Mary Moraa Wins Clash of the Titans in 800 Meters at 2023 World Championships over Athing Mu and Keely Hodgkinson

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Isn’t it fun when races live up to the hype?

The three titans of the women’s 800 meters – the United States’ Athing Mu, Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson, and Kenya’s Mary Moraa – have all been in the same race together just twice. Both races have produced fast times, pulse-pounding drama, and dramatic finishes. Add in the incredible talent of the three vastly different protagonists and you have track & field at its absolute best.

In last year’s World Championship final in Eugene, Mu had just enough in the home straight to hold off Hodgkinson as Moraa earned the bronze. This time, Moraa flipped the script, passing Mu with 60 meters to go to win her first world title in a personal best of 1:56.03 and in the process hand Mu her first defeat in a professional 800-meter race. Hodgkinson charged by Mu on the inside to earn silver in 1:56.34 as Mu took the bronze in 1:56.61. American Raevyn Rogers ran her best race of the season to earn 4th in 1:57.45 while US champ Nia Akins was 6th in a pb of 1:57.73.

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The Race

After getting tangled in the semifinal while running in the middle of the pack, Mu was determined to avoid a repeat in the final and went out incredibly hard – 26.51 for her first 200, 56.01 for her first 400. Mu used a similar front-running strategy to win her Olympic title in Tokyo two years ago, but in that race she went out almost two seconds slower (57.82). Tonight, the fast early pace would take its toll on Mu over the final 100.

Hodgkinson initially had second position on Mu’s shoulder but Moraa passed her at the 300-meter mark and would hold second for most of the last lap with Brits Hodgkinson and Jemma Reekie holding 3rd and 4th, Reekie on the inside and Hodgkinson to her right.

Mu held the lead through 600 (1:26.21) and coming off the final turn but, running on the outside of lane 1, found herself under attack from both sides: Moraa on the outside and Hodgkinson, who passed Reekie with 100 to go and was steaming up on Mu’s inside. Mu battled but was spent by the end, covering her final 100 in 15.43 to Moraa’s 14.66 and Hodkginson’s 14.72.

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Moraa, clearly the strongest on this night, still had energy to celebrate her win, jumping for joy across the finish line while punching the air. After a few seconds, she finally collapsed to the track in exhaustion before picking herself up and treating the Budapest crowd to a celebratory dance. Hodgkinson (third straight silver) and Mu, meanwhile, were left looking for answers.

Results

1 KEN 1:56.03 PB
2 GBR 1:56.34 
3 USA 1:56.61 SB
4 USA 1:57.45 SB
5 GBR 1:57.72 
6 USA 1:57.73 PB
7 JAM 1:58.41 PB
8 UGA 1:59.18 

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Mary Moraa did not run the most beautiful (or tactically sound) race, but it was enough for the gold medal

Moraa likes to go out hard, but once she saw how fast Mu was running, she decided to back off, sit in 2nd place, and wait until the final turn to attack Mu. She could not get around initially but eventually Mu broke and Moraa took the title.

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You don’t need a perfect race to win a wold title, but it’s stunning that Moraa could take .70 off her pb despite running so much extra distance. The first turn is in lanes, but Moraa ran all of the second and final turns in the middle of lane 2 and spent the third turn between the outer edge of lane 1 and the inside of lane 2. Of course, the reason she was there is that Mu, as usual, was running on the outside of lane 1, forcing Moraa wide. In that respect, Moraa was not penalized as much as she might usually be as Mu was also running extra distance. But it’s not a stretch to say Moraa ran an extra 10 meters tonight on the turns. Even if we keep it conservative and say seven extra meters, that’s an extra second of time at 1:56 pace. 

Hodgkinson’s role in all of this is fascinating as well. She only finished .31 behind Moraa, and had she been able to ride the rail the whole way, she may have been able to get Moraa at the line. That’s in a perfect world, of course, but that position was so close to being available for Hodgkinson. The problem was that for most of the race, Reekie was occupying that exact spot but did not have the same juice as Hodgkinson. Had their positions been switched, Hodgkinson may well have been your world champion tonight.

The 800 can be a difficult event to get right from a tactical standpoint but when you’re the fittest athlete in the field, that can paper over many flaws, as we saw with Moraa tonight and Marco Arop last night.

