CARDIFF, March 26 – Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor produced a jaw dropping performance to defend the men’s World Half Marathon Championships title and become the third man in history to retain the crown.
Kenya were even more commanding in the women’s race, where Peris Chepchirchir led Kenyans to the podium sweep as the East African country bagged all the team titles under wet and windy conditions.
Kamworor clocked 59:10 despite falling at the start, while compatriot Bedan Karoki came second ahead of Britain’s Mo Farah, who settled for bronze.
Farah outsprinted Ethiopia’s Abayneh Ayele in the home straight to finish in 59:59.
Kamworor’s title defence came under sizeable jeopardy before he had even crossed the start-line but the reigning champion staged a brilliant recovery to become the first runner to win back-to-back titles since Zersenay Tadese in 2009.
Starting in a fairly narrow funnel which had become slick in the rain, Kamworor lost his footing and hit the floor but despite scraping his knees, the reigning champion got up largely unscatched and worked his way back to the front of the group which passed through 5km in a fast 14:10.
Unlike at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang last March, Kamworor largely eschewed the lead in the early stages with Karoki, another noted front-runner taking the lion’s share of the pace.
Karoki wasn’t in any mood to relent at the front and his attritional tactics began to pay dividends with Mo Farah, who was making his debut at these championships, among those to struggle with the hot pace through 10km in 27:59.
Farah didn’t feature too prominently at the front of the leading group but by this point, the 33-year-old had drifted some five seconds off the pace although he was still inside his European record pace of 59:32.
But the pre-race narrative largely played out in the second half with Kamworor and Karoki running side-by-side in a manner not too dissimilar to Guiyang last year.
This sustained pace had cast Farah more than 20 seconds adrift while Ethiopia’s Tamirat Tola, the last remaining challenger began to toil as the Kenyans covered the next 5km in 13:41.
In a day where records didn’t seem on the cards, the championship record of 58:59 was still within reach as Kamworor and Karoki motored through 15km in 41:41, covering the preceding 10km in 27:31 which was just five seconds shy of the world-lead.
But the conditions worsened in the final quarter with a strong wind and horizontal rain buffering the runners.
The consensus is that Kamworor has the superior sprint finish as demonstrated in Guiyang and Beijing, but the reigning champion opted to make a long run from home with about two kilometres remaining, opening up a gap of eight seconds on Karoki through 20km in 56:05.
The closing stages were more or less a formality for Kamworor, who came through to retain his title in 59:10. He was only two seconds slower than he was in 2014 and would have almost certainly run faster in better conditions and if he hadn’t taken a heavy tumble at the start.
“It was really tough after that fall to catch up but I fought hard. I am very happy to win again. It puts me in a good place for the 10,000m in Rio,” said Kamworor on that handicap.
Karoki, who opted to front run for the most part in spite of the windy conditions, lost some 26 seconds on Kamworor in the closing stages but was more or less safe in that position.
By contrast, there was an almighty scrap for the bronze medal. Farah moved towards medal contention with about 53 minutes on the clock but still had early leader Abayneh Ayele on his tail with the finish line in view.
Farah was visibly straining from the 15km point onwards but the reigning world and Olympic champion gritted his teeth to just hold off a spirited challenge from his Ethiopian rival who was only fourth in the de facto trial race in Spain last month.
“I am disappointed. With great support from the home crowd it would have been nice to win. But there were better athletes who won on the day, the guys were strong and I couldn’t go with it.”
“I did run a fast time but as an athlete you always want to win. It gives me massive motivation for Rio,” said double Olympic and world champion Farah.
As expected, the Kenyans regained their team title ahead of the Ethiopians with Eritrea weakened by the absence of star names such as Zersenay Tadese, Samuel Tsegay and Ghirmay Ghebreslassie had to settle for bronze.
With a full strength team, Kenya was hopeful of repeating their 2014 medal sweep in the women’s race.
However, two of the Ethiopian women who finished behind the Kenyan quintet in Copenhagen two years ago Netsanet Gudeta and Genet Yalew were keen to make it on to the podium this time.
All five Kenyans, Pascalia Kipkoech, Cynthia Limo, Mary Wacera, Jepchirchir and Gladys Chesire were part of a large lead group of 14 athletes to go through 5km in 16:31.
By 10km, reached in 32:34, the lead group had been halved as Gudeta and Yalew were the only athletes keeping the Kenyan quintet company.
The third five-kilometre section, covered in 15:40, was the quickest of the race, but Kipkoech was the only athlete to drop away from the leading pack as six women were still in contention.
But the group began to disintegrate during the final five kilometres as Chesir drifted back, followed by Yalew. Gudeta had the sole responsibility of disrupting a potential Kenyan sweep, but the Ethiopian had to surrender after an hour of running as she too lost contact with the leaders.
For the final mile or two it was clear that Kenya would once again sweep the medals with the bronze decided when Wacera began to fade at about 20km, leaving Limo and Jepchirchir to battle for the gold and silver medals.
Limo was the first of the leading pair to make a move, opening up a few metres on her compatriot with just a couple of minutes left to run. But the move wasn’t decisive.
Jepchirchir closed the gap on Limo in the final stages and then kicked for home as she negotiated the last turn with the finish gantry in sight.
With the rain pouring down, she sprinted towards the line and stopped the clock at 1:07:31.
“The race was not bad. The course was good but I struggled a bit climbing the hill,”said the 22-year-old.
Limo, the world leader, had to settle for second place in 1:07:34 while Wacera completed the Kenyan sweep by finishing third in 1:07:54.
Before 2014, no country had secured all of the medals in the women’s race at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, but Kenya has now pulled off the feat twice in a row.
And for the second successive edition, Gudeta was the best non-Kenyan finisher after finishing sixth in Copenhagen and fourth in Cardiff, clocking 1:08:01. while Yalew was fifth in 1:08:15.
Chesir, Kipkoech and Dehininet Demsew finished sixth, seventh and eighth respectively, ensuring that Kenyan and Ethiopian women filled the top eight places.
For the sixth time in the past eight editions, Kenya took team gold. Ethiopia, team winners in the past two Olympic years, was second this time round while for the ninth successive edition, Japan took team bronze.