Peres Jepchirchir and Jacob Kiplimo at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 (© Dan Vernon)
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 road and cross-country action.
Men’s 5km and 10km
The men’s 5km road world record was well and truly rewritten in 2020.
Just 12 days into the year, world 10,000m bronze medallist Rhonex Kipruto took down fellow Kenyan Robert Keter’s mark of 13:22 in Valencia, clocking 13:18 for 5km en route to his 10km world record of 26:24.
Kipruto’s record last just four weeks, however, as Joshua Cheptegei took the mark to a whole new level in Monaco. The 24-year-old Ugandan sliced a massive 27 seconds off Kipruto’s time with 12:51, the first sub-13-minute road 5km in history.
It was also the first official world record for the world 10,000m champion and very much set the tone for the rest of his year.
Behind Cheptegei, Frenchman Jimmy Gressier set a European record of 13:18. A few months later in Nijmegen, Spain’s Ouassim Oumaiz fell just one second shy of Gressier’s continental record with 13:19, while Britain’s Marc Scott clocked 13:20 in Barrowford in August. All of these were under the standing world record before the 2020 season.
The Valencia 10km in January proved to be the highest quality race of the year, producing 12 of the top 14 marks of 2020.
Rhonex Kipruto won by a huge 48-second margin to break the world record with 26:24, also setting a short-lived 5km world record of 13:18 en route. 36 years after the first sub-28-minute time (Zackariah Barie’s 27:43) and 10 years after history’s first sub-27-minute run (Leonard Patrick Komon’s 26:44), it remains to be seen whether 26 minutes will be broken any time soon.
Kenya’s Benard Kimeli was second in Valencia in 27:12, while in third place Julien Wanders set a European record of 27:13.
Women’s 5km and 10km
Valencia was very much the Mecca of distance running this year.
Beginning on 12 January when the city staged a 10km event, leading Kenyans Sheila Kiprotich, Rosemary Wanjiru and Noah Jeruto headed to Valencia in pursuit of the 29:43 world record, set three years ago by their compatriot Joyciline Jepkosgei.
The record survived – barely – as Kiprotich won in 29:46 with Wanjiru (29:50) and Jeruto (29:51) close behind. It was an even-paced effort as Kiprotich had halves of 14:54/14:52. Her half-way split turned out the fastest 5km time of 2020.
The fastest performance in a standalone 5km race came from Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal, who clocked 15:04 in a largely solo effort in Spikkestad in October. USA’s Keira D’Amato also featured highly on the world list with her breakthrough 15:08 effort in Memphis in November.
Men’s half marathon
All-time men’s half marathon stats were rewritten in 2020.
Little-known Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie was the early world leader with a 58:58 PB to win the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in February. He consolidated his position at the top of the world list with another PB, 58:38, in Prague in September.
At the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020, however, Kandie fought valiantly but could not beat Uganda’s Jacob Kiplimo, who made a move with about 10 minutes of running left and kept Kandie and compatriot Joshua Cheptegei behind him.
Kiplimo clocked a 58:49 national record for the win, while Kandie took the silver in 58:54, 21-year-old Ethiopian Amdework Walelegn took bronze in 58:53 with Cheptegei in fourth in 59:21.
The highest quality race of the season, however, was still to come. The top duo from Gdynia – Kiplimo and Kandie – lined up alongside world 10km record-holder Rhonex Kipruto in Valencia in December. The race followed almost exactly the same script as in Gdynia, only it was significantly faster and this time it was Kandie who left Kiplimo behind. The Kenyan made a move after 18km and Kiplimo was able to stay close behind, but never got a chance to really challenge Kandie for the win.
Kandie clocked 57:32 to shatter Geoffrey Kamworor’s world record by 29 seconds. Kiplimo set another national record, 57:37, for second place and Kipruto was third in 57:49.
The first six places on the 2020 world list came from this race: Kenya’s Alexander Mutiso (57:59), Philemon Kiplimo (58:11) and Kelvin Kiptum (58:42) were the next finishers.
Women’s half marathon
World records for mixed races and women-only races were broken in 2020.
Ababel Yeshaneh ran 1:04:31 in a mixed race at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon in February, while Peres Jepchirchir set two women-only world records, capped by her 1:05:06 victory at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 in October.
But that’s not the only reason why 2020 can claim to be the best year in half marathon history. The all-time list was completely rewritten in 2020 as two more runners surpassed the previous mixed race record (1:04:51) while five more got under the former women-only record (1:06.11).
The main race of the year was of course the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia. Originally scheduled to take place in mid-March, it was postponed until mid-October when it was successfully staged under ‘Covid-secure’ conditions in the city on the Baltic coast.
Jepchirchir, the 2016 winner, regained her title in a women-only world record. In a dramatic race, defending champion Netsanet Gudeta and world record-holder Yeshaneh both fell, costing both of them a podium finish.
Germany’s Melat Kejeta, who came into the race with a 1:08:41 PB, was the big surprise of the race. She stuck with the leading pace and held on to take silver in a women-only European record of 1:05:18.
Just six weeks after taking bronze in Gdynia, Ethiopia’s Yalemzerf Yehualaw beat world marathon champion Ruth Chepngetich by 20 seconds in New Delhi. Yehualaw's winning time of 1:04:46 moved her to second on the world all-time list, just 15 seconds off the world record.
At the Valencia Half Marathon one week later, world 1500m record-holder Genzebe Dibaba triumphed in 1:05:18, the fastest debut in history. Sheila Kiprotich (1:05:39) and Senbere Teferi (1:05:51) also finished inside 66 minutes.
The 2020 marathon season matched that of the half marathon.
The first big marathons of the year went ahead as usual before almost everything was cancelled, but a handful of notable races were held later in the year as 2020 ended on a high for the discipline.
Seville winner Mekuant Ayenew (2:04:46) and Tokyo champion Berhanu Legese (2:04:15) were the early world leaders. Top-level marathon action then pretty much dried up for six months until the London Marathon staged their postponed elite-only race in October.
The race in the British capital may not have produced lightning-fast times, but the races were enthralling. Shura Kitata emerged the winner of the men’s race in 2:05:41 as Eliud Kipchoge surprisingly faded in the closing stages. Kenya’s Vincent Toroitich was second in 2:05:42 and Sisay Lemma was third in 2:05:45.
Valencia was the place to be in December. This race had the best depth – not just of the season but in marathon history. 30 athletes finished inside 2:10 and the first 39 athletes set a season’s best. To underline the ideal conditions in the Spanish city, 34 of the top 50 finishers set PBs, all of which were inside 2:13.
Kenya’s 32-year-old Evans Chebet won in a world-leading 2:03:00 in a race that produced the top five marks of the year. Lawrence Cherono was second in 2:03:04 from Legese (2:03:16), Kenya’s Amos Kipruto (2:03:30) and Reuben Kiprop (2:04:12).
The main marathon season is traditionally held from March to May, but this year London, Boston, Paris and Rotterdam all had to be cancelled or postponed at short notice.
A handful of top marathons had managed to go ahead prior to that, though. In January Worknesh Degefa ran 2:19:38 to lead an Ethiopian sweep in Dubai, and in March in Tokyo six women finished inside 2:23 with the top two – Lornah Salpeter (2:17:45) and Birhane Dibaba (2:18:35) – moving to seventh and 14th respectively on the world all-time list.
Mass marathons were unable to return during 2020 but a few of the big races staged elite versions on spectator-free multiple-lap courses later in the year. London attracted a strong field to a race in early October and world record-holder Brigid Kosgei ultimately prevailed with an impressive three-minute victory in 2:18:58.
However, the top race of the year took place in Valencia on 6 December. Half marathon specialists Peres Jepchirchir and Joyciline Jepkosgei proved strongest, lowering their PBs to 2:17:16 and 2:18:40 respectively to move to seventh and 15th on the world all-time list. In a record for depth, the top six women finished inside 2:20.
Men’s cross country
The last five meetings of the 2020 World Athletics Cross Country Permit series were able to go ahead in January and February before most of the world went into lockdown, but the start of the 2021 series – originally set for November this year – has been delayed.
Ethiopia’s Mogos Tuemay and Tadese Worku – the top cross-country performers at the start of 2020 – didn’t race at all after January. Tuemay won the Campaccio race, while Worku triumphed in Elgoibar and Seville.
Kenya’s Leonard Bett got the better of Worku in a close race at the Cinque Mulini at the end of January. Davis Kiplangat, meanwhile, took top honours in Albufeira in February, just two days after racing over 3000m at the World Athletics Indoor Tour meeting in Karlsruhe.
The Kenyan Championships was the most hotly contested cross-country race of 2020 and it was won by Kibiwott Kandie, who finished comfortably ahead of Geoffrey Kamworor – a sign of what was to come later in the year on the roads.
Women’s cross country
International cross-country action remained low key in 2020 with no top athlete prioritising it this year.
Unsurprisingly, the five World Athletics permit events in southern Europe in January/February therefore saw five different winners: Ethiopia’s Fotyen Tesfay won in San Giorgio su Legnano, world 5000m champion Hellen Obiri triumphed in Elgoibar, Kenya’s Margaret Kipkemboi was victorious in Santiponce, Bahrain’s Winfred Yavi won in San Vittore Olona and Lydia Lagat took top honours in Albufeira.
Mirko Jalava (men’s disciplines) and A Lennart Julin (women’s disciplines) for World Athletics