Dreams Become Reality: Jake Wightman Stuns Jakob Ingebrigtsen to Win World 1500m Title

By Jonathan Gault
July 19, 2022

EUGENE, Ore. — This is why you do it. The altitude camps that leave your lungs gasping for air. The sprint sessions that burn your quads and calves. The 15-mile long runs in the dead of winter when you can see your breath with every exhalation. You do it all for the hope that one day, if everything breaks just right, you find yourself on the Olympic champion’s shoulder with 200 meters to go, some run left in your legs, a dream in your heart and the opportunity to show that, on this night, you are the greatest miler in the world.

This scenario is a fantasy, the sort of pipe dream runners tell themselves to get through one last set of 400’s on a rainy day. It is not supposed to actually manifest itself. Too many obstacles. Talent is the biggest stumbling block, but even the rare souls blessed with the ability to make a global 1500 final have to deal with injuries, tactics, and just plain bad luck.

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But on Tuesday night in Eugene, fantasy became reality for Jake Wightman. This was no dream. The 28-year-old Brit will wake up on Wednesday — assuming he sleeps at all — as the 1500-meter world champion, the winner of an enthralling final on night five of the 2022 World Athletics Championships in which Wightman took on Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway and outran him over the final 200 meters to claim the title in a personal best of 3:29.23 to Ingebrigtsen’s 3:29.47 (Spain’s Mohamed Katir took bronze in 3:29.90). It was Quenton Cassidy over John Walton made flesh, the fantastical scenario of the cult classic Once a Runner played out for real in front of a packed house with shadows on the warm Hayward Field track cast by the setting Oregon sun. All of this with Geoff Wightman — Jake’s father and coach — on the mic calling the race as the in-stadium announcer. Truly, you could not script it.

Jake is Golden (Photo by Kevin Morris)

Wightman ran the perfect underdog race, staying near the front but simultaneously under the radar tucked in near the rail for most of the first three laps. This was in contrast to Ingebrigtsen, who spent the middle 800 meters setting the pace while fighting off a challenge from Kenya’s Olympic silver medalist Timothy Cheruiyot of Kenya. After Cheruiyot’s countryman Abel Kipsang led the through 400 in a quick 55.51, Ingebrigtsen took over the lead just before 700 meters, aiming to gradually squeeze the life out of the field as he had during Diamond League victories in Eugene and Oslo earlier this season.

On the surface, Ingebrigtsen looked calm and stoic as he continued to force a fast pace, but he was working hard to protect his lead. Once he passed Kipsang, Ingebrigtsen assumed no one would try to go around him while he was running 3:30 pace. But Cheruiyot attacked three times on the third lap, and each time Ingebrigtsen held him off, telling himself after each defense that there was no way Cheruiyot would launch another attack so far from the finish line.

“When I did it the first time and the second time, I figured now he’s definitely not going to ruin his race a third time,” Ingebrigtsen said. “But he did.”

Cheruiyot ultimately paid for those surges, fading to 6th at the finish. So did Ingebrigtsen. The young Norwegian is typically a master of measuring his effort over the final two laps, gradually turning the screws until he is the only man standing. But this was not the Bislett Games, the scripted record attempt where Ingebrigtsen clocked 3:46.46 in June, the world’s fastest mile in 21 years. Championship racing throws decisions at you, one after another, and your responses can determine the outcome. Ingebrigtsen had used some of the energy budgeted for the final straight to fight off Cheruiyot. Cheruiyot had breached Ingebrigtsen’s defenses, if only someone was fit enough to take advantage.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images for World Athletics)

And now with 300 meters to go, here was Wightman — who had hung in the 3rd-5th range throughout the race, content to sit just off the lead and avoid the battling for position ahead of him — steaming down the back straight. He reached second place, Ingebrigtsen’s shoulder, which is where many athletes would stay until the home straight, afraid to move too hard, too soon. Not Wightman. After a brief pause, he made the move — the one every miler dreams of making — putting Ingebrigtsen to the test with 200 to go. Once again, Ingebrigtsen tried to respond, but this time, weakened by his earlier efforts against Cheruiyot, he could not cover it. With 150 to go, Wightman had a step on the Olympic champ and clear track in front of him.

Up in the top row of Hayward Field, the elder Wightman was describing the increasing drama over the PA system while his internal monologue reckoned with the fact that his son was now one straightaway from becoming world champion.

