2023 Valencia Marathon Preview: 5K/10K World Record Holder Joshua Cheptegei Makes Historic Debut

For just the fifth time in the last 90 years, a men's 5k/10k world record holder will debut in the marathon

On Sunday, Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei will make his marathon debut in Valencia.

In elite running circles, this is what we would refer to as a big f—ing deal.

Cheptegei is the world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. He is the Olympic champion in the 5,000 and three-time defending world champion in the 10,000. Athletes of his stature do not come around very often. So when they step up to take on the ultimate distance of 26.2 miles for the first time, the running world must pay attention.

In the last 90 years, only four men have made their marathon debuts after holding the 5,000 and 10,000 world records. The first one produced one of the most famous races in the history of the sport: Emil Zatopek‘s victory in the 1952 Olympic marathon in Helsinki, the culmination of an unprecedented 5,000-10,000-marathon Olympic triple. Here are the others:

Athlete Year Race Result
Emil Zatopek 1952 Olympics 1st, 2:23:03
Lasse Viren* 1976 Olympics 5th, 2:13:11
Haile Gebrselassie 2002 London 3rd, 2:06:35
Kenenisa Bekele 2014 Paris 1st, 2:05:04

*Viren set his world records in 1972 but both had been broken by the time he debuted in 1976

All of those races were big f—ing deals. Viren’s debut, like Zatopek’s came at the Olympics after winning gold medals in the 5,000 and 10,000, but he had to settle for 5th in the marathon in Montreal. Gebrselassie’s debut came in one of the most-hyped marathons ever in London in 2002 — a race that somehow exceeded the hype with Gebrselassie finishing 3rd behind Khalid Khannouchi and Paul Tergat, with Khannouchi setting a world record of 2:05:38. Most recently, we had Bekele debuting in Paris in 2014, where he set the course record of 2:05:04.

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In some ways, Cheptegei’s debut is unique, even compared to those legends (at least on the men’s side). Gebrselassie and Bekele were far from done when they made their marathon debuts — Gebrselassie went on to break the marathon world record, while Bekele came two seconds shy — but both were past their peaks on the track. Geb would return to win silver in the 10,000 at the 2003 Worlds but would never win another gold; Bekele would never race on the track again after his marathon debut.

Zatopek and Viren, obviously, were in peak track form when they debuted, but those races came at the end of an Olympics, not after a dedicated marathon block. Since Viren in 1976, only one other man has debuted as the reigning global 10,000 champ: Mo Farah, who ran 2:08:21 to finish 8th at the 2014 London Marathon. But even Farah is not a perfect comparison to Cheptegei. Farah had eight months between his 10,000 gold in Moscow and his marathon debut in London. Cheptegei, who won the 10,000 in Budapest on August 20, had barely three months between his world title and his debut.

2023 Valencia Marathon race details

When: Sunday, December 3, 2:15 a.m. ET (8:15 a.m. local time)
Where: Valencia, Spain
How to watch: In the USA, the English language rights belong FloTrack. To find out who has streaming rights around the world, click here. Need a vpn? Use the VPN, we use at Letsrun.com.

*Full elite entries

How did Valencia become a running hotspot? We went to Spain last year to find out: LRC How Valencia Became the “Ciudad del Running”

What to expect from Cheptegei on Sunday

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Perhaps the best parallel to Cheptegei’s situation came just one year ago on the women’s side. Like Cheptegei, Letesenbet Gidey was coming off a world title on the track last summer. Like Cheptegei, Gidey was the world record holder in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. And like Cheptegei, she debuted in Valencia.

Gidey ran 2:16:49 for 2nd, a debut record that put her #6 on the all-time list (she’s since moved down to #8). But there are few key differences between Gidey and Cheptegei.

