Priscah Jeptoo caused a major surprise at the Bupa Great North Run, an IAAF Gold Label Road Race, on Sunday (15) when she beat Ethiopian superstars Meseret Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba and clocked 1:05:45, the third-fastest time ever time at the distance.
In cool weather conditions with temperatures around 12 degrees Celsius, strong winds and some rain, the 29-year-old Kenyan actually crossed the line in South Shields five seconds quicker than the official World record from Kenya’s Mary Keitany, who ran 1:05:50 in 2011.
However Jeptoo’s time will not make the record books since the course, with a start in Newcastle, is a point-to-point course that is just slightly too downhill for record purposes. But that takes nothing away from the superb performance by Jeptoo.
Jeptoo takes the uphill road to victory
The women’s race started slower than expected with a 5km split of 16:22 as Dibaba and Defar, who clashed in the Half Marathon for the first time, exchanged the lead, with Jeptoo running right behind them.
The pace increased slightly over next 5km section with the 10km point reached in 32:26 but it was in the third quarter of the race where the outcome was decided.
Jeptoo moved in front of the Ethiopians for the first time at 13km, a slightly uphill section. The Olympic silver medallist and London Marathon winner from April then started to put the pressure on.
Dibaba started losing ground immediately. Defar held on, initially looking back and trying to encourage Dibaba to move back up to her, but there was no way back to the leaders for the Olympic and World 10,000m champion.
Jeptoo kept the fast pace and ran the third 5km section in an amazing 15:03. Soon after the she had passed the 15km mark in 47:29, Defar started to drop back as well.
Looking back a couple of times to check on the state of her rivals, the Kenyan was able to increase her lead substantially in the next few kilometres.
With the Ethiopians beaten, the question now was if Priscah Jeptoo could break Paula Radcliffe’s course record of 1:05:40 set 10 years ago.
The wind coming from behind in the final section provided some help for Jeptoo but, in the end, the Kenyan missed the Briton’s mark by five seconds.
Defar held on to second place in 1:06:09 while Dibaba was third in 1:06:56. France’s Christelle Daunay was the first European home in fourth place with 1:09:49.
“It was a surprising day for me and I am amazed by the time I ran. I did not expect such a result. I think this was also a great victory for Kenya,” said Priscah Jeptoo, who will now get ready for the New York Marathon on 3 November.
The Ethiopians were not too disappointed despite the defeat.
“Tirunesh and me, we were running at the World Championships. We were a bit tired and we had not enough time to train for this, but we still clocked personal bests,” reflected Defar.
“Priscah Jeptoo is a very strong runner. She is the London Marathon champion, but Meseret and me, we ran well today. It was the last race of the season for me,” added Dibaba.
Only two women have ever run the Half-marathon faster than Jeptoo; Radcliffe and Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei, who ran 65:44 in Lisbon in 2001.
Bekele comes from behind to win
In a dramatic sprint finish in the men’s race, Kenenisa Bekele beat Mo Farah by a mere second on the former’s Half-marathon debut.
The 10,000m World record-holder from Ethiopia clocked 1:00:09 after Farah had closed him down in the final 400 metres but could not pass Bekele.
Farah, bidding to become the first British man since 1985 to win, had to settle for second place in 1:00:10 while Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie was third in 1:00:41.
The trio were in the lead right from the start. Gebrselassie did most of the work at front, leading the other two, but in similar fashion to the women’s race, the first half was slower than expected.
They passed the 10km point in 28:58 with Bekele running a couple of metres behind his two rivals.
It looked like the two-time Olympic 10,000m champion would not be able to keep up with the pace, but this impression was wrong.
As the Ethiopian explained later, it was a tactical move to deliberately drop back: “I wanted the race to become faster and I did not see this happening while we were all together. So I dropped back, hoping that they would try to increase the pace.”
This surprising move seemed to work well. “I told Haile that the gap was not big enough,” Farah said and, sure enough, at 13km Kenenisa Bekele was back alongside them.
Bekele bides his time
It was on the steep downhill section shortly before the 20km mark when Bekele suddenly sprinted away.
Gebrselassie was beaten and lost more ground in the final mile while Farah was about 15 metres behind until the final 400 metres, when he was able to close the gap significantly.
With 100 metres to go, it looked as if Farah might be able to pass Bekele, running a step or two behind him, but the Ethiopian managed to hold on in a fascinating finish and showed that he has a bright future on the roads.
“It was an amazing race for me. I was injured for a long time, more than three years, but I recovered and was able to train well,” said Bekele, who added that he will now target a Marathon debut next spring.
“Of course you are always disappointed when you lose a race, especially on home territory, but Kenenisa is a great athlete and my focus this year was on the World Championships. It was only after Moscow that I started training for the Half-marathon,” commented Farah.
Jörg Wenig for the IAAF