They’re good [athletes] behind him, Wightman thought, But he’s good in the home straight. So he may be okay here.

“Over the years, that’s been his favorite point to hit the front, whether it’s been in an 800 or a 1500, somewhere between 150 and 200 to go,” Geoff said after the race. “He’s told his sprints coach Laura Turner, if I’m in front going into the home straight, I love it. I can get my form going.”

Ingebrigtsen wasn’t licked, surging on Wightman’s outside, but the Brit held him off as the two separated from the rest of the field; he could not gain an inch. When Ingebrigtsen looked over his shoulder 20 meters from the line, it was a sign of capitulation, and 10 strides later Wightman was crossing the finish line first, eyes wide, mouth agape, arms spread and then raised to his head in disbelief as he became the first Brit to win a global 1500 title since Sebastian Coe at the 1984 Olympics. It was an upset even Wightman struggled to comprehend.

“I think when you’re in an event like that and there’s a figure and an athlete who’s so, so dominate and such a heavy favorite that I never ever expected to be world champion,” Wightman said. “I believed that there was a chance, but my main thing was I wanted to come in here and make amends for my shocking run in Tokyo and come away with a run that I was proud of. And that was hopefully going to be a medal, let alone expecting for it to be a gold.”

Up in the stands above, Geoff was keeping it professional, as usual. Four years ago, ahead of the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Geoff had been asked he was sure he could handle calling a race in which his son competed. Yes, Wightman said, I believe I can.

“The inference was, if you don’t, you’re not doing it again,” Geoff said.

Suitably convinced of his neutrality, Geoff has been able to continue announcing his sons races — including the Olympic final in Tokyo last year — but he’d never had to grapple with an ending quite this dramatic. A few minutes after the race, the in-stadium camera found Geoff and the usually disembodied voice had to explain why he had suddenly appeared on the video board.

“That’s my son,” Geoff proudly told the crowd. “I coach him and he’s the world champion.”

Ingebrigtsen, meanwhile, was ruing what might have been. For the second time in 2022 — first at the World Indoors in March, and again tonight — he had entered a global championship as the heavy favorite only to falter in the final 200 meters.

“With me blaming everything on myself, I’m not proud of what I’ve done today and should have done better,” Ingebrigtsen said. “…I know that my fitness is as good as it has ever been. If it was a time trial today, I think I could have run really, really fast.”

***

Embed from Getty Images

Jake Wightman’s victory had it roots in a conversation with Geoff two hours after last year’s Olympic final in the dining hall of the Tokyo Olympic village. Wightman had gone in with hopes of a medal but had finished 10th.

“Very, very gutting for me,” Wightman said.

Wightman had felt confident on the start line knowing his 800-meter personal best of 1:44.18 would give him the edge in a kick over most of the field. But a kick isn’t as important as it used to be in the 1500. Ingebrigtsen won that race in Tokyo in an Olympic record of 3:28.32, the sort of time that used to only be seen in rabbitted Diamond Leagues in Monaco. But the Tokyo final, coupled with the 3:29.26 winning time at the 2019 Worlds in Doha, convinced the Wightmans that the 1500 had changed, and that if Jake didn’t change with it, he would be left behind.

“I just knew that I was probably the — or one of the — best 800 runners in the field,” Jake said. “But if we all ran a 5k, I was probably going to be last or near the back. So I knew that was what I needed to change. There was no point in being so good at 800’s if I was never going to get the chance to use it.”

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images for World Athletics)

What followed was a winter of overdistance training. That included a run-out at the Scottish National Short Course Cross Country Championships in November, a 4k race in which Wightman, whose bouncy stride is designed for the track, finished…14th.

“He’s rubbish at cross country,” Geoff said, cracking a grin. “…With his stride, he gets nothing out of cross.”

Ingebrigtsen, by comparison, won the European cross country title three months later. There was a lot of work to do.

Wightman kept grinding away, hitting 80 miles a week (a lot for a guy with Wightman’s 800-meter background), incorporating more tempo runs, and hill workouts that could last an hour or more. It came together with a 7:37 3,000-meter pb in Staten Island in February — still 10 seconds off Ingebrigtsen’s best, but proof that Wightman had made significant strength gains.

