Event opens fresh, exciting era for distance running

 Beatrice Chebet

Kenya's world cross country champion Beatrice Chebet ends the season on a high with victory in the women's five-kilometre race at the inaugural World Athletics Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia on October 1, 2023. 

Photo credit: Pool | World Athletics 

Last weekend’s inaugural World Athletics Road Running Championships were an instant hit with thousands of amateur runners from approximately 100 countries competing alongside about 400 of the world’s top athletes.

It was a carnival atmosphere with the recreational runners, alongside their families, enjoying the day out along the Daugava River that snakes through Latvia’s capital Riga and which provided the perfect backdrop for the day’s races.

Kenyan fans – mainly students studying in Riga universities - were, as usual, vocal in their support as global athletics giants Kenya topped the medals table with a total of 12 medals - five gold, three silver and four bronze.

Besides the three individual titles, Kenya also panned gold in the men’s and women’s half marathon team categories.

World Athletics President Seb Coe was spot-on at the pre-event press conference when he challenged coaches to change tack and embrace the cocktail of cross country, track and road running that helps build the all-round endurance athlete.

Keen to cement his legacy in Monaco, the former Conservative Member of the British Parliament noted that more changes are expected in the final term of his presidency after having “steadied the ship” in his first, four-year term and cleared the in-tray in his second spell.

“The first four years of my presidency were about keeping the ship afloat. We have been holed below the plimsoll line - as you would say in nautical terms - and the next four years were about clearing the in-tray of things we should have done quicker, but were not in a position to do.

“The final four years of my presidency have got to be focused on product and competition… how does the sport look like, how accessible is it, does it fit into the lifestyles of young people and how does it improve the entertainment value. These are things that are on the table, so be prepared for change,” Coe assured.

The Briton, also a former multiple middle-distance World and Olympic champion and world record holder many times over, expressed his excitement at the elevation of the mile which, along the five-kilometre race, has been included in the annual global road running ritual.

“From a personal perspective, I’m delighted that we have been able to formally enshrine the mile in a world championship, and that’s important not only because it’s one of the most accessible distances, but also because it has an important and illustrious history,” added Coe who thrice held the mile world record.

“The reason that road is important to me, as is cross country, is because it was an important staple in my development as an athlete.

“I don’t think any endurance athlete that has pretentions to be competitive on the track can come through a career without having done cross country and road (running).

“We need to reinforce this point to the new generation of coaches -- that it’s really an important part, mentally and physically, of the conditioning of an athlete.”

Faith Kipyegon, Kenya’s Olympic and world 1,500 metres champion and record holder over the mile and 1,500m, agreed with Coe that road running is a key ingredient in an elite track athlete’s regime.

“It (inclusion of the mile and 5km in the new road running programme) is a good move by World Athletics.

“For us elite track athletes to come here and run on the road is amazing, and to experience the road is also good because it (road running) comes at the end of our careers as we go up to the marathon. It’s a good introduction and a good challenge for us track athletes,” Kipyegon, 29, said.

In Sunday’s action, Kenya’s women threw down the gauntlet when Beatrice Chebet bagged gold in the five-kilometre race, ending the year where she started it, at the top, having also won gold at the World Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, Australia, in February. Chebet won the race in 14 minutes and 35 seconds, with teammate Lilian Kasait taking silver.

Ethiopia’s Hagos Gebrhiwet and Yomif Kejelcha fought for the gold in the men’s 5km race with Gebrhiwet outsprinting his teammate to the line to win in 12 minutes and 59 seconds as Kenya’s Nicholas Kimeli (13:16) bagged bronze, a fitting way to end a roller coaster season.

It has been a long season for Kipyegon, and it was hardly surprising when she was beaten to the top medals by the Ethiopian pair of Deribe Welteji and Freweyni Hailu, settling for bronze.

But Welteji needed a world record run to stop Kipyegon, crossing the line in a blistering four minutes, 20.98 seconds to improve on the previous world best of 4:27.97.

After the disappointment in the mile races where Kenya’s men failed to medal, Kenya bounced back in the women’s half marathon where Olympic marathon champion Peres Jepchirchir was going for her third win in a row.

Jepchichir’s victory in one hour, seven minutes and 25 seconds was a fitting dress rehearsal for the November 5 New York City Marathon, with silver medalist Margaret Chelimo happy to provide the supporting cast as Catherine Reline completed the Kenyan sweep.

Kenya’s men also produced a 1-2-3 sweep in the half marathon, with Sebastian Sawe pulling a tiring Daniel Simiu and Samuel Mailu across the finish line.

It was a proud moment for Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei, the newly-elected World Athletics Vice President, leading the Kenyan champions onto the podium for the women’s half marathon medal ceremony by the riverside, the loud Kenyan crowd bursting into frenzied applause.

The World Athletics Road Running Championships will now take an annual format from 2025 with San Diego, California, organising that year’s competition and Danish Capital Copenhagen, hosting the 2026 championships.

Hosts for the 2027 championships are yet to be selected.