In the latest of our series focusing on IAAF World Half Marathon champions the spotlight falls on the man who is seeking a hat-trick of titles in Valencia (Mar 24), Kenyan star Geoffrey Kamworor.
If Geoffrey Kamworor could loosely be described as an “accidental” world half marathon champion in 2014 – more of which later - it was a nasty “accident” at the start of his successful title defence which provided the high drama two years later in Cardiff.
The long-legged Kenyan has, arguably, proved the most versatile distance runner of his generation. Besides his twin success at the biennial World Half Marathon Championships he has also scooped back-to-back World Cross Country titles, claimed 2015 world silver on the track over 10,000m and proved a formidable competitor over 42.2km as evidenced by his victory in November’s New York City Marathon.
Back in early 2014 Kamworor was fully focused on a strong showing in February’s Tokyo Marathon. Yet after stuttering to sixth in 2:07:37 he sought a fresh challenge and suddenly turned his attention to the World Half Marathon Championships just five weeks later in Copenhagen.
“To run the world half was never a part of the plan but I was not pleased with the position (in Tokyo) so that is when I looked to focus on world half,” he explains.
“After the marathon I rested for a few days and then when I returned to training I made sure the sessions were nice and easy.”
Having run a blistering 58:54 to win the RAK Half Marathon the previous year and boasting a record of four wins and two seconds from his seven previous competitive outings over the 21.1km distance he was clearly a class-act, although the burden of favouritism in the Danish capital fell on the shoulders of Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese, the five-time world champion over the distance.
‘I always believe in myself’
Not that Kamworor was overawed by the formidable presence of the world half marathon record holder.
“I had run 58 minutes for the half-marathon the previous year, I always believe in myself. I was focused and wanted to win,” he says of his pre-race expectations in Copenhagen.
On a bright spring day Kamworor took to the front after 12 kilometres, where he led a six-strong lead group containing two Kenyans, an Ethiopian and three Eritreans including Tadese.
However, by the 15-kilometre point, and thanks to a strong Kamworor surge, the lead pack had halved in size with Samuel Tsegay of Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Guye Adola the only two men in contention as Tadese dropped off the pace.
Relentlessly pushing the pace, Kamworor opened daylight on the field in the final two kilometres and could not be stopped.
“I remember dropping the rest of the field,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe this at first, but I had to remain focused.”
He crossed the line in 59:08 –13 seconds clear of Tsegay, who edged the bronze in a tight battle with Adola with Tadese fourth– to land a maiden world senior title in what proved a huge breakthrough moment for the gregarious Kenyan.
“It really meant a lot to me as it opened so many doors in my career and motivated me to win more,” he explains. “For me, it was amazing and it made me believe anything was possible.”
Quick recovery from a tumble at the start in Cardiff
If Tadese had been Kamworor’s main rival in 2014, it was British endurance star Mo Farah who many assumed would most likely threaten the Kenya’s grip on the title in Cardiff two years later.
Farah certainly had the passionate home support behind him in the Welsh capital but Kamworor in the intervening two years had further established himself as a consistent world-class operator by adding the World Cross Country crown to his growing CV and silver behind Farah over 10,000m at the World Championships in Beijing.
Yet the Kenyan’s bid to become the third man in history to win back-to-back World Half Marathon titles was almost over before it started after he lost his footing and slipped in the narrow starting funnel -which had become slick with the descending rain - just seconds into the race.
“It was a really bad experience for me,” he recalls. “I slipped and stayed down on the ground for about 15 seconds. I had a big crowd of athletes coming from behind and pushing me.”
His knees badly scraped, he did, however, maintain his cool. He had lost significant ground on the leaders but within five minutes of running had found his way to the lead group.
“Once I reached the (lead) group I forgot that I had fallen down and I just focused on the race,” he explains.
With the race played out in heavy rain which worsened as the race progressed alongside buffeting winds, Kamworor sensibly adopted a pragmatic approach to the miserable weather conditions he faced that day.
“We all had to run in it, I had no option,” he says.
Significantly, Farah started drifting off the back of the lead group at 10km and by 15km – covered in a swift 41:41 – it was Kamworor running alongside his compatriot Bedan Karoki, who were locked in a two-way battle for gold as the pair worked together as part of a pre-arranged team tactic to set a blistering pace in an effort to break the field.
The duo were away and clear and it was the defending champion who launched his winning move with 2km remaining. Quickly opening up a decisive advantage he stopped the clock in 59:10 – 26 seconds clear of Karoki with Farah claiming bronze.
Taking into account Kamworor’s heavy fall coupled with the ghastly weather conditions to finish in a time just two seconds shy of what he achieved in Copenhagen two years earlier showed what he would have been capable of in more favourable circumstances.
“It was difficult for me to win after falling down, but I had to believe,” he recalls. “It was great to win the title again.”
Boasting an imposing half-marathon record of eight wins and three second places from 12 international races over the distance, the Kenyan will be the man to beat as he seeks a hat-trick of titles in Valencia later this month.
Yet the man who is coached by Patrick Sang, the former World and Olympic steeplechase silver medallist, has a simple theory as to what qualities make a good half-marathoner.
“For me it is that mix of endurance which I get from the long 40-k training sessions (training for the marathon), the speed and strength from running cross country and the pure speed from the track.”
It is a simple combination which has so far proved devastatingly effective.
Steve Landells for the IAAF