First: the two have slightly different skillsets. Cheptegei, obviously, has terrific endurance. You don’t run 26:11 or win World XC without a massive engine, and he’s run 41:05 on the roads for 15k, which was a world best when he ran it in 2018 (Jacob Kiplimo subsequently split 40:27 during his half marathon world record in 2021). But Cheptegei has been beaten convincingly in his two career half marathons: he was 4th at the 2020 World Half in 59:21, 32 seconds back of winner Kiplimo, and 2nd at the NYC Half this year in 61:31 (much tougher course), 38 seconds back of Kiplimo. Meanwhile Gidey, in addition to her track exploits, has run 62:52 for the half, nearly a minute faster than any other woman in history. Of the two, Gidey seemed more suited to the marathon. And if there’s a Ugandan capable of challenging the marathon world record one day, Kiplimo, not Cheptegei, is the better bet.

Then there are the expectations. When Gidey lined up for her debut in Valencia last year, she did so with the intention of breaking the world record. That is very much not the case for Cheptegei on Sunday. Cheptegei got a late start on his buildup because of a foot injury (that’s why he scratched the 5,000 at Worlds) and told Race Results Weekly he was limited to 140-160 km/week (87-99 miles) due to muddy conditions in his training base of Kapchorwa. That’s on the low end for an elite marathoner — roughly 30-40 miles per week less than Eliud Kipchoge and barely half of what Kelvin Kiptum‘s coach claims he runs.

There are reasons for optimism, though. Because of Kapchorwa’s rugged terrain, Cheptegei doesn’t run mega miles to begin with — his coach Addy Ruiter told LetsRun he did roughly 20-25 km (12-15 miles) more per week during his buildup than he would for the track. And Cheptegei increased his long runs from his usual 27k (16 miles) for track training to between 32k and 45k (20-28 miles). Those were done at lower elevation on tarmac roads, so the mud did not affect them.

All told, Ruiter said Cheptegei’s preparation for Valencia was similar to the training his teammate Victor Kiplangat put in ahead of his gold-medal run in the marathon at Worlds — just a bit shorter because of the foot injury.

“We planned this marathon to get physically and mentally used to marathon training and to get his first experiences in the marathon,” Ruiter wrote in an email to LetsRun. “The preparation period was short but was going well. And we kept always in our minds that his focus next year in Paris will be at the 10,000m. After Paris he will say goodbye to the track.”

Cheptegei expressed similar sentiments to RRW.

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“I’m not actually looking to run fast the first time,” he said. “For me, I want to learn. The best for me is to see myself being on the podium, whether I run 2:03 or 2:04. I don’t know what will take me to the podium. For me what is important is to enjoy the race and see what happens after 35 kilometers.”

Conventional wisdom says we won’t see Cheptegei’s true marathon potential until after the 2024 Olympics, when he focuses on the event full-time. But the last two years of women’s marathoning is challenging everything we thought we knew about the 26.2-mile distance. New world record holder Tigst Assefa was an Olympian at 800 meters. Sifan Hassan won two major marathons this year without fully focusing on the distance. Super shoes have effectively shortened the marathon and taken a sledgehammer to the wall that used to hit runners at 20 miles. So maybe Cheptegei smashes it out of the park on Sunday. But 2:03-2:04 seems more realistic.

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MB: Valencia: Cheptegei predictions?

Rest of the men’s field — what can former HM world record holder Kibiwott Kandie do?

There are five men on the Valencia start list with personal bests under 2:04 and another five under 2:05. Of those, the man in the best marathon form is Tanzania’s Gabriel Geay, who was 2nd in Valencia last year behind Kelvin Kiptum in 2:03:00 and 2nd in Boston this spring in 2:06:04 behind Evans Chebet. There’s also Chalu Deso (6th last year in 2:04:56, then won Tokyo in 2:05:22), Alexander Mutiso (3rd last year in 2:03:29, then won Prague in 2:05:09), 2021 London champ Sisay Lemma (2:03:36 pb), and Worlds bronze medalist Leul Gebresilase, who has finished on the podium in four of his last five marathons. It’s a stacked field.