Athing Mu needs to learn how to run on the rail

Mu has long run on the outside of lane 1, even while leading, because she feels more comfortable there and believes it lowers her risk of getting tripped. But the fact is, as long as a runner is close to you, contact can come from anywhere, and willingly running extra distance every turn does not make much sense.

It didn’t cost Mu the win tonight – Moraa ran even more distance – but it may have cost her the silver. Running on the outside of lane 1 means that you’re leaving the rail open for someone to come past you in the final straight. Hodgkinson almost passed Mu on the inside at Worlds last year, and she did pass Mu on the inside this year – a gap that would not have been open had Mu been running closer to the rail.

After the race, Mu also admitted that she might have gone out a little too fast. But she wanted to lead, and she knew that against the quality of field she was facing, she would have needed to run quickly to get it.

“I think I could have went a little slower, for sure,” Mu said.

Mu is ready for the season to be over and said she cannot wait to go on vacation

Mu stopped and talked for 11 minutes in the mixed zone after the final and opened up about why she considered skipping Worlds, saying the last three years with the Olympics-Worlds-Worlds along with changing coaches and moving across the country has been “a lot.” The first she said to the media in the mixed zone was that she was excited to leave Budapest on Monday and go on vacation. It seemed as if Worlds was something Mu felt she had to do more than something she really wanted to do.

Part of that is because Mu is one of the biggest stars in the sport and as a result, almost everything she does is scrutinized — especially when she races at only three meets all year. It is clear that Mu feels a lot of pressure whenever she steps out to race, both internal and external.

“Most of the time, we want to enjoy what we’re doing, we want to enjoy where we’re at, but to a certain extent, it kind of makes us lose heart for the sport because it’s like dang, are we ever going to be good enough?” Mu said. “…I feel like people can just take a chill pill sometimes, just let us do our thing and let us be athletes.”

Of course, much of the attention on Mu heading into Worlds came as a result of her coach Bobby Kersee telling the Los Angeles Times that Mu was considering skipping the meet entirely. When we asked Mu about that, she acted as if that discussion was going to be public either way, but it’s not something that needed to come out publicly — if Kersee had never spoken to the LA Times and Mu showed up and ran the 800 in Budapest, no one would have assumed she was considering skipping the meet.

One thing that was encouraging to see was that Mu appeared at peace with the bronze medal tonight. No athlete is going to win 100% of their races, and the two women who beat Mu tonight are outstanding athletes in their own right. Mu deserves credit for going out there and facing them. It’s fair to criticize Mu’s tactics but no one should be criticizing her for coming to Budapest and losing. Her comments on the subject were spot-on.

“I feel like just because I got bronze today, that’s not going to take anything away from my resume, it’s not going to take anything away from what people expect from me or what they expect from me,” Mu said.

Keely Hodgkinson after third straight silver — “one day, I’ll come out on top”

Hodgkinson was pleased with the consistency that has allowed her to earn silver in the last three global championships, each in very fast times — 1:55.88 in Tokyo, 1:56.38 in Eugene, 1:56.34 in Budapest. Hodgkinson finally beat Mu, improving her career record to 1-3, but she said that didn’t mean much to her as she did not get the gold medal she wanted.

“It was a lot of fun, but I am disappointed to not come out with the gold today,” Hodgkinson said. “One day I’ll come out on top. We’re all there or thereabouts and it’s just a matter of who’s the best on the day.”

Raevyn Rogers once again ran her best when it mattered the most

Rogers got a late jump on the 2023 season due to some health issues she chose not to elaborate on, and she did not start racing the 800 seriously this year until June (she did a couple of low-key local races in Portland in May). She was well-beaten at USAs by Nia Akins and only 7th in her last race before Worlds at the London Diamond League. But Rogers typically runs her best race at Worlds or the Olympics and she kept that pattern going this year. She’s now finished 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 4th at the last four global champs — impressive stuff.

“I’m happy with today,” Rogers said. “I fought out there. I tried to run it the way I would run it. I can’t complain.”

Nia Akins concludes fantastic season with 6th place at Worlds

It’s pretty incredible that it took until August 27 and the World Championship final for Nia Akins to suffer her first defeat in an 800m final in 2023. With the way Akins was running in the rounds, a medal did not seem out of the question, but in the final it was clear that Moraa, Hodgkinson, and Mu are still a cut above everyone else in the world. Akins ran pbs in her last two races in Budapest (1:58.61 in the semis, then a big pb of 1:57.73 in the final tonight) and was proud of how far she has come since turning pro out of Penn in 2020.

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