Joshua Cheptegei wins the senior men's race at the IAAF/Mikkeller World Cross Country Championships Aarhus 2019 (© Getty Images)
When the gun sounds for the men’s race at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 on Saturday (17), all eyes will be on an athlete who has never previously raced the 21.1km distance.
Despite his half marathon inexperience, Joshua Cheptegei will quite rightly command the spotlight given the year he has had. The Ugandan has set world records in all three of his races in 2020, starting with his 12:51 clocking for 5km on the roads in Monaco in February and followed six months later by his 12:35.36 5000m run, also in Monaco. More recently, he took a five-second chunk off the 10,000m world record in Valencia on 7 October with his stunning 26:11.00 performance.
His recent performances indicate world record potential at longer distances – indeed, he also holds the world best for 15km – but whether that will materialise in his first attempt at the half marathon is another matter entirely. More to the point, for the first time this year Cheptegei likely won’t be focused on breaking records in Gdynia; instead, his main goal will simply be to reach the finish line first.
Unfortunately for his rivals, the formidable Cheptegei is just as adept at winning major titles as he is at breaking records.
Ever since he faded in the closing stages of the senior men’s race at the 2017 World Cross Country Championships on home soil in Kampala, Cheptegei has managed to turn his fortunes around. He took world 10,000m silver in London later that year, followed it with double Commonwealth gold in 2018 and then bagged two global crowns in 2019, winning the world cross-country title on a challenging course in Aarhus and then following it with 10,000m gold at the World Championships in Doha.
If Cheptegei is victorious on Saturday, he will become just the second man in the modern era to win global titles on the track, road and cross-country, joining Khalid Skah. Incidentally, Skah – the winner in 1994 – is also the last man to win the World Half on his debut at the distance.
One of Cheptegei’s strongest challengers could well be his youngest team-mate, Jacob Kiplimo.
The 19-year-old has also been in sensational form this year, clocking a world-leading Ugandan record of 7:26.64 for 3000m in Rome and setting a 5000m PB of 12:48.63 in Ostrava. His last clash with Cheptegei was at the 2019 World Cross Country Championships, where he shared the lead for much of the way before finishing second behind his compatriot.
Before that, however, he had comfortably beaten Cheptegei at the Ugandan Cross Country Championships and the Cross Internacional de Italica in Seville earlier that year. Kiplimo also has the slight advantage of having previously contested a half marathon; he ran 1:01:53 at altitude in Kampala at the end of last year, winning by more than a minute.
To date, Uganda has won just one medal at the World Half Marathon Championships – bronze in the men’s team event in 2004 – while the country’s best individual placing was Wilson Busienei’s fourth-place finish in 2006.
Their medal haul looks set to increase this weekend, not only in the individual race but in the team contest too as their line-up includes 2009 world U20 cross-country bronze medallist Moses Kibet, 1:00:00 performer Stephen Kissa, and 20-year-old rising talent Victor Kiplangat.
Since 2006, all but one of the nine men’s titles have been won by either Zersenay Tadese or Geoffrey Kamworor. Neither man will be in Gdynia, meaning for the first time since 2010 a new name will feature on the top step of the podium.
But despite the absence of Kamworor, who was involved in a car accident earlier this year, the Kenyan team is still strong and they will be keen to win their first senior men’s global team title since 2016, having been beaten at the 2018 World Half and the most recent editions of the World Cross.
World leader Kibiwott Kandie heads to Gdynia off the back of four high-quality victories this year. He started his season by winning the Kenyan Defence Forces Cross Country Championships and the Kenyan Cross Country Championships. Just six days after winning his first national title, he went on to win the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in February in a world-leading PB of 58:58.
Kandie didn’t race again until September, but he showed no loss of form at the Prague 21.1K, winning with another world-leading PB of 58:38 – a mark that puts him fifth on the world all-time list and just 37 seconds shy of Kamworor’s world record.
Benard Kimeli and Benard Ngeno, both of whom have identical PBs of 59:07, join Kandie in making their global championships debut. Ngeno, a half marathon specialist, has finished on the podium in his past nine races over the distance and has a season’s best of 59:26.
Leonard Barsoton, the 2017 world cross-country silver medallist, adds further strength to the Kenyan team. A 59:09 performer at his best, Barsoton’s fastest clocking this year is 1:00:02.
Morris Munene Gachaga, another experienced half marathon runner, completes the Kenyan team. He hasn’t raced this year, but has a 59:22 PB from last year.
Ethiopia’s Guye Adola has a reputation for producing unexpected performances. He was a relative unknown ahead of the 2014 World Half Marathon Championships, but he chopped more than two minutes from his PB in Copenhagen to take bronze in 59:21. Later that year, he beat Kamworor – the reigning world half marathon and cross country champion at that time – to win the Delhi Half Marathon in a PB of 59:06.
After low-key seasons in 2015 and 2016, Adola re-emerged at the 2017 Berlin Marathon, where he pushed Eliud Kipchoge up until the final few kilometres, ultimately finishing just 14 seconds behind the Kenyan great in 2:03:46.
Adola hasn’t raced internationally since last December’s Valencia Marathon, where he ran 2:04:42, but he can never be discounted.
African 10,000m silver medallist and two-time Delhi Half Marathon winner Andamlak Belihu also features on the Ethiopian team. The 21-year-old has a PB of 59:10 and is a versatile runner, having finished fifth over 10,000m at last year’s World Championships and eighth at the World Cross in Aarhus.
Like Belihu, Birhanu Legese is also a two-time winner of the Delhi Half Marathon. He has focused on the marathon in recent years, clocking a PB of 2:02:48 in Berlin last year and winning this year’s Tokyo Marathon in a world-leading 2:04:15.
Leul Gebresilase, who has PBs of 59:18 and 2:04:02 for the half and full marathon distances, finished 10th at the last World Half Marathon Championships in Valencia and will be keen to improve on that this weekend.
Amedework Walelegn, the 2017 world U20 cross-country silver medallist, and Hailemaryam Kiros, winner of Ethiopia’s hotly-contested 15km trial race for Gdynia, complete the Ethiopian line-up.
South Africa’s Stephen Mokoka will be making his seventh appearance at the World Half – a tally bettered by just two other men. He has finished in the top 10 on three previous occasions and will be buoyed by his fifth-place finish in the marathon at last year’s World Championships in Doha.
Other contenders include European record-holder Julien Wanders and his Swiss team-mate Tadesse Abraham, winner of the 2016 European half marathon title. Morocco’s African Games silver medallist Mohamed Reda El Aaraby could also feature among the leaders.
Eritrea – winners of team medals at the past 10 editions, including gold in 2014 – hasn’t entered a team for Gdynia. Japan and USA, who have sent teams to all 23 previous editions, also won’t be represented this weekend.
And while Sweden isn’t expected to contend for team honours in Gdynia, their squad includes the oldest and youngest participants in the entire men’s field. 43-year-old Adhanom Abraha will be contesting his third World Half but his first for Sweden (his two previous appearances came when he ran for Eritrea), while 19-year-old Emil Millan de la Oliva will be making his global championships debut, having impressed on the track this year with times of 13:29.59 for 5000m and 23:23.21 for 10,000m, putting him fourth and second respectively on the European U20 all-time lists.
Jon Mulkeen for World Athletics