Peres Jepchirchir and Mondo Duplantis
In the countdown to the World Athletics Awards 2020, which will be held as a virtual event on 5 December, we’ll be taking a closer look at the five men and five women who were earlier this week confirmed as the finalists for the Athlete of the Year awards.
Peres Jepchirchir raced just twice on the roads this year, and she made those two performances count. Both were over the half marathon distance and both shattered the world records for a women-only race.
With the 2016 world half marathon title and a world record over that distance to her credit from 2017, the 27-year-old Kenyan is hardly a newcomer to the distance-running scene. That's why her return to action after maternity leave in 2017 and most of 2018 was so eagerly awaited. She produced a solid return to form by the end of 2019, winning the Lisbon Half Marathon in October and the Saitana Marathon in December where she improved her career best to 2:23:50.
But that momentum collided with the global Covid-19 pandemic and a subsequent lockdown. But it also provided an opportunity for some solid training to ensure that when the her racing would resume, she’d be ready.
That came on 5 September at the Prague 21.1KM, an invitational-only elite half marathon held on a 16.5-lap course in the Czech capital’s Letna Park. Breaking away from the small field just 20 minutes into the race, Jepchirchir set out on a ravaging pace, passing 10 kilometres in 30:32. She slowed over the waning laps but still clocked 1:05:34 to smash the previous record of 1:06:11 set by Netsanet Gudeta of Ethiopia at the World Half Marathon Championships in 2018.
"I was thinking to run maybe 1:04:50, but I'm so happy," she said, explaining that she was planning to run much of the race alone. "The last five kilometres I was really tired. My plan was to run good, because I was well prepared."
She struck again on a cold breezy morning six week later at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in the northern Polish city of Gdynia where she powered to gold in 1:05:16, knocking 18 seconds from her own world record. But that performance wasn’t largely a solo affair of the kind she produced in Prague. This time she had to race - in a contest that was fast from the gun, against a crowded field over a challenging course. She bided her time until she made her final move en route to a decisive two-second victory.
“I am so happy with this,” she said. “It’s a gift to all the Kenyans, to my family.”
World records often signal the peak of an athlete's career. But in the case of Mondo Duplantis, who set two world records in the pole vault this year, 2020 seemed like something more akin to an opening act.
His first world record came at the Orlen Copernicus Cup World Athletics Indoor Meeting in Torun, Poland, on 8 February, when he topped 6.17m in just his second competition of the year, to end Renaud Lavillenie's six-year reign as world record-holder. Duplantis cleared the record height on his second attempt, which came on his sixth jump of the competition.
"It's something that I wanted since I was three years old," said Duplantis, at the time just three months into his twenties. "It's a big year, but it's a good way to start it."
It was a height he hadn't even attempted until just four days earlier, in Dusseldorf, when he missed by the narrowest margins, and a record that capped a sensational rise in the discipline by Duplantis, a wunderkind in the pole vault who began setting age group records at age seven.
His latest record would last just one week. The following Saturday in Glasgow he added a centimetre to the mark, topping 6.18m on his first attempt, and again on just his sixth jump of the day.
“I felt like I was over it and once I was going over I knew I had it,” he said. “It’s the best little split second. Everything builds up to that little split second and the free fall was magical."
He followed up with 6.07m and 6.01m clearances at meetings in Liévin and Clermont-Ferrand, France, to cap his indoor season. But then the pandemic hit and lockdowns spread, putting a sudden halt to his unparalleled momentum and casting doubt over the rest of his season.
But despite the many meeting cancellations this year, Duplantis managed to compete 16 times in all - 11 of those outdoors - and emerge unbeaten. He topped six metres in ten competitions and scaled 6.15m at the Rome Wanda Diamond League meeting, the highest outdoor clearance of all time.