Peres Jepchirchir wins the women's race at the World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016 (© Getty Images)
When Peres Jepchirchir added circles of gold colour to her hair ahead of the IAAF/Cardiff University World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016, it became something of an unintentional good-luck charm.
The shade represented the hue of the medal she would win; the seven circles reflected the number of medals Kenya earned in Cardiff.
But at the post-race press conference, the 22-year-old laughed off the suggestion that any serious planning went into her hairstyle.
What she and her compatriots did prepare for, however, was another dominant display over 13.1 miles at the biennial championships.
Before 2014, no country had secured all of the medals in the women’s race at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. Kenya has now pulled off the feat twice in a row.
In a race that was decided only on the final straight, Jepchirchir added her name to the list of previous Kenyan winners of the title, joining the likes of Tegla Loroupe, Mary Keitany, Florence Kiplagat and Gladys Cherono.
Cynthia Limo crossed the line three seconds behind Jepchirchir, while 2014 silver medallist Mary Wacera followed 20 seconds after Limo.
“We discussed running together as a team,” Jepchirchir said afterwards. “The teamwork helped me.
“It was really windy, especially when we ran over the water [around Cardiff Bay]. After 20km I could see that she [Limo] wasn’t moving away, so I was confident in my finish.
“It feels great to be a world champion,” she added. “I’m very happy. It’s the biggest day of my life.”
From underdog to global champion
Before the race, few pundits spoke of Jepchirchir as a medal contender.
Earlier this year she finished fourth at the Ras Al-Khaimah Half Marathon behind two women who were racing in Cardiff. And being just the third-fastest athlete on her team this year – and the fourth fastest of all the entrants – she perhaps benefitted from not having to deal with the burden of expectation.
But to say that she was a complete outsider would be disrespectful of her previous achievements.
Jepchirchir did one or two track races as a school girl and then focused on cross country before eventually moving to the roads.
After a low-key marathon outing in late 2013, her first big breakthrough came at the 2014 Kenyan Cross Country Championships in Nairobi where she finished second, just two seconds behind winner Faith Kipyegon and ahead of several well-known athletes. With it being an even year, though, there was no opportunity to compete at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
She won three road races in France later that year, all by comfortable margins. She clocked a 1:09:12 half-marathon debut to win in Montbeliard, then won the Marseille-Cassis 20km race by more than a minute and was a convincing winner over 10km in Houilles.
In 2015 she improved her bests to 30:55 over 10km – the second-fastest time in the world that year – and 1:07:17 for the half marathon. She also maintained her record of finishing in the top two in all of her races.
That streak came to an end in January 2016 with her fourth-place finish in Ras Al-Khaimah, but she was at least rewarded with a PB of 1:06:39.
In fact, before this weekend, the biggest race Jepchirchir had contested was one in which she did not finish. She was one of the pace makers at the 2015 London Marathon and led the field to 25km before Ethiopia’s Tigist Tufa went on to win.
Jepchirchir’s predecessor as world half marathon champion, Gladys Cherono, used her victory in Copenhagen as a stepping stone on her path to becoming a marathon specialist. Less than a year after winning in the Danish capital, Cherono clocked 2:20:03 in Dubai for one of the fastest debuts of all time and then, eight months later, triumphed at the Berlin Marathon in a world-leading 2:19:25.
But despite the lure of the lucrative marathon-racing circuit, Jepchirchir aims to move down in distance this year.
“I don’t plan to move up to the marathon,” she said with no uncertainty. “My next race will be the Yangzhou Half Marathon in China next month. Then I want to run the 10,000m at the Kenyan trials and I want to qualify for Rio.”
Jepchirchir hasn’t raced on the track since her school days, but the way in which she upset the pre-race favourites in Cardiff suggests that she could be a difficult opponent to beat, whatever the surface.
And before lining up for the 10,000m at the Kenyan trials, perhaps she will add a splash of colour to her hair for good measure.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF