Letesenbet Gidey and Joshua Cheptegei after breaking world records in Valencia
The Spanish city of Valencia had never seen an outdoor world record on the track before Wednesday night (7) but within the space of 50 minutes it witnessed not one but two, as Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei and Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey went into new territory.
Gidey was the first to go into the annals of athletics history with a stunning 5000m run of 14:06.62 to take more than four seconds off the mark of 14:11.15 by her compatriot and idol Tirunesh Dibaba which had stood since 2008.
Just a few minutes after she had crossed the line, the gun sounded for the start of the 10,000m and Cheptegei reeled off 25 laps in an average of less than 63 seconds apiece to stop the clock in 26:11.00.
Just 54 days after he had taken Kenenisa Bekele’s 5000m world record at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Monaco, he removed the last remaining evidence of the phenomenal Ethiopian at the top of distance running’s all-time lists by taking 6.53 seconds from his 2005 mark of 26:17.53.
Having returned to his Ugandan training base in Kapchorwa immediately after his Monaco outing, Cheptegei flew into Valencia on Sunday after a sustained period of more than six weeks training, saying on his arrival that it was possibly his best period of preparation for a race in his career.
Australia’s Matthew Ramsden took the first stint at the front, with five opening perfectly paced laps before passing the 2000m mark in 5:15.05, already just over a second inside Bekele’s split of 5:16.4. Ramsden carried on and went through 3000m in 7:52.79 before handing over to Kenya’s Nicolas Kimeli after eight laps.
Kimeli, a sub-13-minute performer for 5000m and the world 10,000m leader prior to Wednesday night, then did an astounding job of continuing the almost metronomic pace, reaching 4000m in 10:29.83 and then the halfway point in 13.07.73, compared to the 13.09.19 split in Bekele’s world record, with Cheptegei right on his shoulder. It is also worth remembering that the world record for 5000m was not as fast as the time Kimeli posted until 1981.
Kimeli then carried on around to the finish line with the lap counter showing 12 to go before letting Cheptegei through on the inside, although he was to carry on and finish second in 27:12.98.
Cheptegei appeared to slow slightly in the sixth kilometre without anyone to aid him – although he did benefit from wavelight pacing on the inside of the track which has now become a feature of many international meetings in recent years – and he went through 6000m in 15:45.06, just outside Bekele’s pace.
But, with what history may look upon as a crucial period in the race, he picked up the pace over the next three laps and passed 7000m in 18:22.00, almost two seconds faster than Bekele at this stage. From this point, Cheptegei seemed reinvigorated and over the final 3000m the gap between himself and his imaginary rival in Bekele just seemed to grow and grow.
Cheptegei reached 8000m in 20:59.48 and 9000m in 23.36.75, more than five and eight seconds faster than Bekele at these respective points in their races, and roared on by the few spectators and officials the Turia Stadium owing to Covid-19 restrictions, he fulfilled his place in history over the last couple of laps before jogging over the line over the final few metres.
“I wanted to live up to expectations so I’m happy to achieve my dream,” said Cheptegei, who now becomes the 10th man in history to hold the 5000m and 10,000m world records concurrently. “I was trying to remake history so that people will have something to enjoy. Sport lovers of the world can have something to remember.
“In this difficult situation, I hope things like this can still give us joy and some hope for tomorrow,” he added, with a nod to the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated the athletics calendar this year.
However, a month before Covid-19 became known to everyone, back in February Cheptegei said in an interview with World Athletics that he wanted to make history in 2020 and he has certainly done that. Every one of his three outings this year has resulted in a world record: 5km on the road in Monaco back in February, 5000m in the same principality on 14 August and now 10,000m in Valencia.
He plans to stay in Spain training in preparation for his next race, the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland on 17 October. Who would bet against him adding a gold medal to the global cross country and 10,000m titles he won in 2019, despite him making his debut over this particular distance?
Gidey became the third successive Ethiopian to hold the 5000m world record following Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba as a prelude to Cheptegei’s feat.
Led out by Spain’s in-form 1500m champion Esther Guerrero, with 3000m steeplechase world record-holder Beatrice Chepkoech also helping out with the pace and Gidey initially bringing up the rear of the trio, 1000m was passed in 2:51.10 before the Spaniard was unable to go much further after a busy season.
Chepkeoch then did a superb job in the second and third kilometre, passing these checkpoints in 5:42.73 and 8:31.85 before stepping aside.
With five long hard laps still to go, Gidey had almost seven seconds in hand over Dibaba and she didn’t squander the advantage.
The clock stopped at 4000m at 11:19.17, nine seconds quicker than Dibaba’s 11:28.4, and although Gidey looked to be tiring over the final two circuits, she still managed to turn out two successive 67-second laps to complete her run into the record books, stopping the clock at 14:06.62.
It's little more than five years since Gidey made her first international breakthrough, winning the U20 race at the 2015 World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang. She successfully defended that title two years later, becoming just the fourth woman in history to win back-to-back world U20 cross-country titles.
Later that year, she clocked 14:33.32 for 5000m, moving to second on the world U20 all-time list, and went on to finish 11th at the World Championships in London. Her progress has continued in recent years and she clocked a 5000m PB of 14:23.14 in Rabat in 2018 and an outdoor African 3000m record of 8:20.27 in 2019.
Her medal collection has expanded too. Gidey earned bronze at last year's World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus and went one better at the World Championships in Doha, taking silver in the 10,000m behind Sifan Hassan.
One of her biggest dreams, though, was to break a world record.
“I have been dreaming about this (setting a world record) for six years,” she said on a night which proved for both her and Joshua Cheptegei that dreams can come true.
Phil Minshull for World Athletics
*Pending the usual ratification procedure