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On Sunday, in Valencia, Spain, 23-year-old Ethiopian distance runner Letesenbet Gidey ran the half-marathon in the time of one hour and two minutes and 52 seconds.

And then social media exploded.

Gidey annihilated the previous world record of 64:02 that was held by Kenyan Ruth Chepng’etich from Istanbul earlier this year.

Just to get your mind around the performance, former marathon world record holder, Paula Radcliffe, owns a best of 65:39 — not even in the same ballpark. It is, however, the current British record. In 2018, Molly Huddle set the American record with a 67:25.

The current men’s world record is held by Kenyan Kibiwott Kandie at 57:32 from his Valencia 2020 performance. The typical nine to 10 per cent differential between men’s and women’s times is constant through the range of distances 100m to the marathon. The women’s time would be approximately 64:00 if at the 10 per cent differential (as it was) in comparison to Kandie’s performance. The gap now is approximately 8.5 per cent.

Measured by the numbers

Gidey’s performance, in theory, would result in the following finish times in other distance events:

800m: 1:51.22 — the current world record is 1:53.28 by Czech runner Jarmila Kratochvílová which she set in 1983 under a cloud of suspicion about doping.

1500m: 3:45.54 — the current world record is 3:50.07 set by Ethiopian Genzebe Dibaba from the Herculis Diamond League meet in 2015. When Dibaba broke the record it bested several notorious Chinese times that were widely considered doped.

5000m: 13:39.43 — the current world record is 14:06.20 by Gidey. That much of an improvement would set off alarm bells.

10,000m: 28:38.00 — the current world record is 29:01.03 by Gidey.

3000m steeplechase: 8:29.24 – the current world record is 8:44.32 by Kenyan Beatrice Chepkoech from 2018.

Marathon: 2:11:17 — the current world record is 2:14:04 by Kenyan Brigid Kosgei.

Imagine a woman running a marathon in the time of 2:11:17.

A world record by Gidey in Valencia is not necessarily a surprise, the course is fast, super shoes are contributing to faster times, however, the performance from gun-to-tape was jaw-dropping. She ran through 15K faster than when she set the world 15K best two years prior. She clocked a 44:20 in the Netherlands at age 21 and looked relaxed doing so. Sunday, she took a second off that performance on the way to the half-marathon win.

On the way, she also ran nine seconds faster over 10K than the current world record (road record).


Gidey owns three other world records, now the half-marathon as well as 14:06.62 in the 5000m and 29:01.03 in the 10,000m. She also owns that world best (not kept as a record) in the 15K at 44:20.

The World Athletics points performance rating system is not perfect but is generally reliable. Her half-marathon performance is rated at 1325 points. Her 5000m world record is just 1269 points, while her 10,000m world record is rated at 1303. One may point out that Gidey gets faster as the distance increases, but these are world records we are talking about. Does that mean that when she attacks the marathon it will be even faster than 2:11:17? The difference would be less than eight per cent.

Eliud Kipchoge‘s marathon world record of 2:01:39 from Berlin in 2018 is considered incredible with a rating of 1316 points.

Kosgei’s marathon world record of 2:14:04 is rated as a 1295 performance. She ran the time in Chicago two years ago.

For over a decade Paula Radcliffe was called out as a cheater by internet trolls. That talk has largely gone away.

Three-time Olympian Jon Brown offered a unique perspective on time-measured performances, he said, “Stop tail-chasing! Athletics gave up its right to value itself by time when it failed to protect the integrity of the sport from unnecessary shoe technology.

Now the sport doesn’t really know how to value any performances outside of placings, so it clings to the old ways of evaluating by time. The only meaningful comparison or way to measure performances now (arguably ever) is head-to-head competition. In this instance, we can only say Gidey beat a good quality field, but any time speculation is basically tail-chasing A more interesting discussion would be how Gidey would compare against the other great Ethiopian women champions (Derartu) Tulu, (Gete) Wami, or (Meseret) Defar for instance.”

Brown’s tail-chasing reference may also apply to Nike’s attempts to have Kipchoge run sub-two hours, which he ended up doing in Austria. There was no racing on that day. It was a human performance lab test. To balance the argument, Nike is doing anything possible to re-popularise athletics. But it wasn’t a race, he didn’t beat anyone.

Brown had the British 10,000m record before Mo Farah broke it and is a two-time fourth-place finisher in the Olympic Marathon at Athens and Sydney.

The placing argument would have to apply to both the road and the track. Cross country, trail, and mountain running for example, already have an emphasis on placings and or team scores. It’s not a leap to move the focus to the roads and tracks. Times could be officially recorded for nostalgia’s sake.

Meanwhile, over in Rotterdam, Belgian athlete Bashir Abdi set a European and personal record with a 2:03:36 performance on the same day. A pin dropped. For perspective, when Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie ran the first sub-2:04 marathon, with his world record 2:03:59 in Berlin 2008, he earned the nickname The Emporer for the performance. No nickname worthy of a diety for Abdi, just near anonymity, save for the most ardent athletics fans.

Letesenbet said…

“I’m so happy to break the world record in my first half marathon. And my first race for the NN Running Team. Gracias Valencia.”

She also said, “this one is for you Tigray.” which is a region in her home country that is at war with itself. Apparently, she was stuck at home during the beginning of the strife in late 2020 and had little chance to train. Recently NN Running announced her signing. This is the management group that handles the best of the best including Eliud Kipchoge and Kenenisa Bekele.

For Gidey, at age 23, this could just be the beginning of a whole new level of a rewrite for the record books. This performance was so off the charts that it has spawned an argument to do away with times; the primary measuring stick in a sport that boasts absolute clarity in results because time plus distance doesn’t lie and is not adjudged by referees, umpires, or judges.