Let's face it: the World Half-Marathon championship this Saturday in Gdynia, Poland will be far from perfect.
Sifan Hassan, the new European 10,000m record holder, withdrew from the field earlier this week. Geoffrey Kamworor, the three-time defending men's champion, had to pull out after being hit by a motorcycle in June. The mass race was called off, and several teams (Canada, USA, and Japan and Australia, to name a few) cancelled their plane tickets because of COVID-19 concerns, which have been very real in Poland as of late.
So far, the ill-fated previews of this race kind of read like a Lemony Snickett story. But this world championship still has the materials to entertain us, especially in a year when we've become so desperate for track and field that even Mo Farah's attempt at a world record we did not know existed counts as major entertainment.
Below are five stories to follow at Saturday's World Athletics Half Marathon championship. Of course, we start with Mr. 2020.
1. Joshua Cheptegei's half-marathon debut
The 24-year-old Ugandan's stack of results this year is arguably unparalleled by any athlete across genders and disciplines. In the last two months, he wrestled the 5,000m and 10,000m track records away from the great Kenenisa Bekele in such grand fashion that most people forgot he had also claimed the road 5k world record in February. But he has yet to race 21.1k.
It's difficult to predict what will be Cheptegei's result in a longer race. His track times are so stratospheric (12:35.36 for 5,000m and 26:11.00 for 10,000m) that only a handful of men who went from track to road serve as possible and plausible points of comparison.
Three other runners than Cheptegei have run faster than 12:40 in the 5,000m and 26:30 in the 10,000m: Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. Gebrselassie's best in the half-marathon is 58:55. Tergat has run 59:17, and Bekele 1:00:09. None have come within 50 seconds of Geoffrey Kamworor's world record of 58:01.
Those men's resumes suggest that world beating track times are strong predictors of success, but don't necessarily translate to a world-beating half-marathon. But none of these men ran their best HM in the same year as their world records on the track. Here, we know Cheptegei is in the best shape of his life. Plus, the young Ugandan rides into Poland on a wave a confidence after comfortably making Bekele his second banana on the track record boards.
2. And he might not even win!
If Cheptegei wins, he will become the only man to win global titles on the track, road and cross-country since Khalid Skah in the 1990s. But what if he doesn't?
For just the second time since 2005, someone not named Zersenay Tadese or Geoffrey Kamworor will win the male crown, and while Cheptegei is the arguable favourite, he is by far the only candidate. The men's race has at least six other ringers.
Birhanu Legese: (PB: 59:20)
Key stat: Only two men in history have run faster in the marathon than Legese's 2:02:48 - Bekele and Eliud Kipchoge.
Kibiwott Kandie: (PB: 58:38)
Key stat: Fastest man over 21.1k in the field. PB comes from September 2020.
Jacob Kiplimo: (PB: 1:01:53)
Key stat: Second behind Cheptegei at the 2019 World Cross-Country Championship/ Ugandan 3,000m record holder 7:26.64.
Guye Adola: (PB: 59:06)
Key Stat: Fastest debut marathon in history in 2017 (2:03:46)
Abraham Cheroben: (PB: 58:40)
Key Stat: Asian record holder / reining runner-up
Julien Wanders: (PB: 59:13)
Key Stat: European record holder
3. Battle of the world record holders (women's side, also mention former world record holders)
FOUR women enter this race with a half-marathon world record on their CV.
Ababel Yeshaneh🇪🇹 - world record holder - 1:04:31 (2020)
Yeshaneh is the fastest female half-marathoner in history. But her record-breaking run of 1:04:31 stands somewhat alone on her stats sheet. Save for a second place finish at the Chicago marathon in 2019, the 29-year-old has no individual podium finishes in other marathon majors, Olympic races or world championships.
Joyciline Jepkosgei🇰🇪 - former WR holder - 1:04:51 (2017)
Jepkosgei, after losing to Gudeta in 2018, became the New York City Marathon champion in 2019. She is the second-fastest half-marathoner in history and the first woman to run under 1:05:00.
