Almaz Ayana leads from Genzebe Dibaba in the 5000m at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015 (AFP / Getty Images) © Copyright
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2015 end-of-year reviews – long distance

Statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best long-distance performances of the year.

Men’s 5000m

Sub-13-minute performances have become rare in recent years.

In the 10 years between 2004 and 2013, there was an average of 13 sub-13 performers each season spread across an average of five races. But 2014 and 2015 had just two such races in each season with a total of four and six runners respectively breaking that barrier.

The IAAF Diamond League provided the two sub-13-minute races of the year, both won by Ethiopian teenager Yomif Kejelcha:  12:58.69 in Rome in June and 12:53.98 in Brussels in September.

Ahead of the World Championships, the question once more was what the runners from Kenya and Ethiopia would come up with tactically to try to unsettle Mo Farah. Despite their strength in numbers, they had failed to find a recipe for success at the past three global championships. Instead, they appeared to have put their hopes solely on Farah having an off-day.

This scenario repeated itself in 2015. The Beijing final actually started slower than the women’s final and nothing happened until Caleb Ndiku burst to the front with two laps to go. But despite Ndiku’s best efforts, he was unable to shake off Farah who attacked into the final straight and won comfortably after a 1:48.7 last 800m.

With Farah’s finish as strong as ever, anyone planning to challenge for the gold in Rio 2016 needs to find a way of getting Farah out of his comfort zone before the last kilometre.

Men’s 10,000m

This was, more than ever, a championship event that was otherwise almost invisible on the international scene.

The distance is now more popular on the roads than on the track. The only major meeting that still regularly holds the 10,000m is the Prefontaine Classic, which stages it on the evening before the IAAF Diamond League.

This year’s race in Eugene in late May in retrospect was very much a dress rehearsal for the World Championships three months later. Mo Farah won, closely followed by Kenyans Paul Tanui and Geoffrey Kamworor. The Beijing outcome only differed in that Kamworor and Tanui switched places. The three of them finished within 1.68 seconds in Eugene and within 1.70 seconds in Beijing.

The race in Beijing ended up being Farah versus Kenya as, somewhat surprisingly, none of the Ethiopians managed to stay with the pace set by the Kenyan trio of Kamworor, Tanui and Bedan Karoki. But their hard teamwork was not enough to get free of Farah who then of course had the winning sprint finish.

The Kenyan tactic employed in Beijing of keeping the race fast was not enough, probably because the pace was far too even with each kilometre between 3000m and 9000m all run in 2:42-2:43. That left Farah fresh enough to pull out a 2:28 for the decisive last kilometre.

Men’s 3000m steeplechase

This has been Kenya’s national event for decades and their grip this year was just as strong as ever.

They ended up with eight of the top nine on the world list and, for the first time ever, they swept the top four places at the World Championships.

But in early July it looked as though Kenyan-born runners risked missing out on the World Championships gold medal for the first time since 1987. At the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Paris, USA’s Evan Jager was on his way to a clear victory when he stumbled and fell after the final barrier. Jairus Birech passed him to win in 7:58.83 which indicated that a 7:57 performance had been within Jager’s reach.

Following Paris, Jager took seven weeks off from competition and didn’t re-emerge until Beijing, where he didn’t seem to have the same aggressive approach to the race. Instead he followed the slow pace dictated by the four Kenyans and when that quartet shifted into sprint mode at the bell, he had no response. The Kenyans, led by winner Ezekiel Kemboi, all finished between 8:11 and 8:13 while Jager was sixth in 8:15.47, one second behind team-mate Dan Huling.

Birech was also a victim of the Kenyan team tactics as he just missed out on the medals. He thrives on a fast pace; in his five IAAF Diamond League races before Beijing, he had won three of them and finished second in the other two, each time running between 7:58 and 8:10.

But regardless, Birech probably wouldn’t have defeated Kemboi, the consummate championship performer, who outsprinted everyone to take his sixth global title since 2004. Kemboi may sometimes appear lackadaisical in other races, but a championship final is a different story.

Women’s 5000m

It was a phenomenal season in the women’s 5000m. Ethiopian duo Almaz Ayana and Genzebe Dibaba produced the third and fourth-fastest times in history behind only Tirunesh Dibaba’s world record of 14:11.15 and Meseret Defar’s 14:12.88, both from 2008. Ethiopia now has the top four places on the world all-time list.

