Eliud Kipchoge wins the marathon at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Getty Images) © Copyright
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2016 end-of-year reviews – road and cross country

In the seventh part of our 2016 end-of-year reviews, statisticians A Lennart Julin and Mirko Jalava look back on the best road and cross-country performances of the year.

Men’s marathon

2016 was another great season for the men’s marathon, with several attempts at Dennis Kimetto’s world record of 2:02:57.

Ethiopia’s Tesfaye Abera won the first fast marathon of the year in January in Dubai in 2:04:24, but the first real threat to the world record came from Eliud Kipchoge. The 32-year-old Kenyan won in London in April, clocking 2:03:05 to get within eight seconds of the record.

This world-leading mark stood until the end of September, when Kenenisa Bekele took a turn at attacking the world record. The Ethiopian won a tight race in Berlin in 2:03:03, just missing the record, with Kenyan Wilson Kipsang in second in 2:03:13.

The Olympic marathon was a high standard one too. Kipchoge, the world leader at the time of the Games, won by a clear margin and the race was decided well before the final sprint. The Kenyan, who had previously earned Olympic 5000m bronze in 2004 and silver in 2008, clocked 2:08:44 in Rio with Ethiopia’s Tokyo Marathon champion Feyisa Lilesa taking the silver in 2:09:54. In just the second marathon of his career, USA’s Galen Rupp bagged the bronze in 2:10:05.

Men’s half marathon

Like with the full marathon distance, the standard has quickly changed in the men’s half marathon. 10 years ago a time of about 60 minutes was a rare feat, but in 2016 a total of 26 runners ran faster than that mark.

The IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016 was the main competition of the season at the 13.1-mile distance. Held in difficult wet and windy conditions, it was a decisive Kenyan triumph as Geoffrey Kamworor successfully defended his title in 59:10 to finish 26 seconds ahead of compatriot Bedan Karoki.

Such was the quality of the race, double world and Olympic champion Mo Farah had to sprint at the end to beat Ethiopia’s Abayneh Abyele for the bronze medal as both men clocked 59:59.

Solomon Yego’s 58:44 in Ostia in March was the fastest time of the year. James Wangari, also from Kenya, won two big races. The 22-year-old grabbed the top podium in Milan in March in 59:12 and went on to win in Copenhagen in September, clocking 59:07 for the second-fastest time of the season.

Other men’s road events

The fastest 10km was run by Zane Robertson in Berlin in October. The Kiwi athlete, who set a national 10,000m record of 27:33.67 while finishing 12th at the Olympics, won in 27:28 to finish 50 seconds in front of Eritrea’s Awet Habte.

Just weeks before taking the silver medal at the World Half Marathon Championships, Karoki won the World’s Best 10K in San Juan. In a tight finish, the 26-year-old clocked 27:42 with fellow Kenyan Leonard Barsoton taking second place with the same time. Kenyans took the first five places in San Juan, with Stephen Sambu in third in 27:48.

The Birell Grand Prix in Prague has swiftly established itself as one of the top 10km races in the world. In September, Kenya’s Abraham Kipyatich won this year’s race in a PB of 27:40, which was a world-leading mark at the time.

Daniel Wanjiru was second in 27:43 and Emmanuel Kipsang third in 27:47, both personal bests. Kenyans amazingly took the first 11 places, with five of them running faster than 28 minutes.

Mustapha El Aziz ran a PB of 27:33 in Marrakech in October for the second-fastest 10km of the year.

Men’s cross country

Had there been an IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2016, Aweke Ayalew would likely have finished much higher than his 10th-place finish from 2015.

The Bahraini runner put together a strong winter season at the start of 2016, winning in Antrim and Elgoibar in January, followed by a second-place finish in San Vittore Olona. He also won the Arab cross-country title in February and finished third at the Asian Cross Country Championships two weeks later.

Ayalew has also started the current cross-country season in good form, winning in Atapuerca, finishing second in Allonnes and winning in Venta de Banos.

Five years on from taking the world cross-country title, Imane Merga remains one of the best runners in the world on the surface. The Ethiopian triumphed in San Giorgio su Legnano and San Sebastian in January, but more recently had to settle for third place behind Ayalew and Uganda’s Timothy Toroitich in Atapuerca.

Geoffrey Kamworor ventured on to the mud just twice this year, but both times he showed exactly why he is the world cross-country champion. He won the Kenyan Police cross-country title in January by finishing 38 seconds ahead of Augustine Choge and 55 seconds in front of Asbel Kiprop. He followed that with a convincing win at the highly competitive IAAF Cross Country Permit race in Nairobi.

Women’s marathon

With more than just three potential gold medallists each, the Kenyan and Ethiopian federations had almost impossible jobs to select their Olympic marathon teams.

Trial competitions or statistics can be used to good effect when selecting athletes for other events, but not so much in the marathon where athletes compete just a couple of times each year and where conditions can vary from race to race.

