World Record Alert: WR Holders Yalemzerf Yehualaw & Letesenbet Gidey To Battle in Sunday’s Valencia Half Marathon
By Jonathan Gault
October 21, 2021
There are no major marathons this weekend (feels kind of strange, doesn’t it?) but there is still a big-time European road race to look forward to in the form of the Valencia Half Marathon. In terms of drama and history, the Valencia Half doesn’t compare to something like the Boston Marathon. But in terms of star power, it exceeds Boston (at least this year). Rhonex Kipruto, Rodgers Kwemoi, Muktar Edris headline a men’s race that features five sub-59:00 men. But the real showdown is on the women’s side, where half marathon world record holder Yalemzerf Yehualaw faces 5,000/10,000 world record holder Letesenbet Gidey, making her half marathon debut.
Let me repeat that: the half marathon WR holder is racing the 5,000/10,000 WR holder on Sunday in Valencia. If that doesn’t get you fired up as a running fan, it’s hard to imagine what else would.
The race will look a little different this year as the course has been changed. In an effort to create more social distancing, the start/finish area has moved to Avenida de Tarongers, which means that, unfortunately, the eye-catching finish at the City of Arts and Sciences is no more. The good news is that the course should still be super fast.
“The circuit is designed to be as fast as the previous ones, or even faster, and we are confident that both elite and amateur runners will be able to fly and set great records here,” said Blanca Iribas, who helped design the course.
Let’s dig in and take a closer look at each race.
What: 2021 Valencia Half Marathon Trinidad Alfonso EDP
When: Sunday, October 24. Race starts at 2:30 a.m. US Eastern Time (8:30 a.m. local).
Where: Valencia, Spain
How to watch: There will be a free live stream on the race website here.
Women’s Race: WR Holder vs. WR Holder
If you did not realize Yalemzerf Yehualaw was the half marathon world record holder until clicking on this article, don’t feel bad. The record has been broken so frequently over the last decade that it can be hard to keep track (and don’t get me started on the women’s-only world record, which is a whole other can of worms). Just over 10 years ago, Lornah Kiplagat owned the record at 66:25. Since then, the 66:00, 65:00, and 64:00 barriers have all been broken. A quick recap:
Women’s half marathon WR progression
|2/18/11||Ras Al Khaimah||Mary Keitany||65:50|
|2/10/17||Ras Al Khaimah||Peres Jepchirchir||65:06|
|2/21/20||Ras Al Khaimah||Ababel Yeshaneh||64:31|
Look at some of the names on that list. You’ve got the reigning Olympic champ (Jepchirchir), London champ (Jepkosgei), and Chicago champ (Chepngetich). Might be worth learning a bit about Yehualaw.
Coached by Tessema Abshero (who also coaches Degitu Azimeraw, who just ran 2:17:58 to finish second in London), Yehualaw is still only 22 years old, and if her career to this point is anything to go off of, she is only going to get better. In 2019, she debuted with a 69:13 in Rabat in April but got down to 66:01 in New Delhi by the end of the year. Last year, she established herself as one of the best in the world by taking bronze at the World Half and running 64:46 in New Delhi to move to #2 on the all-time list (at the time). And this year, she’s gotten even faster. She ran 64:40 in Istanbul in April in the same race where Chepngetich broke the world record. Then, at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon in August, she took almost a minute off her pb and smashed the world record with her 63:44.
But before you hand Yehualaw the win on Sunday, consider this: the last time she raced Letesenbet Gidey, she got lapped. That race came at the Ethiopian Olympic Trials in Hengelo in June, where Gidey set a 10,000-meter world record of 29:01.03 (Yehualaw was fourth in 30:20.77).
When you’ve run 14:06 and 29:01 for 5k/10k, you’re going to be able to run a fast half marathon. In recent years, Sifan Hassan (65:15), Genzebe Dibaba (65:18), and Hellen Obiri (64:51) have all made successful half marathon debuts, and their results might suggest that a time around 65:00 would be a reasonable expectation for Gidey. But those times are a little misleading — Hassan and Dibaba both won their debuts and likely could have gone even faster if pushed. And Gidey may be more suited for the half than any of those women. Though she likes to close her track races hard over the last mile, Gidey is a grinder by nature. And the best result of her career — her 44:20 15k road world record — also came at the longest distance she’s ever raced. World Athletics scoring tables pegged Gidey’s 15k WR as equivalent to a 63:07 half marathon. If that seems ridiculously fast, keep reading,
The best comparison for her debut may not be Hassan, Dibaba, or Obiri, but Rhonex Kipruto, who debuted in the half in Valencia last year. Kipruto had a skill set built for the half marathon and faced a world-class field that pushed him to maximize his potential. He ran 57:49, which would have been a world record had the first two guys not also broken the WR. Gidey comes to the half with even more impressive credentials than Kipruto and the WR holder in Yehualaw to push her. A time well under 65:00 on Sunday would not be a surprise.
When you’ve got two world record holders squaring off, the rest of the field tends to get overlooked, but Senbere Teferi deserves a mention as well. On the track this year, Teferi ran 14:15 and finished sixth in the Olympic 5,000 final. And on September 12, she ran a road 5k WR of 14:29 in Germany, so she’s fit. Hawi Feysa (65:41 at Copenhagen Half on September 19) and Sheila Chepkirui of Kenya, who ran 29:46 for 10k on the roads in Valencia last year, are also big talents.
Will the WR go down?
The forecast in Valencia on Sunday calls for sunny skies, a high of 71 degrees and 8 mph winds. But given that the race begins at 8:30 a.m., the temperature should be in the 50s at race time (Dark Sky says 54 at 8 a.m. and 58 at 10 a.m.) — which is perfect for a WR attempt.