At the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Shanghai, 24-year-old Ayana, whose best time before 2015 was 14:25.84 in Paris 2013, passed 3000m in 8:36.53 before narrowly missing the world record in a huge personal best and world lead of 14:14.32.

Genzebe Dibaba then tried to break the world record in Paris, winning comfortably against Ayana with times of 14:15.41 and 14:21.97 respectively.

But Ayana, the bronze medallist in Moscow two years ago, was unbeatable in Beijing, dropping Dibaba early in the race and covering the final 3000m in 8:19.92 to win in 14:26.83. Dibaba was caught on the final straight and passed by compatriot Senbebe Teferi, who took the silver in 14:44.07 with Dibaba finishing in 14:44.14 for the bronze. For the second World Championships in a row, 31-year-old Kenyan Viola Kibiwot finished fourth.

The Ethiopian sweep of medals also maintained the all-Kenya/Ethiopia dominance of this event at the World Championships for the past decade.

Dibaba also recorded two more fast wins with 14:19.76 in Eugene and 14:21.29 in Oslo. With her 14:15.41 personal best, this trio of times is by far the best during one season. Older sister Tirunesh ran 14:23.46 in her second-fastest race in 2008, when she set the standing world record.

Women’s 10,000m

The women’s 10,000m season was usually thin and there were only a handful of fast races.

The first was in Stanford at the start of April, with Gelete Burka scoring a win in a world-leading 31:08.16 on her debut at the distance. She also emerged as the winner of the Ethiopian National Championships and World Championships Trials, held in Hengelo in 30:49.68, which also topped the world lists at the end of the season.

In fact the six best athletes in 2015 were from this same race and the best non-Ethiopian this season was USA’s Shalane Flanagan, who finished second in Stanford in 31:09.02. Portugal’s Sara Moreira won the Trofeo Iberico in Huelva in April in 31:12.93 and Kenya’s 2011 world champion Vivian Cheruiyot won in Brussels in July, clocking 31:13.29.

The World Championships race was a slow one, with everything still open at the beginning of the last lap. With world leader Burka pushing to the lead on the back straight, Cheruiyot passed her with 250 metres to go. The Kenyan held on to her lead to win her second world title in 31:41.31.

Burka took the silver (31:41.77) while USA took places three and four. Molly Huddle, thinking she had got the bronze, was celebrating with her hands raised at the finish line, but ended up being overtaken by team-mate Emily Infeld just moments before the finish.

Women’s 3000m steeplechase

Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi returned to the top of the women’s 3000m steeplechase during the 2015 season.

The 31-year-old took the silver at the 2011 World Championships and 2012 Olympics but was not in the same form in 2013 and 2014. Having raced once indoors in February, she only started her season in mid-July in Monaco, her only race before Beijing, winning in a world-leading 9:11.28.

Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi was a close second in Monaco in a 9:12.51 personal best and won both the National Championships and World Championships Trials. She also won in Rome (9:15.08) and finished second in Doha and Birmingham.

The 23-year-old finished sixth at the 2013 World Championships on her global championship debut, but in Beijing she was one of the medal favourites.

The World Championships final was a weird one, with India’s Lalita Babar taking a big lead from the start. Of course she was caught with two laps to go and behind her most of the runners were still in medal contention because of the slow pace. The last lap started with seven athletes left in the group as Ghribi made her move in search of her first gold medal.

Coming off the final barrier, Germany’s Gesa-Felicitas Krause momentarily held the lead, but fast-finishing Jepkemoi came through to take the gold in 9:19.11. Ghribi, unable to respond to Jepkemoi’s speed, once again had to settle for the silver medal in 9:19.24 while Krause grabbed a surprise bronze in 9:19.25.

Ghribi bounced back in style in the last race of the season at the IAAF Diamond League final in Brussels. She crushed the African record with 9:05.36, moving her to second on the world all-time list, with Jepkemoi finishing in second place in a 9:10.15 personal best and Ethiopia’s Sofia Assefa, fourth in Beijing, third in a 9:12.63 season’s best.

A Lennart Julin (men’s events) and Mirko Jalava (women’s events) for the IAAF