Ultimately, both nations selected the same athletes that had competed at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015: Kenya’s Helah Kiprop, Jemima Sumgong and Visiline Jepkesho, and Ethiopia’s Mare Dibaba, Tigist Tufa and Tirfe Tsegaye.

At the Olympics, seven runners were still in contention at 35 kilometres, but soon after the race became a three-way battle between world champion Dibaba, London Marathon winner Sumgong and world bronze medallist Eunice Kirwa of Bahrain. Sumgong proved to be the strongest of the trio and won in 2:24:04 to become the first Kenyan woman to win Olympic gold in the marathon.

The six races constituting the World Marathon Majors saw winners from Kenya in Tokyo (Kiprop 2:21:27), London (Sumgong 2:22:58), Chicago (Florence Kiplagat 2:21:32) and New York (Mary Keitany 2:24:26) while Ethiopia triumphed in Boston (Atsede Baysa 2:29:19) and Berlin (Aberu Kebede 2:20:45).

However, the fastest time of 2016 came in the first month of the year when Tsegaye ran 2:19:41 for the win in Dubai.

Kiplagat (2:23:39 London) and Kebede (2:23:01 Tokyo) had both run well in the spring but missed out on Olympic selection. Others who were similarly unlucky to miss out on the Olympics included Hamburg and Amsterdam winner Meselech Melkamu and two-time world champion Edna Kiplagat, who ran 2:22:36 in Tokyo and 2:23:28 in Chicago.

Women’s half marathon

Even though the half marathon is not part of summer global championships, it has established itself as an event in its own right. And this year the half-marathon specialists had medals to chase at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Cardiff 2016.

Long before the half-way mark, the top eight consisted of five Kenyans and three Ethiopians and, as expected, the race quickly developed into a battle between the two east African nations. In the end Kenya swept the medals with Peres Jepchirchir winning the title ahead of Cynthia Limo and Mary Wacera.

Jepchirchir is very much a half-marathon specialist. She has never competed internationally on the track or in the marathon, but in 2016 she ran six international half marathons between 1:06:30 and 1:08:30, scoring wins in Yangzhou, Usti nad Labem and Valencia.

Although they were not selected for the World Half Marathon Championships, Jepchirchir’s compatriot Violah Jepchumba and Ethiopia’s Worknesh Degefa were similarly prolific specialists. Jepchumba won four of her five races at the distance, winning in Gothenburg, Istanbul, Cardiff and Prague, clocking a world-leading 1:05:51 at the latter.

Degefa, the winner of the Rome-Ostia and New Delhi races, had fewer victories but more sub-68-minute performances to her credit as she bettered that barrier on four occasions.

In terms of overall quality and depth, the best race was Ras Al Khaimah in February when the top six all ran faster than 1:07, led by Cynthia Limo’s winning performance of 1:06:04.

This year also marked the half marathon’s first appearance at the European Championships. Portugal’s Sara Moreira won the title in 1:10:19.

Other women’s road events

Despite the ever increasing number of international 10km races, Paula Radcliffe’s world record of 30:21 from 2003 remained intact for another year. But in 2016 it came under serious threat from Violah Jepchumba.

Even more remarkable is that Jepchumba came within eight seconds of the mark en route to her 1:05:51 half-marathon victory in Prague in April. The Kenyan returned to the Czech capital in September for a standalone 10km race and won in 30:24, the second-fastest time in history.

In the right conditions, Radcliffe’s 30:21 could soon be erased from the record books. And given the standard on the track at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, the first sub-30-minute performance on the roads could soon be on the cards.

Alice Aprot, who finished fourth in Rio in 29:53.51, looks as though she could be the woman to break both of those marks as she has shown she has the necessary tools to keep a fast and even pace by herself and is capable of winning on all types of surfaces.

Women’s cross country

With no IAAF World Cross Country Championships in 2016, many top distance runners had limited seasons on the international level.

Of the world’s best track specialists, most ran just the odd cross-country race, while others didn’t compete on the surface at all. But some – such as Olympic 1500m champion Faith Kipyegon and Olympic steeplechase champion Ruth Jebet – used the cross-country season as an integral part of their preparation for the summer.

Kipyegon had two decisive triumphs in IAAF Cross Country Permit races in January, winning the Cross de Italica in Spain by 20 seconds and the Cinque Mulini in Italy by 48 seconds.

Jebet also had two January races on the IAAF Cross Country Permit circuit, finishing second in San Giorgio su Legnano and fifth in Antrim. In February she collected silver medals at the Arab Cross Country Championships and the Asian Cross Country Championships.

But the outstanding runner of the season was Alice Aprot who, in addition to her wins in San Giorgio su Legnano and Antrim, also dominated the permit event at home in Nairobi in February. She also triumphed at the African Cross Country Championships in March.

Aprot has also already opened this winter season with two races in Spain in November, finishing third in Atapuerca and first in Soria.

The European Cross Country Championships in December was dominated by Turkey as Yasemin Can and Meryem Akda scored a convincing 1-2, finishing half a minute ahead of third place.

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