Still, just a month before Worlds it looked as if that strength would not be enough. Wightman raced Ingebrigtsen in the Bislett Games on June 16 and finished a distant 3rd, running 3:50.30 to Ingebrigtsen’s 3:46.46. At the same time, Wightman was managing a torn hamstring tendon that he’d developed following his win at the Rabat Diamond League on June 5. In his final prep camp ahead of Worlds in Colorado Springs, Wightman had to carefully manage the hamstring during track sessions, easing into reps rather than blasting into them, trying his best not to let any doubts creep into his mind ahead of the most important race of the year. But the prelim and semi in Eugene went well, and by the time he reached the final, Wightman was hopeful that after all that strength work would give him the opportunity to do something special.

“All I wanted to do was stay in contention for as long as possible to be able to use my speed and be strong enough to be able to do that and to actually use the only card I had against Jakob, which is a fast 800,” Wightman said.

Afterwards, Geoff snuck into the media tribune as Jake prepared to do one of the many interviews demanded of a world champion after the race. The two shared a hug before Geoff, returning to coach mode, reminded his son not to celebrate too hard tonight.

“You’ve got to turn your attention to Commonwealths now,” Geoff said, referencing the meet which will be held on British soil in Birmingham (the men’s 1500 begins on August 4).

Jake knows, as a competitor, that he can’t dwell on Worlds for too long with another major championship on the horizon. On the other hand…if you can’t celebrate after a night like this, well, when can you?

“For me, I’m trying to make the most of this right now,” Jake Wightman said. “…This is a big deal for me and a big deal hopefully for him, so he needs to really make the most of this tonight.”

Race video

Results

POS
BIB
COUNTRY ATHLETE
MARK
1
1890
GBR
3:29.23 WL
2
2190
NOR
3:29.47 SB
3
1769
ESP
3:29.90 SB
4
1765
ESP
3:30.20 PB
5
1876
GBR
3:30.60 SB
6
2083
KEN
3:30.69 SB
7
2091
KEN
3:31.21
8
1800
ETH
3:32.98 SB
9
1543
AUS
3:33.24 SB
10
2227
POL
3:34.58 SB
11
1763
ESP
3:34.71 SB
12
2425
USA
3:35.57

Great Britain’s last 1500 world champ Steve Cram (1983) calling the last lap for the BBC

Video of Geoff Wightman calling his son’s race

Post-race interviews with Jake and Geoff Wightman

Jakob Ingebrigtsen: “I know that I’m better than silver. So I’m embarrassed being this good but also this bad.”

Ingebrigtsen holds himself to the highest standard and was disappointed to be beaten tonight.

“I know that I’m better than silver,” Ingebrigtsen said. “So I’m embarrassed being this good but also this bad.”

The big question that will endure from this race is whether Ingebrigtsen should have taken the lead as early as he did, around 700 meters. At that point, the pace was still fast up front but rather than save energy and let the Kenyans do the work, Ingebrigtsen wanted to take the lead himself. Ingebrigtsen said he wanted to ensure the pace remained fast, and he was worried that that would not happen had he allowed Cheruiyot to take the lead.

“I know what he would have done if he had gotten my position at 800 or 1000 or wherever he tried to get it,” Ingebrigtsen said. “He would just have slowed it down. Because he probably didn’t have the fitness to go 3:28 or 3:27.”

There will be questions about whether Ingebrigtsen should continue to front-run global finals after he was beaten in Belgrade and now Eugene, but he said he doesn’t think he needs a fast race to win — though he believes it is easier for him if the pace is fast.

Mario Garcia Romo’s pro career is off to a flying start

It’s been a wild six weeks for Mario Garcia Romo. On June 10, running for Ole Miss, he was upset in a tactical race at NCAAs by Joe Waskom, a guy with a 3:39 pb who didn’t even qualify for the US championships. On June 22, he signed with the On Athletics Club. On June 25, he ran a pb of 3:35.52 to win the Spanish title. And tonight on July 19, he finished 4th in the world by running a massive 5+ second pb of 3:30.20.

As a member of the OAC, Garcia Romo will get to train alongside Ollie Hoare and Yared Nuguse in what is suddenly one of the best miler training groups in the world. I spoke to OAC coach Dathan Ritzenhein briefly in the mixed zone and he was delighted to get the opportunity to work with Garcia Romo and was especially impressed by his ability to run his best race of the year at the end of a long collegiate season.

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