Despite having never raced beyond 35km before, China’s Liang Rui upstaged the world gold and silver medallists to win the women’s 50km race walk in a world record* of 4:04:36 at the IAAF World Race Walking Team Championships Taicang 2018.
Much of the pre-race focus had been on world champion and world record-holder Ines Henriques of Portugal and China’s world silver medallist and Asian record-holder Yin Hang.
But Liang had hinted at her potential earlier this year when winning a 35km race in Huangshan in 2:49:23, finishing almost a minute ahead of Yin. Liang also had one of the fastest 20km PBs of the field with her 1:28:43 clocking from 2016 and had finished third at that distance at the Chinese National Games last year.
She may have been untested at 50km before today, but Liang was without doubt one of the top prospects in Taicang.
The 23-year-old was part of a six-woman lead pack during the early stages along with compatriots Yin, Li Maocuo and Zhou Khang as well as Henriques and Australia’s Claire Tallent. With Romania’s Marius Cocioran and Ecuador’s Darwin Leon from the men’s race walking alongside them, the lead women passed 10 kilometres in 49:04.
After reaching 15 kilometres in 1:13:36, Zhou received a second warning and dropped back, reducing the lead pack to five women. They passed 20 kilometres in 1:38:12, after which Tallent had to pause for a comfort break, but she rejoined the pack just after half way, which was reached in 2:02:51.
The first big drama of the race came when Henriques dropped out at about 29 kilometres, leaving four women in the lead pack: Liang, Li, Yin and Tallent. Having been inside world record schedule, the pace dropped slightly over the next few laps and the chances of a world record appeared to be slipping away.
With 2:38 on the clock, Tallent tried to make a break but was soon reeled back in by the Chinese trio. A surge of pace from the host nation’s athletes gave them a 41-second lead over Tallent by 40 kilometres, reached in 2:52:53.
Liang then decided to make a break. After covering the penultimate five-kilometre section in 23:36 – by far the quickest split of the race – she had opened up a lead of nearly two minutes over Li and was back on track to break the world record.
Cheered on by the home crowd, the drizzle didn’t dampen Liang’s spirits as she maintained her tempo until the end, crossing the finish line in 4:04:36 to take 80 seconds off the world record set by Henriques at last year’s IAAF World Championships.
“I chose to follow the others at the start to save my energy and then waited for the right moment to break away,” said Liang. “It was after passing 40km that I realised I could break the world record. At that time I felt I still had energy in reserve and could speed up further.”
Li faded in the closing stages as Yin recovered from a slight stumble in the final 200 metres to take silver in 4:09:09, just 11 seconds shy of the PB she set when finishing second at the World Championships last year. It was China's first 1-2 finish in a women's event at the World Race Walking Team Championships since 1985.
Tallent, who was also making her 50km debut, came through for third place in an Oceanian record of 4:09:33. Ecuador’s Paola Perez finished fourth in a South American record of 4:12:56.
With four athletes finishing in the top seven, China comfortably won the team title. Ecuador picked up the silver medal – their first ever medal in a women's event at these championships – while Ukraine edged out Spain by one point to take team bronze.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF
*Subject to the usual ratification procedures