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Feature02 Oct 2023

Riga reflections – looking back on a superb inaugural championships, and hopes for what future editions could be


The start of the men's 5km in Riga (© Adam Nurkiewicz)

At the finish, no matter their speed, the smiles were just the same. So too was the pain.

Because in the end, whether they ran the half marathon in one hour or three hours, whether they raced the mile in four minutes or 14, these were people of different cultures, varied backgrounds, who were all cut from the same cloth.

At the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23 on Sunday (1), thousands of runners from across the globe came together on the streets of the Latvian capital for a festival that united various strands of the running community.

It began with a mass 5km race at 10am and finished with a half marathon at 2:30pm, a race that saw the elites set off with thousands of others – each competitor circling the same course around the splendid capital before finishing alongside the River Daugava.

Of course, the weekend was about more than just the races, given the World Athletics Global Running Conference was held over the preceding two days, along with various events for kids on Saturday (30).

To stand at the finish of the concluding half marathon event on Sunday was to be met with a kaleidoscope of colour, as well as various illustrations of immense courage. The first woman home was Peres Jepchirchir, the Kenyan great claiming her third world half marathon title and looking just as dominant as ever. She had twice conquered the event when it was held as a standalone World Half Marathon Championship. What did she make of the new format?

“I love it,” she said, adding that she hoped to see a 10km added in future editions. “We used to not have championships on the road, just for the half marathon, but now it’s more special.”

Peres Jepchirchir celebrates her world half marathon win in Riga

Peres Jepchirchir celebrates her world half marathon win in Riga (© Adam Nurkiewicz)

Jepchirchir had to dig deep to take gold, kicking clear of teammate Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi down the home straight, but those far behind were all fighting their own battles, no matter their pace.

Otonye Iworima, a Nigerian who works with the Lagos City Marathon, had come to Riga for the Global Running Conference but with her duties there complete, she wasn’t going to miss the chance to race the world’s best.

“I had to do a Sifan Hassan like 11 times with my calf – to stop and stretch,” laughed Iworima, who finished in just over two hours. “I fell down at 20km but this is the best half marathon, the most challenging, the best experience. I love the fact that ordinary people can compete with elite athletes. It’s something no other sport has.”

France’s Jimmy Gressier, who had a storming run in the men’s half marathon, clocking a PB of 59:46 to finish fifth, was also a fan of the format. “It’s a good idea because all the athletes run together on the road, 1500m guys, 5K guys, marathon guys,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

His teammate, Thierry Bardon, wasn’t quite as swift around the course. The 61-year-old from Bordeaux finished in just under two and a half hours, which he put down to doing “no training” and racking up 19km of walking while sightseeing in Riga the day before. But when he saw the event advertised a few months earlier, he knew he had to be part of it. “Because it was the World Championship and to get this – the medal,” he said.

Finishing just ahead of him was Christopher Alonso, a New Yorker who said the experience was “pretty amazing,” adding it was the “first time but not the last time” he’d run at the championships.

The start of the mass races in Riga

The start of the mass races in Riga (© Marta Gorczynska)

From the Netherlands came a delighted trio of runners who raced and finished together – Wim, Nico and Ingrid, who organise the Venloop Half Marathon. “We ran as one, suffered as one,” said Ingrid. “And we were not last!”

They were followed home by Tony Phillips, who had travelled from South Derbyshire in the UK to run his 24th half marathon, having already completed 100 marathons. These days, the 76-year-old can “only 10-minute miles” so he was happy to dip inside two-and-a-half hours. “It was tough,” he said. “But the music on the course was fantastic.”

The reports were much the same from the speedier competitors.

“The more you can bring the best runners from different events together to compete in head-to-head competition, it makes a better, more entertaining sport,” said Morgan McDonald of Australia, who was seventh in the men’s 5km in 13:26. “I’d like it to continue and to happen in a sustainable way. I don’t want it to disappear; I want more and more people to do it.”

The start of the men's 5km at the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23

The start of the men's 5km at the World Athletics Road Running Championships Riga 23 (© Adam Nurkiewicz)

His teammate Jess Hull, who finished fifth in the women’s mile in 4:32.45, said it was a very different experience to major track championships. “You get the feeling in the stadium of the crowd being right there with you but here, they can literally be in your face if they lean over the barrier – it takes it to a new level and was really cool,” she said.

Hull’s one wish was that the finish line for the mile had been the same as for the half marathon and 5km, so she could have watched other competitors, but others pointed out the benefits of two different courses.

“I quite like the fact it’s not all on the same course, it gives spectators something different to look at,” said Callum Elson of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, who surprised many to take silver in the men’s mile. “The grand finish, to see that monument from 800m out, it gets you excited earlier than you normally would.”

Elson edged former world record-holder Sam Prakel to second place, and the US athlete was another to herald the success of the championships. “I’m all for this event, it’s amazing and it’s great to include all age groups,” he said. “Running, for me, I hope it’s a lifelong thing and maybe when I’m older I’ll come back to this and still get to compete, maybe not at this level, but to keep that going is such a healthy lifestyle.”

The men’s mile champion Hobbs Kessler – who netted $60,000 in prize money, inclusive of his world record bonus – said it was a “great concept” to bring track specialists and road specialists together. “I hope over the coming years it gets more and more prestigious,” he said.

Ethan Yan of Singapore was the final finisher in the men’s elite mile, clocking 4:32.44 for 35th, but for him this was a trip well worth making. “The atmosphere was electric, it was such a good experience,” he said. “I never raced the mile before on the road, only on the track, and this was an entirely different experience.”

The women's half marathon in Riga

The women's half marathon in Riga (© Marta Gorczynska)

His teammate Romaine Rui-Min Soh finished 29th in the women’s mile and she was all smiles afterwards as she mingled with runners from various countries. “Usually track is such a separate event from the road and to bring the shorter distances up to a mass level is a really good concept because now both ends of the spectrum meet together,” she said. “People I see run on TV are with me, right in front of my eyes. I get to say hello to them, and that’s such a great experience for me.”

The next edition of the World Athletics Road Running Championships will take place in 2025 in San Diego, USA. “I think America love their road miles and going there on the back of a first time like Latvia, who have really shown out today, will be great,” said Hull. “It’s going to level up again.”

It may be two years away, but Hull plans to be there, as does Beatrice Chebet, the Kenyan who capped a fine year with victory in the women’s 5km in 14:35. “I’ll come back again, to make history,” she said.

Chebet, like the other winners, carved their own piece of history on the streets of Riga, becoming the first gold medallists at the inaugural championships which, if the weekend was anything to go by, now looks set to run and run.

As Morgan McDonald put it: “I think it’s what the sport should be.”

Cathal Dennehy for World Athletics