Paul Kirui crosses the finish line (© Prakash Singh (AFP) for IAAF)
Kenya’s Paul Kirui became the first man ever to win a World Half Marathon title on Asian soil when he crossed the finish line in the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium to take gold in the 13th IAAF World Half Marathon Championships.
After a sixty second lap of the track in the stadium, the men’s race set off as the sun broke through the cloud cover and the temperatures started to rise in New Delhi.
The tail end of the monsoon season had brought torrential downpours the night before and the air was relatively clear for this city of 11 million people, with the temperatures moderate at 25 degrees centigrade, with 80% humidity making sure that the athletes did not have too easy a time of it.
The early pace was set by Eritrean Yonas Kifle, who led the field through 5 kilometres in 14:48, seven seconds ahead of the rest of the leaders. The East African teams of Eritrea, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia were closely bunched at this point, with just nine seconds separating the first twenty runners at the 5 km mark.
As the leading pack of twelve runners entered the stadium after reaching halfway in 29:66, Kenya had taken control, with Wilson Kiprotich Kebenel heading the leaders as they circuited the track before heading off for another lap of the course.
At this stage, four countries were clearly in contention for the team title, with Kenya, Uganda, Eritrea and Ethiopia all having three runners among the leaders.
Race favourites John Cheruiyot Korir and Tanzania’s 2003 silver medalist Fabiano Joseph were up in the front of the race, along with Uganda’s Martin Toroitich and Wilson Busienei.
With first, third and twelfth places at the 10 km mark, Kenya looked to be in a strong position to bid for their eighth team gold in this Championships after momentarily leaving the title to Tanzania in last year’s edition, but Ethiopia was also showing strongly, with just a second separating the two countries on aggregate.
At 17 kilometres Paul Kirui decided to up the stakes and was the first to break from the pack, rapidly distancing himself from the rest of the field, chased by his compatriots Kebenel and Korir and Fabiano Joseph. Saving face for Asia was Abdullah Ahmad Hassan, formerly Albert Chepkurui of Kenya, the Asian champion.
As the leaders approached the final kilometer, the individual medals were already clearly set, with Kirui leading Joseph by 200 metres as they entered the stadium for a last lap of the track to the roars of the 40,000 spectators gathered to watch the finish.
Kirui crossed the line in 1:02:15, 16 seconds ahead of Joseph, with Hassan holding off the final sprint of Korir to take the bronze medal in a national record time of 1:02:36 to Korir’s 1:02:38.
Kirui was happy with his race: “The course was not very difficult,” he said afterwards, “I felt very good and the conditions were fine for me.
“I arrived yesterday convinced that I was going to run well as I have been one of the fastest in the world this year. I thought conditions here would not be so easy, which is why I only arrived yesterday, but they turned out fine.
I was not afraid of Joseph at all, but the Qatari was my biggest fear. I have trained with him in the past and I knew that he was fast.
“This is a team competition too and we ran as a team. At one stage, John Cheruiyot Korir told me that his legs were tired and that I should go, so that is when I made my break, just after 15 kilometres.
“It is a shame that Martin Lel was injured and could not come. I am sure that if he had been we would have taken at least the first two places and maybe all three.”
Fabiano Joseph concurred on the course and conditions and was philosophical about his second place: “I wanted to win but I could not today,” he said after the race, “I guess it has to do with my training. I am going to train even harder in the future so that I can try to get the gold medal.
“I thought around 16 kilometres that I could overtake Kirui, but he was too strong for me, so from that point I just concentrated on keeping my second place.”
With Kenya’s Kebenei finishing in 8th place in 1:03:02, Kenya clinched the team title with an aggregate time of 3:07:55, with Ethiopia earning team silver, as Solomon Tsige and Alene Amere came in 5th and 6th, respectively in 1:02:42 and 1:02:52; and Berhanu Adere 9th in 1:03:03, a total of 3:08:37 for the leading trio of the four Ethiopians competing (Abebe Dinkesa placed 10th in 1:04:06). The Ugandan team took the third place on the team podium with their aggregate time of 3:13:48.