46 0.17%
M 1500 3:26.00 3:26.34 0.17%
M half marathon 57:32 57:37 0.14%
W 800 1:53.28 1:53.43 0.13%
M marathon 2:01:39 2:01:41 0.03%
M steeple 7:53.63 7:53.64 0.002%

So by that measure, Gidey’s run today was the second-greatest distance run ever, behind only Beatrice Chepkoech‘s steeplechase WR of 8:44.32.

Any way you slice it, this was a groundbreaking run by Gidey. At the elite press conference on Friday, Yehualaw and Gidey were asked how fast they thought a woman could ultimately run for a half marathon, an event in which the WR has tumbled precipitously over the last 10 years. Yehualaw said sub-63:00. Gidey said 62:30. They saw this coming, eventually. But few saw it coming so soon.

The elephant in the room

Running fans can be a skeptical bunch. When someone takes 70 seconds off a half marathon record that had already been improved by 49 seconds over the past two years, it is going to set off alarm bells. One of the first texts I got after Gidey broke the WR this morning was someone asking about how often Gidey had been tested over the past few years. Until this year, she had trained in Mekele, capital of the Tigray region in Ethiopia, a war-torn region that could be difficult for testers to access (things were so bad last year that Gidey had to withdraw from making her half marathon debut in Valencia in December because she couldn’t travel…though she also couldn’t train).

There is no evidence linking Gidey to performance-enhancing drugs. As always, there is no way to know, definitively, whether any athlete is doping or not. But as of now, the main argument against Gidey is that she is simply too good.

Gidey winning the junior race at 2017 World XC (photo by Roger Sedres for IAAF)

Now let’s consider the alternative: that Gidey is the greatest talent in the history of distance running. If that’s the case, then she would be a junior phenom, right? Well guess what: in 2015, Gidey won the junior race at World XC eight days after her 17th birthday. Two years later, she won it again. Do you realize how big of a talent you have to be to win the junior race twice at World XC?

Another thing to consider about Gidey: what if the half marathon is actually her best event? (This seems likely after today). Going into Valencia — which, remember, was her half marathon debut — Gidey already had the world records at 5,000 (14:06.62) and 10,000 meters (29:01.03). Those marks are incredible, but believable based on what we have seen other women run in those events. But in Gidey’s two forays into distances beyond 10 kilometers — her 15k in 2019 and her half marathon today — she has produced two of the greatest performances in the history of women’s distance running. Rather than making some astronomical leap in fitness, isn’t it possible that Gidey’s record-breaking run today was simply the result of her finally racing her best event?

Gidey’s 62:52 redefined what is possible for a female distance runner, and in that light, one of the obvious historical comparisons is Paula Radcliffe, who authored a similar breakthrough in the marathon with her 2:15:25 in London in 2003, a world record that would stand for 16 years. Radcliffe’s run was an even greater outlier than Gidey’s — at the time, the #2 performer in history, Catherine Ndereba (2:18:47), was 2.49% slower than Radcliffe. And, just like Gidey, Radcliffe faced doping suspicions during her career primarily because no one believed someone could be that much better than everyone else. The argument for Radcliffe was always that she was a generational talent who finally found her best event in the marathon — the same argument in favor of Gidey now.

More mind-blowing stats about Gidey’s run today

  • Gidey’s 62:52 would make her the third-fastest American man of 2021 in the half marathon (granted, Americans haven’t raced many half marathons this year due to COVID). All-time, it would rank her 89th on the US men’s list in the half marathon, ahead of Olympic marathoners Ed EyestoneJake RileyDan Browne, and Mark Coogan (h/t Steve Magness).
  • Gidey split 14:45 and 14:44 for the second and third 5k segments today. As recently as 2016, 14:44 was the American record for the women’s 5,000 meters. Which means that even the greatest American distance runners would struggle to keep up with Gidey for even a quarter of the race distance today. Gidey’s average 5k pace of 14:53 today is faster than the track pbs of Jen Rhines (14:54), Kara Goucher (14:55), and Jenny Simpson (14:56).
  • Gidey is the first woman to hold the 5k, 10k, and half marathon world records simultaneously since Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen, who held all three until 1991.

Talk about the race on our world-famous fan forum / messageboard.

More: Letesenbet Gidey Runs 62:52 To SMASH Half Marathon World Record The 5000 and 10,000m WR holder ran 62:52 today in her half-marathon debut. Wow.

Previous: 2019 LRC WTW: Did Letesenbet Gidey Just Run the Greatest World Record and We Didn’t Even Notice? Plus Vaporfly’s at NCAA Regionals
*MB: Letesenbet Gidey runs 44:20 15k, SMASHES WR. Equivalent to a 13:42 5000!

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