For the first time in the history of the championships, the women’s race at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 will have two current world record-holders for the distance as Peres Jepchirchir and Ababel Yeshaneh line up against one another on Saturday (17).
From 2013 onwards there have been separate world records in women’s roads events – one for women-only races, and one for mixed races. And this year both half marathon records have been broken with Ethiopia’s Yeshaneh clocking 1:04:31 at the Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon in February and Kenya’s Jepchirchir running 1:05:34 in a women-only race at the Prague 21.1K in September.
Jepchirchir’s performance is the more recent of the two, so there is little doubt over the 27-year-old’s form heading into Gdynia. She is also a past winner of the title, having won gold in Cardiff in 2016, and she went on to set a short-lived world record of 1:05:06 in Ras Al Khaimah in 2017.
She gave birth to daughter Natalia at the end of 2017 and so missed most of 2018, but she returned to form last year with victories at the Lisbon Half Marathon (1:06:54) and Saitama Marathon (2:23:50).
Yeshaneh, however, is a formidable opponent and she’ll be lifted by the memories of their one previous clash, at the 2016 Delhi Half Marathon, where she finished three places and 36 seconds ahead of Jepchirchir.
Yeshaneh finished ninth in the 10,000m at the 2013 World Championships and 14th in the 5000m at the 2016 Olympic Games before devoting most of her time to road running. She has finished in the top two in 10 of her past 12 half marathons and has impressed over the full marathon distance, placing second in Chicago last year in a PB of 2:20:51.
Her final outing before heading to Poland was Ethiopia’s 15km trial race, in which she finished fourth. Knowing that she only needed to finish in the top six, though, she could well have been doing just enough to secure her spot on the team, wanting to stay fresh for Gdynia.
Saturday’s race isn’t just about the two world record-holders, though. Netsanet Kebede Gudeta and Joyciline Jepkosgei, the gold and silver medallists from 2018 – and, incidentally, the previous world record-holders of the two women’s half marathon marks – will also line up in Gdynia. It means that the four most recent world record-holders for the distance will all be in attendance in Gdynia.
Gudeta won in Valencia two years ago in a women-only world record of 1:06:11, comfortably beating pre-race favourite Jepkosgei, who in 2017 had set two outright world records for the distance.
Since then, however, both women have had mixed fortunes. Gudeta hasn’t won a half marathon since 2018, but she equalled the Ethiopian record of 1:05:45 in 2019. She also failed to finish the 10,000m at the World Championships in Doha, but Saturday’s race could be an opportunity for redemption for the 29-year-old.
And while Jepkosgei – the fastest woman in history over 5km, 10km, 15km and 20km – hasn’t quite yet returned to her record-breaking form from 2017, the 26-year-old Kenyan impressed at last year’s New York City Marathon to win on her debut at the distance in 2:22:38, just a few seconds shy of the long-standing course record.
Jepchirchir and Jepkosgei are joined on the Kenyan team by Rosemary Wanjiru, Dorcas Kimeli and Brillian Kipkoech.
Since finishing fourth in the 10,000m at last year’s World Championships, Wanjiru has emerged this year as a much stronger athlete. The 25-year-old clocked 29:50 over 10km in Valencia back in January, going to third on the world all-time list for the distance, and followed it with a 1:05:34 run in Ras Al Khaimah, the fastest half marathon debut in history.
She hasn’t raced on the roads since then, but in July she clocked a 5000m PB of 15:03.49 and a 10,000m season’s best of 30:38.18.
Kimeli, like Jepkosgei and Wanjiru, is one of five women to have bettered 30 minutes for 10km on the roads. She is less experienced than most of her team-mates, but has finished on the podium in all five of her half marathons to date and has a 1:07:10 PB, set in Barcelona earlier this year.
The Ethiopian team also has three sub-66-minute performers. Zeineba Yimer clocked her 1:05:46 PB to finish third in Ras Al Khaimah last year, just one second behind Gudeta. Later in the year, Yimer finished fifth at the Valencia Marathon in 2:19:28 on her debut at the distance. Her only race in 2020 was Ethiopia’s 15km trial, where she finished third, in between Gudeta and Yeshaneh.
Yalemzerf Yehualaw won the Ethiopian trial event, underlining her ability in championship-style racing. She was sixth in Ras Al Khaimah earlier this year, finishing behind Yeshaneh and Wanjiru, but won three of her four outings over the distance in 2019, including at the African Games.
Medhin Beyene, Nigsti Haftu and Sisay Meseret Gola complete Ethiopia’s entries.
Given the quality of their teams, Kenyan and Ethiopian women will likely fill most of the top 10 places on Saturday, but the exact finishing order – for the individual honours and the team title – is anybody’s guess.
There are a few other contenders outside the two powerhouse teams, though.
Israel’s Lonah Chemtai Salpeter finished 12th at the last World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia and then went on to win European 10,000m gold in Berlin. She improved her half marathon PB to 1:06:09 in 2019 and earlier this year she won the Tokyo Marathon in a world-leading 2:17:45, covering the second half in 1:08:29.
Turkey’s Yasemin Can, who preceded Salpeter as European 10,000m champion, showed good form in Ostrava last month, running 14:40.70 over 5000m. In a competitive field like this one, she could well improve on the 1:08:29 she ran in Istanbul last year, her only half marathon to date.
While it’s highly likely that Kenya and Ethiopia will take the top two spots in the team competition, the third place appears to be wide open.
Following on from their team bronze at last year’s World Cross, Uganda could make it on to the podium again this weekend. Juliet Chekwel won the Seville Marathon earlier this year in a Ugandan record of 2:23:13 on her debut at the distance, which suggests her national half marathon record of 1:09:45 could be due for revision this weekend.
Germany, led by 1:08:41 performer Melat Kejeta, has a strong team, as does Ukraine and Sweden.
Other notable entrants include Italy’s 2013 world marathon silver medallist Valeria Straneo, who will be the oldest athlete in action at the championships, and Finland’s 1996 Olympic finalist Annemari Kiekara, who returns to the World Half Marathon Championships 22 years after her last appearance in the event.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics