Tim Crosbie reports from Valencia, Spain

2018 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships – Valencia, Spain

Set on the shores of the Balearic Sea in the Mediterranean, the Spanish port city of Valencia played host to the biennial World Half Marathon Championship on Saturday 24th March.  And with the IAAF embracing recreational running as part of it’s long term strategy , the Championship had the added element of a ‘peoples’ race numbering some 15,000 runners being held at the same time.
With 86 competing nations and over 300 Championship athletes across the women’s and men’s races, the IAAF were pleased to report the largest participation at an event of this kind, and without doubt the pre-eminent distance race on the global calendar for 2018.
Unfortunately race day arrived with gusting north westerly winds reaching up to 50km per hour and averaging around 30km, and with some rain forecast time expectations were lowered.
Australia had a team of five take part, four of whom were Victorians and three debutantes at this level of competition.  Here are the race summaries:

Women

The Women’s race started 25 minutes before the men and mass field of the ‘peoples’ event.  The 5:05pm start time was aimed at maximising spectator involvement in what is termed the ‘city of running’ and with excitement around the possibility of a women’s world record being run the people of Valencia lined the course in big numbers.

With two competing runners, Sinead Diver (South Melbourne) and Ellie Pashley  (Deakin) Australia were not going to field a scoring team due to the late withdrawal of Olympian Milly Clark, however with both girls demonstrating great form in the lead up there was high interest in just how highly they might place.

Moving through the first 5km together in 16:47 the girls were placed in the mid 50’s, just in to the top half of the 120 strong field.  The next 5km included some exposed areas of the course as they turned from the coast and headed towards the central part of the city.  A resultant drop in pace still had them on for PB’s, although the 10km split of 34:16 may well have indicated both were slowing quite a bit, despite having moved up 10 places.

With a pack of eight to ten to work with, both Pashley and Diver took their turns leading into the breeze, guaranteeing the pace didn’t drop too far.  Diver hit 15km 51:33 in 32nd position with Pashley just 2 seconds and 4 spots back in the pack.  The course now entered the central part of old Valencia where high buildings provided some relief from the breeze.

The run for home meant the assistance of the tailwind was felt for the first time.  With Diver going through 20km in 1:08:13, a 16:40 5km split had propelled her into the top 25 and gold label status for the first time.  Pashley was following in Diver’s footsteps with only 3 seconds separating the pair as they entered the final kilometre.

Valencia spared no expense organising a stunning finish with a raised ramp across a water feature in the middle of the city’s arts precinct hosting the final 100m.  With a sharp right turn followed by a sharp left the Australian girls hit the ramp flying in positions 23 and 24, both recording sub 3:10 closing kilometres to finish the race.  With finishing times of 1:11:40 for Diver and 1:11:43 for Pashley, both girls recorded substantial personal bests in the challenging conditions and have propelled themselves to 15th & 16th respectively on the Australian All Time list for the Half Marathon.

And the crowds of Valencia were treated to a world record run with Ethiopia’s Netsanet Kebede running 1:06:11 to record a new record for a women’s only race, eclipsing the great Lornah Kiplagat’s 1:06:25 from 2007.  The women’s record for a mixed gender race is held by Kenya’s Joyciline Jepkosgei who recorded 1:04:51 on a similar course in Valencia in October 2017.  On Saturday Jepkosgei had to settle for the silver medal some 43 seconds behind the winner.

Men

With the mass field assembled behind them, the Championship men toed the line for a 5:30pm start.  Victorians Collis Birmingham (Eureka) and Dejen Gebreselassie (Mentone) were joined by NSW athlete and 2016 Melbourne Marathon winner Thomas Do Canto.

Taking an honoured position on the front of the start line, the dual Olympian Birmingham was the favoured Australian with both Gebreselassie and Do Canto boasting PB’s well adrift of Birmingham’s 1:00:56 set in Japan in 2013.

However honour soon turned to near disaster as Birmingham was clipped shortly after the start and sent tumbling to the ground.  A little bruised and battered, Birmingham retained his feet to the sight of all 160 championship runners ahead and 15,000 people from the mass start bearing down quickly.

Setting off in pursuit, Birmingham started to make his way through the field and had passed Do Canto by 5km as he moved through in 14:52 and 90th position.  Gebreselassie however had taken advantage of a less than aggressive start be the lead men and sat nicely in a big pack crossing in 14:34 and 39th place.

By 10km the men had faced similar blustery conditions to the women with the split times reflecting this.  Gebreselassie was still under 30min pace but it was getting hard to maintain sub 3’s as they made their way towards the historic heart of Valencia.  Dropping to 61st place, Gebreselassie was soon in Birmingham’s sights as Collis picked off another 15 runners in the preceding 5km.  Do Canto was running a smart race with the assistance of a nice pack crossing 10km in 30:41 for 101st position.

Reaching the central city and 15km, the gap between Gebreselassie and Birmingham narrowed to 7 seconds with Dejen in 56th place and Collis 67th.  A good battle between the Victorians loomed as they started the long run home with an assisting breeze.  At 18km Birmingham came along side his team mate only for the younger of the two to throw down a surge… the honour of being first Aussie important to both of them.  Do Canto by this time was starting to motor through the field having risen 16 positions to 85th.

Reaching 20km in 1:00:34 and 64th position, Gebreselassie held a slender 4 second lead over Birmingham while Do Canto was running quicker than both of them delivering his first sub 15min split for the race and lifting to 72nd place.

Hitting the finish ramp together, Birmingham had one last encouraging word for Gebreselassie before launching his last surge to the line.  With a big pack together every second would count for placings and it was the more experienced of the two who crossed first finishing in 1:03:44 for 62nd place to Gebreselassie’s 1:03:47 in 66th place.  Do Canto maintained 72nd place over the last 1.1km to stop the clock at 1:04:18.

The remarkable Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor ran away from the field to record an unprecedented 3rd successive World Half Marathon Championship in a time of 1:00:02 ahead of Bahrain’s Abraham Cheroben in 1:00:22.  A sprint to the line saw Eritrean Aron Kifle claim third 2 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Jemal Yimer.  With Ethiopians claiming the next two spots they easily took the team title from Bahrain.

So with 4 personal bests from a five member team on a day the IAAF organisers were left thinking what could have been, the Australian team have plenty to feel proud about.  Top 25 and Gold Label performances to the experienced Diver and rookie Pashley highlighted the day for team AUS with the men staging an intriguing battle for personal honours that delivered plenty of excitement for those following the race.

Women’s results
23rd Sinead Diver 1:11:40 (5km splits 16:47, 17:29, 17:17, 16:40 & 3:27)
24th Ellie Pashley 1:11:43 (5km splits 16:47, 17:29, 17:19, 16:40 & 3:28)
122 starters/117 finishers

Men’s results
62nd Collis Birmingham 1:03:44 (5km splits 14:52, 15:16, 15:13, 15:14 & 3:06)
66th Dejen Gebreselassie 1:03:47 (5km splits 14:34, 15:14, 15:29, 15:17 & 3:13)
72nd Thomas Do Canto 1:04:18 (5km splits 15:05, 15:36, 15:31, 14:58 & 3:08)
157 starters/152 finishers