Joshua Cheptegei and Letesenbet Gidey (© NN Running Team)
As this extraordinary year draws to a close, we look back at the key moments of 2020 in each area of the sport. The series continues today with a review of the middle- and long-distance action.
Bellinzona provided the best race of the year when, on 8 September, the top four – Hedda Hynne, Selina Büchel, Lore Hoffmann and Jemma Reekie – all ran 1:58. Hynne’s 1:58.10 was a Norwegian record, Büchel ran the second-fastest time of her career (1:58.37) and Swiss compatriot Hoffman ran 1:58.50, a PB by two seconds.
For Reekie, however, the race was slightly disappointing. She came into the race as the undefeated world leader over 800m (1:58.63 outdoors, 1:57.91 indoors) after having won in Trieste, Stockholm and Chorzow but then ended up fourth in Bellinzona. Two days later, however, Reekie returned to winning ways and defeated Hynne and Hoffmann in Rome.
Another eight days later in Doha, Hynne was replaced as world leader by 1500m specialist Faith Kipyegon, who lowered a five-year-old PB by half a second to 1:57.68. Kipyegon had indicated her potential at this shorter distance in Monaco and Brussels by passing 800m in 1:59 in two (unsuccessful) attempts at the 1000m world record.
World champion Halimah Nakaayi didn’t race 800m outdoors this year, nor did world bronze medallist Ajee Wilson. World silver medallist Raevyn Rogers raced in Stockholm and Gothenburg, clocking 2:01.02 and 2:01.24.
The limited opportunities to compete internationally were visible statistically. In 2019 there were 58 sub-two-minute performances by 26 athletes; in 2020 it had dropped to 20 races by eight athletes.
Following a promising start to the year with some swift indoor performances, this distance suffered slightly from the lack of races during the outdoor season.
World champion Donavan Brazier raced once at this distance indoors, clocking a 1:44.22 North American record at the Millrose Games in New York in February to move to fifth on the world indoor all-time list.
Brazier was also the outdoor world leader, clocking 1:43.84 in Oregon in July before winning in Monaco with 1:43.15. He notched another victory in Stockholm in 1:43.76, the final race of his unbeaten season.
US compatriot Bryce Hoppel, fourth at the World Championships last year, was the second fastest in 2020 with his 1:43.23 personal best behind Brazier in Monaco.
Daniel Rowden, the third-fastest athlete this year – and, like Brazier and Hoppel, also born in 1997 – clocked a big PB of 1:44.09 to win in Zagreb in September. Another promising Briton, 18-year-old Max Burgin, ran 1:44.75 in Stretford in August for his first sub-1:45 clocking.
This event was owned by Laura Muir who ran in Stockholm, Chorzow and Berlin. She dominated all three races, won comfortably by 3.76, 1.46 and 2.69 seconds respectively and recorded the three outstanding times of the year: 3:57.86, 3:58.24 and 3:57.40.
With world champion Sifan Hassan, world record-holder Genzebe Dibaba and world bronze medallist Gudaf Tsegay not running the distance outdoors, the only true challenger to Muir would have been world silver medallist Faith Kipyegon. Unfortunately, however, the two never met as Kipyegon’s undefeated season consisted of three 1000m races, one 800m and just one 1500m (at the Continental Tour Gold meeting in Ostrava). In that race the Kenyan ran 3:59.05 to win by 2.91 seconds from Briton Laura Weightman, who seven days later finished 2.69 behind Muir.
US duo Karissa Schweizer (4:00.02) and Elle Purrier (4:00.77) lowered their PBs substantially but sadly neither they nor North American record-holder Shelby Houlihan competed on the international scene.
Purrier enjoyed a big breakthrough at the Millrose Games back in February, clocking a North American indoor mile record of 4:16.85 – the second-fastest time in history for the distance.
Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen and Poland’s Sofia Ennaoui were the only other women to break four minutes for 1500m this year. Klosterhalfen clocked 3:59.87 indoors on her way to setting a national indoor mile record of 4:17.26, finishing behind Purrier at the Millrose Games. Ennaoui ran 3:59.70 in Chorzow when finishing behind Muir.
The depth, as in many events, may have been lacking in 2020, but the top five in this event was as good as during any season.
The fastest times were achieved in two races: Monaco in August and Doha in September. World champion Timothy Cheruiyot won the first of those, clocking a world-leading 3:28.45 in Monaco. He followed it with victories in Stockholm (3:30.25) and Nairobi (3:34.31).
Jakob Ingebrigtsen came close to the Kenyan in Monaco (3:28.68, a European record) and Stockholm (3:30.74) and closed his season with wins in Brussels (3:30.69), Ostrava (3:33.92) and at the Norwegian Championships in Bergen (3:33.93).
Britain’s Jake Wightman was the third man to run inside 3:30 this year. He finished third in Monaco in 3:29.47 to move to second on the British all-time list ahead of the legendary trio Steve Cram, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
Good things come to those who wait. That was certainly the case in the women’s 3000m.
There weren’t many top-level races at this distance throughout the heavily punctuated season, but the women’s 3000m at the final Wanda Diamond League meeting of the year ended up being one of the highest quality races of all time.
The top three – Hellen Obiri, Agnes Tirop and Beatrice Chepkoech – finished inside 8:23, while the next four women were inside 8:27.
Ethiopian duo Getnet Wale and Selemon Barega were the fastest indoors. Wale won in 7:32.80 in Liévin in February with Barega close behind in 7:33.19. Birhanu Yemataw set an Asian indoor record of 7:34.58 for third place.
Outdoors, the fastest race of the year was in Rome in September. Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo and Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen, both aged 19 at the time of the race, produced one of the most memorable clashes of the year with Kiplimo emerging the winner in a national record of 7:26.64, the fastest time ever recorded by a teenager. Ingebrigtsen’s Norwegian record of 7:27.05 in second place made him the second-fastest European ever. The duo now sit at eighth and ninth on the world all-time list.
Australia’s Stewart McSweyn was close behind them, setting an Oceanian record of 7:28.02 in third.
World records in standard Olympic disciplines are something of a rarity, but this year the long-standing women’s 5000m mark was well and truly rewritten.
In a carefully planned race in Valencia in October, helped by Wavelight technology, Letesenbet Gidey cut almost five seconds from Tirunesh Dibaba’s world record with a perfectly executed attack, clocking 14:06.62. Gidey started out with three 69-second laps before gradually speeding up, with each of the final six laps covered within 66.5-67.2 seconds.
Two months earlier, Gidey had been up against world champion Hellen Obiri in Monaco. Obiri’s well-known turn of speed in the latter stages was decisive on that occasion as the Kenyan won in 14:22.12 to Gidey’s 14:26.57.
As in the 1500m, the top US runners stayed on home soil but in Portland in July they set up a race for Shelby Houlihan to attack her own North American record. She achieved her goal and took more than 10 seconds off her mark with 14:23.92. In second, compatriot Karissa Schweizer also set a big PB, clocking 14:26.34 to move up to 14th on the world all-time list.
Uganda was the fastest country in almost all of the men’s distance events and 5000m was no different.
World 10,00m champion Joshua Cheptegei ran just one 5000m race in 2020, but that was more than enough for the Ugandan as he clocked 12:35.36 in Monaco in August to beat Kenenisa Bekele’s 12:37.35 world record which had stood for more than 16 years.
Cheptegei became just the second Ugandan man to hold a world record, 46 years after 400m hurdles legend John Akii-Bua ended his reign as world record-holder.
Canada’s Mohammed Ahmed was the second fastest 5000m runner in 2020, setting a North American record of 12:47.20 in Portland in July. Cheptegei’s fellow Ugandan Jacob Kiplimo set a 12:48.63 personal best to win in Ostrava in September for third place on the 2020 world list.
Three days after Gidey’s 5000m record in Valencia, a 10,000m race was set up in Hengelo for world champion Sifan Hassan. Conditions in the Dutch city weren’t as good as they were in Valencia, but Hassan defied the heavy rain and cool temperatures and passed halfway in 14:38, inside world record schedule.
The inclement weather eventually took its toll and Hassan slowed slightly in the second half, but she still managed to take 24 seconds off Paula Radcliffe’s 18-year-old European record by clocking 29:36.67, the fourth-fastest time in history.
The Japanese record also underwent a big revision this year. Having stood at 30:48.89 for 18 years, the record was chopped down to 30:20.44 by Hitomi Niiya in early December. Niiya’s previous PB of 30:56.70 had been set at the 2013 World Championships in Moscow.
As was the case in the 5000m, world champion Joshua Cheptegei raced once at this distance and set a huge world record. Kenenisa Bekele’s 26:17.53 had stood as the world record for more than 15 years, but it fell to Cheptegei in Valencia in October.
Pacemaker Nicholas Kimeli passed half way in 13:07.73, ahead of Bekele’s 13:09.19 equivalent split in 2005. The record was finally decided between 7000m-9000m with Cheptegei ramping up the pace and he eventually crossed the line in 26:11.00, his second world record in less than two months.
Nicholas Kimeli ran the full race in the end, finishing second in 27:12.98. One month prior, he clocked a PB of 26:58.97 in Leiden in September.
Despite the relative lack of international races, the depth in this discipline wasn’t too heavily compromised. 70 men – including 35 from Kenya and 22 from Japan – recorded sub-28-minute times in 2020, just one fewer than in 2019.
It was a relatively quiet year for the women’s steeplechase with the Continental Tour meetings in Berlin and Nairobi staging the two international races of any significance.
World champion Beatrice Chepkoech went for a fast time in Berlin and was on course for a sub-nine-minute clocking at halfway. Having missed a lot of training this year, however, Chepkoech tired markedly at the end and was passed by Hyvin Kiyeng, who went on to win by four seconds, 9:06.14 to 9:10.07.
Chepkoech gained revenge a few weeks later in Nairobi where she was in full control from start to finish and defeated Kiyeng by almost five seconds.
World medallists Emma Coburn and Gesa Felicitas Krause, like most of the other top steeplechasers, took the year off from the event.
This season was a thin one for the men’s steeplechase with just one truly fast race.
In Monaco in August world bronze medallist Soufiane El Bakkali emerged the winner in a world-leading 8:08.04 in his only steeplechase of the season. Kenyan teenager Leonard Bett was second in 8:08.78, just outside his PB from last year.
World Championships fifth-place finisher Djilali Bedarani of France clocked a 8:13.43 season’s best for third place, while European silver medallist Fernando Carro was fourth in 8:13.45. Canada’s four-time World Championships finalist Matt Hughes was fifth in 8:16.25 and Topi Raitanen took almost five seconds off his PB with 8:16.57.
Mirko Jalava (men’s disciplines) and A Lennart Julin (women’s disciplines) for World Athletics