A look at the history and future of the World Half Marathon Championships, British and Irish involvement, and it’s relationships with the World Cross.
The 23rd edition of the World Half Marathon Championships will be held in Valencia, Spain later today (March 24). The event, originally held annually in early October, moved to its new spring home in 2014, where it now alternates biannually with the World Cross Country Championships. That move was hoped to help increase interest in both events, and restore World Cross popularity.
The success of the move depends on your perspective. Ireland, who didn’t send a single athlete to the past two world cross country events – breaking a participation streak that had stretched back to the first event way back in 1973 – have full teams entered in today’s event, as have Great Britain, who infamously left their senior men at home for last year World Cross in Kampala, Uganda.
On the surface, it would appear that international road running has simply replaced cross country in this part of the world.
But look a little deeper, and the trend is different to what we see elsewhere. Portugal doesn’t have a single entrant for the Valencia event. Anja Scherl will be Germany’s only representative. Italy won’t have a full scoring team in either race.
And it’s still debatable whether World Half Marathon titles are as prestigious as World Cross Country titles.
But is it fair to compare the two? Is it a question of one or the other?
It definitely doesn’t seem to be one or other for a certain Kenyan. After four successive world titles (World Half Marathon Championships in 2014 and 2016 and World Cross Country winner in 2015 and 2017), Geoffrey Kamworor will be among the favourites in Valencia.
While a half marathon three-peat wouldn’t be unprecedented – indeed, Zersenay Tadese (Eritrea) won four consecutive titles between 2006 and 2009 – it would be particularly noteworthy given it’s now reduced frequency.
Others to win both world cross country and world half marathon titles include the aforementioned Tadese, Kenyan Paul Tergat, Paula Radcliffe, and Kenyan-born Dutch athlete Lornah Kiplagat, herself a three-time World Half Marathon winner.
But with four titles and counting, it could be argued that Kamworor is the most consistent long-distance runner of this generation. And to highlight his versatility, he won the 2018 Kenyan Cross Country title in preparation for this event.
While Kamworor, who won the New York City Marathon in autumn, will be racing for the title on Sunday, many of his 26.2 mile compatriots will be missing. And that’s not necessarily surprising.
The world half marathon championships can be the perfect preparation for a spring marathon, but for those with big appearance fees, time bonuses and prize money at stake, not to mention a shot at a world record, the risk of pushing the limits so late in preparation might not be worth it.
Such a compromise would never be made by the top cross country runners.
While the World Half Marathon heralds the start of the spring road racing season, the World Cross Country Championships is a definite end to the international cross country calendar. It is the ultimate battle for king, or queen, of the world.
The World Half Marathon title, on the other hand, is something nice to win on the way to other goals.
Women’s half marathon boom
There’s probably never been a more transformational time in history for the women’s half marathon. The top six times ever have been achieved in the last 13 months, a period during which Joyciline Jepkosgei twice broke the world record.
Two athletes have broken 65 minutes already this year. The time which Lornah Kiplagat set to win the 2007 title and break the then world record, is now only the 27 fastest time in history. Things are happening in women’s half marathon!
In the absence of Fancy Chemutai (who got to within a single second of the world record earlier this year); Mary Keitany (who ran a women’s only best for the marathon in London last April) and Peres Jepchirchir and Caroline Chepkoech Kipkirui (number 4 and 5 respectively on that all-time list), Jepkosgei will start this evening’s race as the overwhelming favourite.
But given that Valencia was the venue for the current world record, she’s unlikely to just settle for an ‘easy’ world title. Expect a blistering pace!
Whether or not today’s event catches the attention of the athletics world at large remains to be seen. Full Irish and British participation will, no doubt, inspire future generations of endurance runners on these islands, and provide a potential target for athletes on the cusp of international selection.
History could well be made, and cracking races are almost guaranteed. Indeed, it looks like the fields in both races will be bigger than ever before.
But it’s got some way to go before it becomes the premier spring-time endurance championships. Which is probably just as well. Road running isn’t for everyone!
Some stats to leave you with
Did you know Kenya, Ethiopia and Japan have shared the team medals in the women’s events for the last eight editions?
Japan, who were promoted to third in 2009 after the disqualification of Russian athlete Inga Abitova for a doping offence, will be going for their ninth successive bronze medal. While Kenya will be red hot favourites for another team title this year, with only three athletes due to start, there is no margin for error.
Ireland have never won a medal at this event and have only finished teams on five occasions. Sonia O’Sullivan came closest to bringing home silverware with a fourth-place finish in 2004.
A full women’s team has not been entered since 1993, when they finished 12th, three places higher than at the inaugural event the previous year. Barring disaster, the 2018 team is capable of much better than that.
Britain, by contrast, have won individual medals courtesy of Liz McColgan, Carl Thackery, Paula Radcliffe and Mo Farah, and made it onto the rostrum in the team event in 1992 (silver for both men and women) and 1993 (bronze for the men).
But team glory isn’t out of the question this time around, and in the unlikely event that the Japanese, or even the Kenyans, flounder, the British girls will be ready to capitalise. They’ll certainly improve on their 11th place from 2016.
A record 97 athletes finished the women’s race in 1998. That number is set to be exceeded this time around. The most to finish the men’s race was 143 in 1997. A whopping 32 men’s teams finished in both 1995 and 1997 – compared with just 14 last time out!