With less than one month to go until the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016, several events are already shaping up as potential highlights of the championships, none more so than the women’s 1500m.
Ethiopia’s Gudaf Tsegay, USA’s Alexa Efraimson and Germany's Konstanze Klosterhalfen have all run faster than 4:07.00 this year.
Should she opt for the metric mile over the 3000m, Klosterhalfen will be bidding to become her country’s first gold medallist, man or woman, over the distance in championship history. The 19-year-old from the Bayer Leverkusen club leads the European challenge in the wake of her eye-catching run at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Ostrava last month when, in one fell swoop, she got not only a shock 1500m win over more experienced rivals but also secured qualification for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Her initial reaction to clocking 4:06.91 was one of shock, but the performance was no fluke.
Right from the gun, Klosterhalfen positioned herself among the pacemakers, much to their consternation as they informed her what their job was and then expected her to fall in line, but the teenager simply ignored them.
“The pacemakers were supposed to go through (400m) at 66-second pace so I thought I had better go with them if I wanted to set a qualifying time,” explained Klosterhalfen.
In fact, she was the only athlete in the large field to follow the pacemakers as they ticked off the first lap in a lively 63.37.
Clearly comfortable with the pace, she simply kept going and when the second pacemaker finally dropped out with 500m to go, the sprightly German found herself a full 40 metres ahead.
Hitting the 1200m mark right in 3:18.62, she showed no sign of panic and held her advantage to the tape, though she later admitted how anxious she had been beforehand. “I was super nervous so to be able to concentrate on the race and win as well as get a qualifying time is amazing. I had my doubts beforehand but managed to shake them off and just went for it, telling myself, if not now then when?”
Beating the clock
The 2016 season has seen Klosterhalfen establish a cluster of personal bests that set her up for the challenge that awaits her in Poland next month.
Indoors, she revised her 800m best by almost five seconds when running 2:03.37, making her, at that stage of the season, the second-fastest U20 worldwide. Outdoors the charge over two laps continued with her lifetime best coming in at 2:03.18.
However, it is over 1500m and 3000m that she has truly excelled.
In addition to her Ostrava run and an impressive win at the German Championships over 1500m on Saturday, her season opener over 3000m in Plieshauzen on 8 May saw her run 8:55.66, still the second-fastest U20 mark in the world this year.
Up until Ostrava, the IAAF World U20 Championships was Klosterhalfen’s sole goal for the year, but now that she has also qualified for Rio. she is taken aback by the possibilities.
“At the moment I am not really thinking about Rio," she said. "Of course the Olympics are the dream of every sportsperson but, for me, it was basically too much to think about going there. I had not really thought about it. I told myself just to do my own thing, train and run and if it happens it happens, but if it doesn’t then I have enough time.”
Although she is still only 19, there is already a lot of running in Klosterhalfen’s legs.
She started her sporting career at the tender age of five, but she was nine before she started to specialise in running. An early indication of her talent came to the fore when she ran 800m in 2:38.42 at the age of 12.
Since then she has spread her talents widely as she progressed through the ranks. In December, she won the junior title at the European Cross Country Championships and led the German quartet to the team gold medals.
In what has been a characteristic of her recent triumphs, the individual title appeared to come unexpectedly.
“I was completely surprised when I crossed the line. I could not take it all in. I only expected to finish in the top 10.”
The unexpected theme continued on the roads. In March this year, she decided to enter the Leverkusen 10km as part of her training. The result? A German U20 record of 32:24.
The measure of the achievement can be seen in the fact that no other German U20 had run faster than 33 minutes before. The record she broke was 26 years old and belonged to one Anke Schaning. On the clock, Klosterhalfen was also more than 20 seconds under Schaning’s 10,000m record on the track. It is likely to be just a matter of time before she captures that record as well, assuming she can fit in a 10,000m before the year runs out.
“She has the most amazing endurance,” enthused her long-time coach, Sebastian Weiss. “It was clear from the start she was talented. It is just a question of injury-free training and slowly increasing the training load.”
Weiss is targeting the 5000m, ultimately, as his charge’s speciality, though he admits that for the time being it is the 1500m she enjoys most.
Last weekend, Klosterhalfen showed an impressive turn of speed to leave the field trailing at the German Championships in Kassel, winning her first senior outdoor title and clocking the fastest 1500m at the event for 20 years, 4:07.52.
"In Ostrava, I ran with pacemakers; today I wanted to show that I could also run without them," she said. "I hope that I can face the big challenges that await me. I'm going back into training to prepare for the U20s and then I shall look forward to Rio but I am not going to run the Europeans."
In Kassel, Klosterhalfen ran the 400m to 1200m stretch in a swift 2:07, a turn of pace none of her senior rivals in Germany could live with.
It is the sort of speed that will stand the law and sports journalism student in good stead when she takes on the world in Bydgoszcz next month.
The current world U20 leader over 1500m is Tsegay of Ethiopia with 4:00.18, fully six seconds faster than Klosterhalfen. But the German is building up a reputation for pulling off surprises.
There could be more tales of the unexpected to come.
Michael Butcher for the IAAF