Letesenbet Gidey’s Valencia effort the fastest ever women’s running performance

Ethiopian’s half marathon run the latest in a string of record-breaking performances

Letesenbet Gidey crosses the finish line to break the half marathon world record in Valencia. Photograph: Muguel Angel polo/EPA

Letesenbet Gidey crosses the finish line to break the half marathon world record in Valencia. Photograph: Muguel Angel polo/EPA

 

Almost whenever an athletics world record is broken by a hitherto inconceivable time or distance the term Beamonesque is typically rolled out as if on cue. It isn’t always justified: Bob Beamon remember added 55cm – almost two feet – to the long jump world record with his 8.90m leap at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, an improvement of almost eight per cent on the previous mark.

It also stood for 23 years, before Mike Powell jumped 8.95m, and that record still stands 30 years later. Sometimes you can break them on your own.

Throughout this year several world records, young and old, have been sent tumbling like bowling pins – on the track, field and road – and some have been truly Beamonesque: Karsten Warholm running 45.94 seconds for the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics, the Norwegian breaking the seemingly impossible 46-second barrier, 0.76 faster than his own previous mark, about a seven metre improvement over one lap of the track.

Just 24 hours later, the American Sydney McLaughlin ran 51.46 in the women’s event, taking 0.44 of her own world record, a full 0.70 faster than anyone else. Both Warholm and McLaughlin significantly raised perceived limits of human potential, at least in a one-lap race over 10 barriers, and the expectation is they’re not done yet.

Still those performances may well pale in comparison to what Letesenbet Gidey ran for the half marathon in Valencia on Sunday. In her first attempt at the 13.1-mile distance, the 23-year-old Ethiopian clocked 62 minutes and 52 seconds, becoming the first woman in history to officially break not just the 64-minute barrier but the 63-minute barrier too.

Gidey already holds the world records for the 5,000m (her 14:06.62 late last summer) and the 10,000m (her 29:01.03 from earlier this summer), her 70 second improvement to the half marathon mark the greatest leap forward in over 40 years, and Beamonesque in every sense.

It’s also left many an athletics statistician and commentator wondering what exactly is happening here. According to the most recent scoring tables published by World Athletics in 2017, her 62:52 would equate to a 2:11:17 marathon, over half a mile ahead of the current mark of 2:14:04, a 13:39.43 for 5,000m, or a 3:45.54 for 1,500m, when no woman has yet broken 3:50. In fact it’s the fastest ever women’s running performance by some considerable distance.

Even accounting for the super shoe technology developed by Nike in 2016, and now adopted by all brands, Gidey has taken women’s distance running to a whole new level again. Given her youth and relative inexperience – although she’s always had the pedigree, a two-time World Junior Cross-Country champion – it’s suddenly impossible to predict how much faster Gidey can go.

Valencia is known as a super-fast course; in the men’s race, the top seven broke 59 minutes for the first time, the previous record of six set in Valencia last year. As if to prove it was no fluke fellow Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw also broke the old world record with her 63:51 in second, and not since Paula Radcliffe ran 2:15:25 for the marathon in 2003 has any women’s run felt so groundbreaking.

What is certain is that Gidey boasts one of the smoothest running styles ever witnessed, the perfect blend of form and cadence and biomechanics. She’s also remarkably confident: “I’m ready to run a world record,” she said at the pre-race press conference. “I’m sure I can do it.” She did have male pacemakers for much for of the race, though no other woman could stay near her.

For further comparison Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack finished back in ninth place – second best European – in new personal best of 69:32, improving on the 70:44 she ran in New York in 2016, only still found herself almost seven minutes behind the winner. In 2019 Gidey also ran a 15km world record of 44:20, well off the usual charts too.

American running website LetsRun neatly surmised what are probably the three typical reactions when an athlete runs a time like Gidey does in 2021: 1) Who cares? She must be doping; 2) Who cares? Super shoes have made times meaningless; 3) Wow that’s amazing - their point being it’s a likely combination of all three.

Athletics commentator Tim Hutchings also commented on Twitter there was “nothing incremental” about Gidey’s leap forward, adding this new era of running times needs to be acknowledged, because they’re no longer comparable with anything in the past.

Gidey was beaten by Sifan Hassan in the Olympic 10,000m in Tokyo, finishing third, her fluent running style perhaps most suitable to the road. The question of doping can never be far away from any world record in the sport, particularly when testing became so problematic during the pandemic. For most of her life Gidey has trained in the Tigray region in north Ethiopia, an area of serious conflict and difficult to access at the best of times, although is based in Addis Ababa more recently.

Her performance certainly hasn’t come from the proverbial nowhere, and even if there’s an element of scepticism around every major leap forward in athletics it seems likely the Beamonesque world record trend will continue into 2022.

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