Expect the leaders to go for the world record. Yehualaw’s agent Daan van den Berg says that her plan is to attack the WR and aim for faster splits at 5k and 10k than what she ran in Larne (15:05/30:22).
“She has a plan not only to run for the world record, but to run as fast as she thinks she can run,” van den Berg says. “And maybe that’s 62.”
Taking 45 seconds off a world record that is already 17 seconds faster than anyone has ever run is certainly a very aggressive goal. But van den Berg pointed to two reasons for why it could be possible. One, her fitness. Yehualaw is still in great shape; better, van den Berg believes, than at Antrim Coast. Second, the course. While Antrim Coast’s course is fast, there is still a fair amount of climbing and descending in the first half. Valencia’s course, meanwhile, is almost perfectly flat.
“I believe in Valencia, your legs can be more fresh after 10k,” van den Berg says.
And then, of course, there is the competition. In Antrim, Yehualaw won by over six minutes. In Valencia, she could have Gidey pushing her all the way.
Gidey’s agent Valentijn Trouw did not want to set overly optimistic expectations — this is, after all, Gidey’s debut at the distance — but he confirmed that her post-Olympic training has gone well and that she will looking to run fast.
“I think potentially she can run an incredible half marathon [eventually],” Trouw says. “If it comes out on Sunday, we will see.”
It’s an interesting dynamic between Yehualaw and Gidey. They are both from Ethiopia, both members of the NN Running Team, and both are represented by Jos Hermens‘ Global Sports Communication agency, but they have different agents and coaches. This isn’t some Bowerman Track Club-style time trial where they’ll be trading leads — they’ll both be racing to win on Sunday.
One last thing. Before I hung up my two calls with van den Berg and Trouw, they each asked whether I would be watching the race live in the US. I wasn’t sure, I told them. Should I set an alarm so that I could watch it live at 2:30 in the morning? Or would I be okay with waking at a normal hour and watching the replay? Both men told me the same thing: this one needs to be watched live.
“I’m quite sure it’s worth setting your alarm clock,” van den Berg says.
JG prediction: It’s hard to pick this race, but I have to go with Yehualaw. She broke the WR eight weeks ago and just keeps getting better. And I think the WR goes down as well.
Men’s Race: Kipruto Leads the Way
Before getting to the 2021 edition, a quick reminder: the 2020 Valencia Half Marathon was one of the most insane races in the history of running. The top four finishers all ran faster than the existing world record — and remain, to this day, the only four men to break 58:00 in the half.
Of those four, only Rhonex Kipruto, who ran 57:49 for third, is back in 2021. And he has to start as the favorite. Not only does he have the fastest half marathon pb in the field, but we know he’s in great shape as he just ran 26:43 for 10k on the roads in Germany last month (he’s also the WR holder at that distance with his 26:24 in Valencia last year).
Behind Kipruto, there are four other sub-59:00 men, led by Kenya’s Philemon Kiplimo, who is the sixth-fastest man in history at 58:11 — a time that was only good for fifth in last year’s race. Another Kenyan, Abel Kipchumba, also enters in good form as he just ran 58:48 at the Adizero: Road to Records event on September 12 — the fastest half marathon in the world this year. Kelvin Kiptum (58:42 pb) and Andamlak Belihu (58:54 pb) are the other sub-59:00 men.
There are two other guys who could be in the mix for the win. Any track fan will be familiar with Ethiopia’s Muktar Edris, the two-time defending world champion at 5,000 meters from Ethiopia. Edris, who ran an impressive 59:04 in his debut half last year in New Delhi, did not make the Ethiopian Olympic team this year, but he did run 13:09 on the roads last month before winning the Giro al Sas 10k road race in Italy on October 2.
The other man to watch is Kenya’s Rodgers Kwemoi, who is making his half marathon debut. The 2016 world U20 champ in the 10,000, Kwemoi already has two super impressive performances on his resume this year, defeating half marathon WR holder Kibiwott Kandie to win the Kenyan XC champs in February and clocking 27:05 at altitude in Nairobi to finish second behind Geoffrey Kamworor at the Kenyan Olympic trials. He was only seventh in the Olympic 10,000 final, where the slow pace did not favor him, but, like his countryman Kipruto, he has a big engine and should find success in the half.
Unfortunately, Trouw, who also represents Kwemoi, said that he got sick after the Olympics, which affected some of his preparation for Valencia.
“His training in the second half of August and the first half of September was a bit up and down but the last three to four weeks he has been coming up nicely,” Trouw says. “The final sessions have been good.”
There’s also an American in the field. Frank Lara (61:50 pb) doesn’t have a chance at victory, but with a fast course and deep field, he does have a shot at a personal best and the fastest half by an American this year (currently Galen Rupp‘s 61:52 at the Great North Run). Lara, a Furman alum, had a breakout season in his first year as a pro in 2020, winning the US 15k title, and enters Valencia in decent form. Most recently, he was fourth at the Falmouth Road race in August and fifth at the Cherry Blossom 10-miler (47:13) in September. He’ll need to be better on Sunday if he wants to run a pb, though, as 47:13 for 10 miles is 61:53 half marathon pace.
JG prediction: It feels boring to go chalk and pick the fastest seeds in the men’s and women’s races, but Kipruto is a stud and we know he’s in great form based on his 26:43 on the roads in September. He’s my pick FTW.
What do you think will happen in Valencia? Tell us on our world-famous fan forum messageboard. MB: Set your alarm clocks now (2:30 am ET Sunday). The women are going for the WR in Valencia. Will we see a 62 minute half?