7 BIG Takeaways From an Amazing 2023 Valencia Marathon

The paces were hot and the depth was incredible in Valencia once again

If you missed watching the 2023 Trinidad Alfonso Valencia Marathon live today due to its 2:15 a.m. ET start time, we’re here to catch you up. And don’t feel too bad about losing your “ultimate distance runner fan card” as we also didn’t watch it live.

Ethiopia’s Sisay Lemma, the 2021 London champion, won the men’s race in 2:01:48 to become the fourth man in history under 2:02 and take five seconds off Kelvin Kiptum’s course record set last year. On the women’s side, Ethiopia’s Worknesh Degefa, the 2019 Boston champion, made a triumphant return to the sport. Running her first marathon since January 2020 after giving birth twice in the interim, Degefa ran 2:15:51 to move to #7 on the all-time list. She beat 2016 Olympic 10k champion Almaz Ayana, who was 2nd in a pb of 2:16:22 (#8 all-time).

Joshua Cheptegei, the world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters making his debut in Valencia, was with the leader through halfway but struggled on the way home and finished 37th in 2:08:59.

Meanwhile 41-year-old Kenenisa Bekele ran his fastest marathon in four years to finish 4th in 2:04:19 and set a masters world record.

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Here are seven big takeaways from Valencia.

1) The pace was super hot in the men’s race. Running in his 25th marathon, eventual race winner Sisay Lemma set a half marathon pb in the first half!

It was announced before the race that the lead group would go out at 61:00-61:15 but on a great day for running fast, that didn’t happen. They went way faster than that and so a bunch of runners faced a big decision — do I go for it and potentially blow up or try to run this thing alone? In the end, a big group of around 10 men hit halfway in 60:35. 

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The lead pack at halfway

There is no leaderboard on the Valencia website but we have been able to determine the following eight men were definitely in the lead pack. Here is how they finished:

Sisay Lemma – 2:01:48 1st
Alexander Mutiso – 2:03:11 2nd
Dawit Wolde – 2:03:48 3rd
Gabriel Geay – 2:04:33 5th
Kibiwott Kandie – 2:04:48 6th
Chalu Deso – 2:05:14 7th
Joshua Cheptegei – 2:08:59 37th
Stephen Kiprop – 2:09:25 39th

A few others like Titus Kipruto (60:48 – ended up 20th in 2:07:22) and Bekele (60:58 – 4th in 2:04:19) had been with the lead pack earlier.

The second pack hit halfway in 62:53. The top runner from that pack, Mohamed Esa, ran 2:05:40 for 8th.

Embed from Getty Images

Race winner Sisay Lemma wasn’t afraid to go for it and he was rewarded. The 32-year-old Lemma, who before today was best known for winning 2021 London (Eliud Kipchoge didn’t run London that year), has an official half marathon pb of 61:09, which he ran on October 8 to win Ankara.

Today, Lemma ran the first half in 60:35 and while he slowed down in the second half, he still almost beat his official half marathon pb in that as well as he clock a 61:13 for the second half.

Lemma came into the race with a 2:03:36 pb from 2019 Berlin and he had four other clockings under 2:05:00 on his CV but for him to run a near 2-minute PB in the 25th marathon of his life is wild.

Since winning London in 2021, his marathons had been subpar before today: DNF 2022 Boston, 7th 2022 London (2:07:26), 2nd 2023 Prague (2:06:26).

2) Joshua Cheptegei TOTALLY blew up in his debut

Joshua Cheptegei said before the race his focus would be on the track for the 2024 Olympics. That was confirmed today as the Olympic marathon is not even an option for the Ugandan: he missed the standard by 49 seconds.

Cheptegei, whose buildup was shortened by a foot injury, did not run a timid race however. He went for it. He went out with the leaders, hitting halfway in 60:36, but he would fall off shortly after that and struggle on the way home, running his second half in 68:23.

While Sifan Hassan made it look easy this year to alternate between the marathon and the track, it could be the case that Hassan is a total freak. Cheptegei’s time of 2:08:59 was similar to the time run by the last man to debut as the reigning 10,000 world champion: Mo Farah, who ran 2:08:21 in London in 2014. 

Of course, Farah did not have super shoes in that race but he also didn’t go out in 60:36. To remind you how much faster marathoning has gotten in less than a decade, the halfway split for the lead at 2014 London was 62:31 and Farah went out in 63:08. Afterwards, we blamed the somewhat disappointing 2:04:29 winning time (even though it was a CR) on the fact that the downhill first 5k was run at a “ridiculous” 2:01:06 pace.

After the race, Cheptegei wrote on X that is not done with the marathon – but will wait until after Paris for his next one:

“I am proud that I finished, despite that the result didn’t match up with what we had trained for,” Cheptegei wrote. “I have had disappointment before and it always made me come back stronger, it is the most powerful lesson in life. More marathon chapters will be written in the years to come.”

3) Kenenisa Bekele is still relevant!!!

On this week’s Friday 15 podcast, LetsRun.com co-founder Robert Johnson explained why he insisted that Jonathan Gault reach out to super agent Jos Hermens to get an update on Kenenisa Bekele’s training prior to this race. The rationale was simple – Bekele is the greatest distance runner in history and only four years removed from a 2:01:41. Plus middle-aged fans love Bekele as they were following him in their 20s — he’s like a time machine back to their youth. However, Rojo vowed to institute a 365-day ban on LetsRun.com mentioning Bekele’s name if Bekele failed to do something special on Sunday.