Peres Jepchirchir🇰🇪 - women's only WR holder : 1:05:34 - (2016)
Jepchirchir won the 2016 World Half-Marathon championship, and has a personal best time of 1:05:06. She ran it in 2017 and, at the time, it was a world record.
Netsanet Gudeta🇪🇹 - former women's only WR holder - 1:06:11 (2018)
Gudeta is the defending World Half-Marathon champion. In 2018, she put 43 seconds on Jepkosgei to win her first international title. The 29-year-old has since lowered her best mark to 1:05:45. Still, she is perhaps the least decorated member of the aforementioned quartet - at least, she is the only one to have never held the mixed-gender world record.
4. Ethiopian women look to defend, Ugandan men hope to upset
The championship also comprises a team component, which Kenya and Ethiopia have dominated over the last decade. Team scores are determined by adding together the times of a team's top three finishers. On the women's side, Kenya is poised to wrestle the gold medal away from defending champions Ethiopia On the men's side, we can expect to see a new team grace the podium.
Defending champions: Ethiopia
Titles in the last ten years: Kenya (6), Ethiopia (3), Romania (1)
This year: On paper, Ethiopia looks best. Not only are Yeshaneh and Gudeta excellent medal threats, they have a quality third in Zeineba Yimer (1:05:46), who was part of the gold medal-winning team in 2018. And if one of the big three have a bad day, they are backed up by Yalemzerf Yehualaw (1:06:01).
Kenya is not as deep, and will need their three top runners to have good days to upset the defending champions. If Jepchirchir, Jepkosgei and Rosemary Wanjiru (1:05:34) must be on for them to win - they lack a fourth with Yehualaw's speed.
Bahrain, with its herd of 1:08-1:10 runners, is a lock for third. But calling them to upset Ethiopia or Kenya is a stretch.
Prediction: 🥇Ethiopia, 🥈Kenya, 🥉Bahrain
Defending champions: Ethiopia
Titles in the last ten years: Kenya (7), Ethiopia (2), Eritrea (1)
This year: Ethiopia will rely on their Adola-Legese punch to defend their title, and on one of their other three sub 59:30 men to score for third. But Kenya might have the upper hand. Despite losing 2018 champion Kamworor, the African nation has at least three men with sub-59 speed. The knock on them is that only Kibiwott Kandie has run a personal best this year.
Only one team can mess with the Kenyan-Ethiopian two horse race: Uganda. They have won a single bronze medal in the championship's history (2004), but they are probably fielding their best team ever. Cheptegei, of course, leads the charge, and if two of Kiplimo, Victor Kiplangat (1:00:16) and Stephen Kissa (1:00:00) have big days, they can compete with any team.
Prediction: 🥇Kenya, 🥈Ethiopia, 🥉Uganda
5. Finnish woman returns to World Half Championship... after 22-year hiatus (!)
Annemari Kiekara will not contest for individual or team medals on Saturday. But for her, getting to the start line is a win in and of itself. Hampered by injuries for most of her career, the 43-year-old Finnish distance runner has not raced in an international event on the road or the track since 2000.
In her first appearance at the World Half-Marathon championship in 1998 in Uster, Switzerland, she set a Finnish national half-marathon of 1:10:04, a mark that still stands today.
Soon afterwards, however, she developed serious hamstring issues that forced her away from the sport. Over the next twenty years, she underwent seven hamstring surgeries according to World Athletics, and also had three children.
Finally healthy, Kiekara comes to the championship with goals of running in the 1:11 to 1:12 range and eventually qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
“Back then," she tells World Athletics, "when I competed at my first World Half Marathon Championships, I had no idea that 22 years later I’d still be competing internationally... I’m so thankful to have the chance to run again after such bad injuries."
If you've read this far and the geek inside you still wants more, check out the World Athletics Half-Marathon Championship official facts and figures document.
Schedule (local times):
Women: 11:00 a.m. (ET - 5:00 a.m. ET)
Men: 12:30 p.m. (6:30 a.m. ET)
Watch live here
In Canada, you can stream it for free on CBC Sports here.
In the U.S., you can stream the race if you subscribe to NBC Universal