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Hongyu Liu misses world best by two seconds in textbook finish

Co-holder of the 20k world best and the reigning Asian 10,000m champion, Hongyu Liu (CHN) stormed through the final lap of the 2km circuit in a fluid rhythmic progress, gliding over the tarmac as she headed towards the finish in a final desperate race against the clock and her own world best of 1:27:30.

Reigning Olympic champion for the 10km, Yelena Nikolayeva, set the ground rules for the women’s 20km race here in Mezidon right from the start. Despite the blazing sun and soaring temperatures, Nikolayeva moved to the front of the platoon in the first hundred metres, together with Russian team-mate Nadyazeva Ryashkina and stepped out at record pace.

Within the first two kilometres, the two Russians were leading a small group of leaders, including Norica Cimpean,  Liu, Lyudmila Dolgpopolova (BLR) and Claudia Iovan from Romania.

Nikolayeva broke way from the pack leaving Ryashkina to battle it out with Cimprean, Dolgopolova, Liu and Iovan. But the warning lights were flashing as Nikolayeva collected her first warning 26 and a half minutes into the race.

As Nikolayeva approached the halfway mark (43:05 – 8:36 for the previous 2km), she was 38 seconds ahead of Norica Cimpean and had picked up a second warning two hundred metres earlier, getting closer to crossing the thin line between an exceptional performance and disqualification. Cimpean started to increase the pressure at this point and had closed the gap by ten seconds within the next 500metres, only to see Nikolayeva pull away once more during the next circuit, leaving 46 seconds between the two by the 12km mark.

With 4km to go, Norica Cimpean decided that the Nikolayeva’s lead was too great and started her acceleration. The gap between the two athletes was closing rapidly, with Cimpean passing the 16km mark just 15 seconds behind the Russian. The battle for third place was heating too, as Hongyu Liu moved up, with Nikolayeva’s team-mate Nadezhda Ryashkina hot on her heels.

Cimpean took the lead , only to have it snatched from her by Liu within the space of a hundred metres, with the Chinese athlete roaring into the lead and forging a massive gap with Natalya Fedoskina stepping up into second place, closely followed by Cimpean and Nikolayeva.

Despite all Fedoskina's efforts, Liu retained her lead at the finish and was racing against the clock as she headed for the finish, with the crowd roaring her on. 

In the end it was the clock that won, by a narrow margin of two seconds, as Liu slowed slightly to acknowledge the roars of applause from the crowd and crossed the finish line in 1:27:32. Natalya Fedoskina won the final race for second place at the limits of exhaustion, just metres ahead of Norica Cimpean.

Yelena Nikolayeva, who had looked so strong as she dominated this race in the earlier stages, had burned all her reserves and trailed in fourth nearly a minute behind Liu and 35 seconds behind Norica Cimpean.

Victory in the team event went to China, Russia was second and Mexico took third place.

Sean Wallace-Jones for the IAAF