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With all of that talent, it seems crazy to dwell on a guy with a 2:13 pb, but Kenya’s Kibiwott Kandie is not your typical 2:13 marathoner. Kandie was the silver medalist at the World Half in 2020, and his three previous trips to Valencia for the half marathon have all ended with statement victories: a 57:32 world record in 2020 (still one of the craziest races ever), a 58:10 victory last year, and a 57:40 victory in October, where he took down track stars Yomif KejelchaHagos Gebrhiwet, and Selemon Barega as well as newly-crowned World Half champ Sabastian Sawe. Kandie hasn’t run a marathon since his 2:13:43 in New York in 2021, so he does not have a pb befitting his talents. But he’s in supreme form and with great conditions in the forecast on Sunday (40s/low-50s, 3-7 mph wind), he could be capable of something very fast on Valencia’s flat course.

The other thing to watch is whether anyone who is not already qualified for the Olympics can hit the auto standard of 2:08:10 (or improve their world ranking enough to displace the third American on the Road to Paris list, currently Scott Fauble in 61st). There are 46 men in the field with sub-2:11 pbs and Valencia represents one of the best chances to run a pb during the 2024 Olympic qualifying window. The top 64 on the Road to Paris list as of January 30 guarantee spots for their countries in the Olympic marathon.

Kenenisa Bekele update (yes, he’s still running)

Cheptegei will not be the only runner in Valencia who has held the 5,000 and 10,000 world records. Eighteen years after his last world record, Kenenisa Bekele, 41, is still chugging along, though he will do so in Valencia with a new uniform: after two decades with Nike, he is now sponsored by the Chinese brand Anta.

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Bekele hasn’t run a truly great marathon since his 2:01:41 at 2019 Berlin and dropped out of his most recent race in London in April.

“[He was] not top top shape [in London],” Bekele’s agent Jos Hermens told LetsRun. “I think the problem was he saw eight or nine guys running away, he couldn’t see them. Later, he regretted that he dropped out, because I think three or four of those guys dropped out in the meantime. So he would have been 4th or 5th and I think he could have run 2:06, 2:05-2:06 would not have been a problem. But he got very disoriented and dismotivated by running alone in the streets of London and not knowing what his position exactly was and what was going on…But obviously he did not come to be #8, #9, or #10.”

For Valencia, it may be best to temper expectations. Anta has a carbon-plated racing shoe but it is unproven at this point. And Hermens said Bekele had the flu recently, which affected his race preparations.

“[He wants to keep running] as long as possible,” Hermens said. “Of course, he still has a big aim and dream of the Olympics, but we all know that’s not going to be easy. To qualify, it will be tough.”

Bekele was left off the 2016 and 2020 Ethiopian Olympic teams so if he somehow made it in 2024 it would be remarkable.

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Women’s race: Ayana, Dibaba, and the return of a Boston champ

The women’s field took a hit on Thursday when the top seed, Ethiopia’s Tsehay Gemechu (2:16:56 pb), was provisionally suspended by the Athletics Integrity Unit for an Athlete Biological Passport violation. But the race still features a few former world record holders in Ethiopians Almaz Ayana and Genzebe Dibaba. Ayana, the former 10,000 WR holder and 2016 Olympic 10,000 champ, ran 2:17:20 to win Amsterdam last fall — the fastest debut in history until Gidey’s 2:16:49 in Valencia two months later. Marathon #2 was not as successful as she was 7th in London in April, though she won her Valencia tuneup by clocking 67:58 at the Delhi Half on October 15.

Degefa after winning Boston in 2019

Dibaba also debuted in Amsterdam last year, running 2:18:05 for 2nd, before DNFing London this year. Dibaba has already run a marathon this fall, clocking 2:21:47 for 8th in Chicago on October 8, and will race Valencia just eight weeks later.

There’s also a name on the start list that we haven’t seen in the marathon for quite some time: Worknesh Degefa. In 2019-20, the Ethiopian Degefa was one of the world’s top female marathoners. She ran 2:17:41 at 2019 Dubai (which put her #4 on the all-time list, she was 2nd to Ruth Chepngetich in the race), then won 2019 Boston and 2020 Dubai. After that, Degefa, now 33, had a baby, and went more than three years without racing: her World Athletics profile lists no results from January 2020 until October 2023, when she resurfaced by running 67:48 to win the Trento Half Marathon. She’s certainly someone to keep an eye on in Valencia.

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How did Valencia become a running hotspot? We went to Spain last year to find out: LRC How Valencia Became the “Ciudad del Running”

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