When he lost his 10,000m world title in Edmonton in August, it was the first time since 1993 that Haile Gebrselassie had been unable to call himself “world champion”.
The little Ethiopian put that right on the waterfront here on Sunday morning, as he won the IAAF World Half Marathon title with apparent ease in only his second competitive outing over the 21.1-kilometre distance.
Gebrselassie sprinted away from team mate Tesfaye Jifar, clocking 1:00:03 to Jifar’s 1:00:04. The bronze medal went to long-time leader John Yuda from Tanzania in 1:00:12. Ethiopia, with three in the first five, comfortably took the team title.
“I think I could have run faster than one hour today,” Gebrselassie said, “but it was a world championship, and medals were more important than times.”
This was easily the strongest field assembled in the nine-year history of the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, which were first staged in 1992, also in Britain.
The quality of the field was soon evident, as a tight group of more than 30 men cruised through the five-kilometre point in 14:27, with Gebrselassie already prominent.
Among the early pacesetters were Morocco’s former track world champions, Khalid Skah and Salah Hissou, Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa, twice a silver medallist in this event, plus the Tanzanian duo of Yuda and Faustin Baha, the silver medallist 12 months ago.
It was soon after the first of the two laps was completed, with the pace picking up (as shown by the 28:51 10km split), that the lead group really began to break up, leaving a knot of just nine men in the chase for the medals - Yuda leading Ramaala, plus three Ethiopians, three Kenyans, and with Morocco’s Gharib Jaouad just hanging on.
They were soon at the business-end of the race, and alongside the River Avon, with the autumn wind freshening, Yuda continued churning out the relentlessly quick kilometres, with Gebrselassie always at his shoulder.
Jifar and Tesfaye Tola, his Ethiopian team mates, were never more than half a stride away, leaving Evans Rutto as the last Kenyan in contention, and Ramaala drifting off the back just before the 15km mark - passed by Yuda in 42:59, after a 14:08 5km section, the fastest split of the race.
As the leaders passed under the Clifton Suspension Bridge for the last time, it looked as if the medals were already determined, Yuda cranking out the pace ahead of Jifar and Gebrselassie. Less than 50 metres back, Ramaala seemed to have revived and overhauled Jifar for fourth place.
“I wanted to surprise them,” said 22-year-old Yuda, the winner of this year’s Berlin 25km in the third-fastest performance of all time.“I have only been running seriously for two years and I thought I might win it if I pushed hard enough.” But with Gebrselassie at his shoulder, it was never enough.
Gebrselassie moved to the front for the first time with 54 minutes on the clock - much sooner than had been expected. Jifar, twice a bronze medallist in this championships, struggled to go with his teammate as Yuda quickly conceded a gap of some 30 metres.
Then, it was simply a matter of how quick Gebrselassie would get to the finish, and how much he would win by. When he launched his familiar finishing kick, Jifar quickly settled for the silver.
“I planned to follow the pace until the last two or three kilometres - I preferred to stay out of the wind," said Gebrselassie. "And it all went to plan."
Steven Downes for the IAAF