In an arena where endurance is king, speed also proved a precious commodity. In the end, Peres Jepchirchir needed both to reign supreme in the women’s race at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 on Saturday (17), powering to gold in 1:05:16, a world record* in a women-only race.
She led home Germany's Melat Yisak Kejeta, who smashed the European women-only record to take silver in 1:05:18, with Ethiopia’s Yalemzerf Yehualaw a close third in 1:05:19.
In a race blighted by falls, where three of the leading contenders saw their chances scuppered through unfortunate incidents, the race boiled down to a clash between those able to stay on their feet through the four laps around the streets of Gdynia.
On what was a cold, breezy morning alongside the Baltic Sea, the pace was scorching from the outset. Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei was one of the chief aggressors, leading a pack of 13 through the first 5km in 15:20. Midway through the second lap the first casualties began to show from that group and it was whittled to eight, with Turkey’s Yasemin Can another keen to push things along.
Ethiopia’s Netsanet Gudeta’s race almost came to an abrupt stop as the leaders took a 90-degree turn on to the seafront, the defending champion taking a fall and losing several seconds to the leaders. It was a gap she would never close, the Ethiopian slipping farther behind during the third lap.
Can led a group of seven through 10km in 30:47, but on the third lap Jepchirchir made her first strong move, the women-only half marathon world record holder injecting a surge and putting many of those behind in visible distress.
At this point a trio of Ethiopians – Ababel Yeshaneh, Zeineba Yimer and Yehualaw – were coasting quietly in their slipstream along with Germany’s Kejeta, and as they turned away from the beach to head out on their final lap Yehualaw made her first move towards the front.
However, Jepkosgei soon seized the advantage again as they ran uphill, with a pack of seven reaching 15km in 46:24. The entire spectre of the race changed with 54 minutes on the clock. Yeshaneh surged to the front but soon began to drift towards the kerb due to the camber of the road, her legs tangling with Jepkosgei and both athletes hitting the deck.
Both were left some 30 metres in arrears by the time they were up and running, with Yehualaw, Can and Kejeta suddenly left alone out front, Yimer and Can also falling off pace as the leaders powered downhill towards the coast for the final time.
Yehualaw and Jepchirchir ran side by side, with Kejeta hanging tough in their slipstream, and as they turned for home with less than a kilometre to run the three ran side by side towards the finish.
Jepchirchir bided her time and took advantage as Yehualaw hesitated entering the finishing straight, the Kenyan 27-year-old digging in and surging clear to a memorable victory. Kejeta took more than three minutes off her personal best in second and the 28-year-old, who previously represented Ethiopia, was ecstatic with her runner-up spot.
"It's unbelievable," said Jepchirchir. "My goal was to win this race. I did not expect that I would beat the world record, but I realised that it could happen when we passed 20km. It was a little bit windy, but the course was good for me.
"I feel sorry for the athletes who fell, they are strong athletes. When they fell, I almost fell down too, but I jumped.
"My season is not yet complete," added Jepchirchir. "I still have Valencia Marathon in December so I’ll prepare for that. I think this win gave me a lot. I'd like to run 2:17 or 2:18 for the marathon.
"This pandemic was difficult and it affected a lot of people. I used this time to train, I didn’t stop my training because I was trying to reach my shape.
"I am so happy with this. It’s a gift to all the Kenyans, to my family. I am going to rest now for one week to recover then I’ll continue training for Valencia."
Back in third, Yehualaw led Ethiopia to gold in the team event to back up the title they won at the last edition two years ago, with Yimer’s 1:05:39 in fourth and Yeshaneh’s 1:05:41 in fifth giving them the quickest cumulative time with 3:16:39, smashing the championship record. Kenya took team silver with 3:18:10 while Germany took bronze with 3:28:42.
In a race of unprecedented depth, the first six women finished inside 66 minutes and the top nine finished inside 67 minutes.
Although Jepkosgei lost her momentum after taking a tumble, she still managed to finish sixth in 1:05:58, the third-fastest time of her career after her two world records from 2017. In seventh, Can broke the Turkish record with 1:06:20 to finish 28 seconds ahead of Gudeta.
Kenya's Brillian Kipkoech (1:06:56) and Rosemary Wanjiru (1:07:10) rounded out the top 10, while a bit further back there were national records for Switzerland's Fabienne Schlumpf (13th, 1:08:38) and Uganda's Juliet Chekwel (14th, 1:08:44).
Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics
*Pending the usual ratification procedure