Berlin Marathon Women — Assefa Now No. 3 Ever

A 2:15:37 for Tigist Assefa has been bettered only by the last two World Record setters. (JIRO MOCHIZUKI)

BERLIN, GERMANY, September 25 — Long before race day, Berlin Marathon director Mark Milde was quick to note, “I think this year’s race for the ladies will be special.” Just how special? Well, let us count the ways.

Tigist Assefa ran to perhaps the most surprising performance in women’s marathon history with a spectacular 2:15:37 win, good for No. 3 on the all-time list (see box), trailing only Brigid Koskei and Paula Radcliffe’s astounding World Record efforts.

Rosemary Wanjiru finished 2nd in 2:18:00, the fastest ever for a debut 26-miler.

Tigist Abayechew finished 3rd in a best-ever-for-place 2:18:03. The field also proved to be deep as mark-for-place bests were also notched in places 9–18. The lead trio also combined the fastest podium in marathon history, besting London ’21’s total by 2:19.

All of these achievements came as the elite field was more than ready to take advantage of beyond-perfect weather defined by the cool and ever still-air. They started fast and went even faster as the race progressed.

Kenyan Vibian Chepkirui was at the front for most of the first half and led the field through a 16:21 opening 5K (2:17:55 pace), with U.S. hope Keira D’Amato clinging to the back of the 14-woman lead pack.

Speeding up to 16:15 over the second 5K, they crossed the 10K mat in 32:36 (2:17:34 pace) with D’Amato having a rough go of it and falling 7 seconds off the lead. The race’s top seed was coping both with on-course issues and her compromised preparations as she was a last-minute addition to the WC team, where she finished 8th in 2:23:34.

“It wasn’t the day I wanted,” the American admitted “I had some stomach issues, I had a cramp and I had to slow to a shuffle. Once I was able to get past that I was able to turn it back on and catch people and still run 2:21.”

In contrast, Assefa already seemed to be a formidable factor joining Chepkurui at the front in an effort to ramp up the pace. “At 10 kilometers I saw that the projected time was very fast,” she said. “My plan was 2:17 but the weather was very nice and I was thinking that I can run faster.”

Tapping out a steady stream of 3:10–3:15 kilometers, 15K was crossed in 48:44, netting a 15:08 split and 2:17:06 pace. Remarkably, a lead pack of 13 bought into this ambitious pace, despite none of them having ever broken 2:20.

Half of their dreams were dashed via a 15:59 segment that separated the contenders from pretenders. The lead pack of 5 hit 20K in 1:04:43 with the pace free-falling to 2:16:32. The Ethiopian trio of Abayechew, Workenesh Edesa and Sisay Gola ran a stride behind Assefa and Chepkurui, while Wanjiru trailed the quintet by 15m.

This positioning was maintained as the women sped past halfway in 68:13, and on through 25K in 1:20:48. Despite slowing slightly through a 15:05 split, the projected pace dropped to 2:16:23.

Competing in just her second marathon, Assefa ran like a Berlin veteran, lifting the pace on the downhill stretch starting at 28K, running 3:08 and 3:05 kilos to close out a 15:53 segment. “Everybody was still together,” she said. “My body was feeling very fresh so I tried to push to see if there was any reaction.”

The acceleration quickly dispatched Edesa and then the frontrunning Chepkurui let go. Passing 30K in 1:36:41, Assefa dropped the pace to 2:15.59,

Following the cue of her pacer Tesfa Wokneth, Assefa soon sped away from her rivals, first dispatching Gola, then Abayechew, amidst a 3:07 for kilo 33.

Running free (“When there was just one athlete accompanying me, I decided to move and tell my pacemaker to push a little bit and then I was alone after that one”), Assefa poured it on through a 15:46 split, dropping the pace to 2:15:34 as she crossed the 35K mat in 1:52:27.

While many a bold marathon effort has fallen apart in the final 7km, not so for Assefa as she closed out her shocking run riding an emotional wave: “When I saw the projected time at 35km it was a very big emotion and all my tiredness left and I became fresh.”

Much like Eliud Kipchoge, Assefa is deceivingly fast, combining speed and efficiency to cover ground with ease. The 28-year-old Ethiopian spent her early career in the 800, producing a 1:59:24 PR in ’14. Yet, her long stride and fluid arm swing seems made for the marathon, an observation that was fully confirmed when she sped up the finishing straight to cross the line in 2:15:38, negatively splitting a 67:25 second half.

After leaving her rivals far behind, it is even more startling that Assefa also left the collective juggernaut of Ethiopian women’s marathoners far behind as she pared a whopping 1:43 off Yalemzerf Yehualaw’s national record.

Wanjiru’s debut record was well earned as she trailed the lead group for most of the race then rallied to pass the fading Gola and Abayechew. The 30-year-old Kenyan successfully moved up in distance after running 30:35.75 to finish 4th in the Doha WC 10,000, and 65:34 in the 2020 RAK Half. “I was running with focus and I felt strong but I was not expecting 2:18,” she said.

D’Amato ended up 6th at 2:21:48, the No. 10 performance in U.S. history.


1. Tigist Assefa (Eth) 2:15:37 NR (WL) (3, 3 W)

(16:22, 16:14 [32:36], 16:08 [48:44], 15:59 [64:43], 68:13, 16:05 [1:20:48], 15:53 [1:36:41], 15:46 [1:52:27], 16:15 [2:08:42], 6:55) (68:13/67:24);

2. Rosemary Wanjiru (Ken) 2:18:00 PR (15, x W) (debut record); 3. Tigist Abayechew (Eth) 2:18:03 PR; 4. Workenesh Edesa (Eth) 2:18:51 PR; 5. Meseret Gola (Eth) 2:20:58;

6. Keira D’Amato (US) 2:21:48 (x, 10 A);

7. Rika Kaseda (Jpn) 2:21:55 PR; 8. Ayuko Suzuki (Jpn) 2:22:02 PR; 9. Sayaka Sato (Jpn) 2:22:13 PR; 10. Vibian Chepkurui (Ken) 2:22:21; 11. Guteni Shone (Eth) 2:22:28; 12. Natasha Wodak (Can) 2:23:12 NR; 13. Meseret Belete (Eth) 2:23:14 PR; 14. Gudeta Bekelech (Eth) 2:23:37; 15. Lisa Weightman (Aus) 2:24:00 PR; 16. Maurine Chepkemoi (Ken) 2:25:12; 17. Yukari Abe (Jpn) 2:25:17; 18. Risper Chebet (Uga) 2:25:22 PR; 19. Hikari Onishi (Jpn) 2:25:54 PR; 20. Kanako Takemoto (Jpn) 2:28:15;

… 23. Andrea Pomaranski (US) 2:33:10 PR;… 25. Kaitlyn Peale (US) 2:35:40 PR;… 27. Erin Gregoire (US) 2:37:36 PR;… 34. Lily Anderson (US) 2:39:58 PR;… 36. Leigh Sharek (US) 2:40:52 PR; 37. Madeline Britton (US) 2:42:15 PR;… 42. Deena Kastor (US) 2:45:12;… rabbit — Tesfa Wokneth (Eth).

(best-ever mark-for-place: 3, 9–18)