Bekele runs 2:04:18 at age 41

At the age of 41, running for the first time in Chinese super shoes (Anta), Bekele was fantastic. He went with the super fast lead pack for 15k, then backed off and tried to largely solo it. He hit halfway in 60:58 and picked off a lot of guys in the second half.

Bekele’s dream is to compete at one last Olympics in the marathon. A three-time Olympic gold medalist on the track, Bekele was not selected for the Ethiopian team in 2016 or 2021. But after today, Bekele is in the conversation for 2024. Three Ethiopians have run faster than Bekele in 2023: Tadese Takele, who ran 2:03:24 for 3rd in Berlin, and Sisay Lemma (2:01:48) and Dawit Wolde (2:03:48), who beat Bekele today in Valencia. But there are two others who have won World Marathon Majors this year – Chalu Deso won Tokyo in 2:05:22 and Tamirat Tola won New York in a course record of 2:04:58. It should be noted that Deso ran Valencia today as well and Bekele beat him by nearly a minute.

You can never tell what the Ethiopian federation is going to do – last time around, they staged a hastily-arranged 35k trials to pick their team, a race Bekele did not run. Certainly, Lemma and Tola would rank ahead of Bekele were Ethiopia to pick their team today. But after his performance today, Bekele, amazingly, has a chance to make the team if he can run a great spring marathon.

It’s also worth noting that Bekele set a masters (age 40+) world record of 2:04:19 today. Last year in London, Bekele broke the record by running 2:05:53, but Switzerland’s Tadesse Abraham surpassed him by running 2:05:10 in Berlin in September. Now Bekele has the record again and is the first man over 40 to break 2:06. (If you’re curious, Kipchoge does not officially turn 40 until November 4, 2024).

4) Worknesh Degefa re-enters the conversation

When Worknesh Degefa ran her last marathon, a 2:19:38 win in Dubai in January 2020, super shoes were a thing but had yet to totally rewrite the record books on the women’s side. Degefa’s pb was 2:17:41 and that placed her #5 on the all-time list.

When Degefa returned to the marathon today after taking almost four years away to have two kids, her 2:17:41 moved her all the way down to #18. Today, she looked as if she never left, running 2:15:51 to show she is once again one of the best female marathoners on the planet.

5) The depth in Valencia was insane

A staggering 28 guys broke 2:08 in the men’s race today, easily the most in history. The most before today? Just 18 at last year’s Valencia and this year’s Osaka. The 40 sub-2:10s, however, was not a record. 2021 Lake Biwa had 42.

In terms of the women’s race, check out this stat from Steven Mills:

6) Bad news for US marathon fans

Entering the day, the US looked to be in a pretty good spot when it came to Olympic qualifying. Anyone ranked above the 65th athlete in the filtered Road to Paris list as of January 30 unlocks a spot for their country at the 2024 Olympics. The US already had two spots guaranteed with Conner Mantz and Clayton Young hitting the 2:08:10 auto standard in Chicago, and Scott Fauble (the next-ranked American) was ranked 62nd with just two months remaining until January 30. For Fauble to slide out of the top 64, he would need multiple athletes from countries that did not already have three qualifiers to hit the auto standard in Valencia.

That’s exactly what happened.

The top 28 finishers in Valencia broke 2:08:10. Crucially for the US, four of them were from countries that did not already have three men ranked ahead of Fauble. Here they are:

Shokhrukh Davlyatov, Uzbekistan 2:07:02
Samuel Barata, Portugal 2:07:35
Khalid Choukoud, Netherlands 2:07:37
Alberto Gonzalez Mindez, Guatemala 2:07:40

With all of those athletes punching their Olympic berths on Sunday (assuming their federations select them), they will all move ahead of Fauble on the Road to Paris list and push him down to #66 (though one of the athletse ranked ahead of him, Rwanda’s John Hakizimana, was just banned two years for doping). With no top Americans running a marathon between now and January 30, the US will not have three spots guaranteed when the Olympic Trials go off on February 3.

The US should still have three athletes at the 2024 Olympics. While the first 64 Olympic marathon spots are awarded on January 30, the remaining 16 spots are awarded based on the Road to Paris list on April 30. The US is in a strong position there as almost every top marathon country will not be on that secondary list, having already qualified three athletes in the first window. But the US cannot guarantee that the top three men’s finishers at the Trials will be going to the Olympics, because right now the US has only unlocked two spots.

7) The LetsRun.com messageboard is still an amazing way to follow the race.

Not watching this one live brought me (Rojo) back to 20 years when all of the races weren’t broadcast online. When I woke up, I thought to myself, “How do I want to find the results?” I thought about going to the front page and just seeing what we had up but that would ruin the suspense.

Thankfully, I had bookmarked the official thread page and read through that. It was awesome as I got the same excitement one does when I watch the race but in much quicker fashion. It felt like I was watching the race but instead of it taking two hours, it took 20 minutes. The messageboard posters did a great job of describing what was important – the guys are going for it, Cheptegei and Bekele included, Cheptegei is hurting, Bekele still going strong, etc. I even learned Jonathan Gault got a mention on the broadcast and that the broadcast was incredible as it focused just on the elites that was broadcast for free on its website (albeit in Spanish).

If you want to rewatch the race, a free English language replay is now up on YouTube.

The Abbott World Marathon Majors can talk all they want about expansion but Valencia — which isn’t part of their series — may soon be vying for best marathon in the world status.

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