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Wanjiru Repeats; Jepchumba Surprises

Over the centuries, the citizens of Prague have borne witness to countless great  performances. With today’s 18th running of the Sportisimo Prague Half Marathon – held on cool, dry, windless, and glorious early spring day – they were treated to several more.

Just before the race start, anticipation was in the air when the athletes and the knowledgeable fans realized that the meteorological gift of perfect race day weather would now combine with the fast course and the deep and talented field to create the perfect recipe for outstanding road racing.

The drama began to unfold shortly after some 12,000 runners took off from Jan Palach Square to race along the Vltava River which flows through this picturesque outdoor museum which is Prague. After passing 5 kilometers in 14:10 – slightly under 1 hour pace – a crowded lead pack of a dozen East Africans soldiered onward. But after the 7 kilometer mark, disaster struck instantly: a clipped heel sent first last year’s winner Daniel Wanjiru then young Kenneth Keter reeling to the ground. Unshaken by the spill, Wanjiru instinctively sprang to his feet, determined to get back in the battle. His quick reaction ensured the gap created by his tumble would not be large. Spectators lining the street cheered him on as Wanjiru – a crowd favorite running his 5th Prague Half – closed the gap quickly. Just like that, he was back in the game. “When you are a sportsman you expect the pain on race day,” explained Wanjiru after the race. “It was my misfortune to fall down. But it happened.” The support the crowd offered their fallen athlete is not to be underestimated. The city which centuries ago raved at the early performance of the “The Magic Flute” by a young Wolfgang Mozart, today exhorted on the fallen defending champion who just might have performed “The Magic Comeback.”

Wanjiru – somehow inexplicably renewed by the tumble and his scramble back to the lead – looked quite comfortable, almost serene, up front. Later he would admit he was merely biding his time. After crossing 15 kilometers with a tightly-bunched pack in 42:26, Wanjiru struck at the 18 kilometer mark as he shifted to a gear possessed by none of his opponents. With a surging 4th 5K split of 13:53, the 23 year old Kenyan discarded his challengers, sprinted one final time across the Vltava, stopped the clock in a personal best 59:20, and became the first man to successfully defend his title in the 18 year history of the race. “I was confident in my finish,” stated Wanjiru. “It was my personal best to date. And I am very happy with the race.” Given his stunning road performance today, Wanjuri – who is studying to become a Kenyan policeman – may want to consider postponing his future career.

All the while in the women’s race, lightly-regarded Violah Jepchumba was composing a masterpiece of her own. While the other competitors were cowed when Ethiopia’s Workness Degefa – utilizing her husband as the women’s elite race pacer – blasted through the first 5K in 15:05 [63:35 pace], Jepchumba did not hesitate to go with the defending champion. Boldly striding past not only Degefa but also her pacer, the 25 year old Kenyan seized the lead after 5K and forged a 30 meter advantage by the time she split 10K in 30:29. With a prior personal best of just 1:09.29, Jepchumba knew she was sailing in uncharted waters, but she was confident. “After we started at a fast 2:50 pace, I was still hopeful to be a leader.” Meanwhile, the defending champion fought gamely. But Degefa could not close on the young Kenyan leader; she was losing further ground. When Jepchumba passed 15K in 46:21, her gap over Degefa was 70 meters. Flying past 20K in 1:02:24, Jepchumba’s lead had stretched to 23 seconds. After crossing the Manesuv Bridge and swinging around Jan Palach Square, she hit the line in 1:05:51 – a new 2016 world-leading time and a clocking that makes her the #3 performer with the #4 performance of all-time.

At the post-race press conference, the tired but happy new champion was light-hearted about her surprising victory and her pre-race expectations. “I was hoping to run maybe 68,” confided Jepchumba who credited increased speed work for her breakthrough performance. “If I had a pace maker, I would have been able to run 65:10.” When asked if she would come back next year to defend her title, the young champion evoked laughter in the press room when she responded, “Yes, with a pace maker.” Unsuccessful in her title defense, Degefa was understandably disconsolate in defeat. She can take comfort in knowing that her PR clocking of 1:06:14 is #4 on the 2016 world list, makes her #8 performer of all time, and establishes her as the new Ethiopian national record-holder.

The quality of this event was truly breathtaking: 5 men bested the mythical hour barrier: Daniel Wanjuri (59:20); Barselius Kipyego (59:30); Adugna Takele (59:40) ;Nobert Kigen (59:42); and Peter Kirui (59:50 – a time that won the ’15 race here…). And 6 women ran under 70 minutes: Violah Jepchumba (1:05:51); Workness Degefa (1:06:14); Gladys Yator (1:08:39); Lucy Karimi (1:08:43); Isabella Ochichi (1:09:03) and Risper Chebet (1:09:24).

Czech athletes also performed well in front of their countrymen. Bolstered by two months of winter training at altitude at Kenya’s fabled Iten training facility, Olympic hopeful Jiri Homolac sliced his half marathon PR by 1:51 when he finished in 63:50 – the first Czech finisher. Homolac needs a 2:15 clocking to earn a marathon berth on the Czech Olympic team and will aim for that mark at the Hamburg Marathon in two weeks. Countrywoman Eva Vrabcova was the first Czech woman finisher in 1:11:06 – a PR improvement of 65 seconds. In 5 weeks, Vrabcova – a three-time Winter Olympian in cross-country skiing – will return to Prague to run her first marathon race. A clocking of 2:35 or better will gain her a spot on the Czech Olympic team. If successful, she will become only the 8th global athlete in the modern era to compete in both the Winter and Summer Olympic Games.

Nearly lost among the several records and numerous world class performances recorded in today’s Prague Half Marathon was the launching of the 2016 RunCzech Racing Series, the first season in which all 7 of its races will carry the IAAF Gold Label – the highest award bestowed upon long distance by the sport’s governing body. Earlier this week, Carlo Capalbo – the visionary and spiritual leader of RunCzech – was gracious in acknowledging the importance of the RunCzech Racing Series receiving this rare and distinctive award, noting “We are very proud that for the first time in history all seven RunCzech races are awarded the IAAF Gold Label.” After the several records and numerous world-class performances recorded in today’s Prague Half Marathon, the IAAF is likely very proud as well.

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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