OH MY, the month of September closed out the summer season with a BANG! While it’s true the Asian Games, ongoing as I type, are adding an estimable final-final coda across the Pacific in China, the Diamond League Final hosted by the Pre Classic, the first U.S. soil edition of the series capper, played out as a stunner unmatched by several measures for all-time quality in a 2-day meet.
The recitation by the record book is just one testament. On the second of two balmy sun-soaked afternoons at Hayward Field, fans watched in awe as it became clear Gudaf Tsegay was racing toward something special in the women’s 5000. Something very special, as she carried the World Record down to the threshold of a major barrier in 14:00.21.
Later, ever-rising vault king Mondo Duplantis with his 74th climb above 6 meters added a half-inch to his own previous WR, clearing 20-5¼ (6.23).
To that add a World Junior Record from Raynold Kipkorir in the men’s 1500 and American Records from Jared Nuguse (mile), Athing Mu (800) and Chase Ealey (shot).
The quality of competition, contests waged, was concomitant across the event slate. Don’t miss our reports in this issue.
I’ll leave perhaps for another day the thorny reality that a few hours after the DL Final’s first afternoon, football fans filled Autzen Stadium across the Willamette River to very near its 60,000-seat capacity — for a predictable blowout roll over Hawai‘i. That with Oregon classes not yet in session and students only just starting to trickle onto campus for the fall term. No, I’m not suggesting Phil Knight & friends should have opened wallets on an Autzen-size scale for their palatial-as-built track stadium in Oregon. That, too, would be part of a separate, complex conversation.
After the DL Final, September surprises weren’t finished with us. I’m talking about the Berlin Marathon and Tigist Assefa’s 2:11:53. You, too, may have dropped your jaw and talked all choppers and gums about the Ethiopian’s WR.
The time, the splits with which Assefa, 26, raced toward it in just her third marathon, the fact that half-a-career ago she was an 800 Olympian. All of it set minds swirling, tongues wagging. Disbelief hung thick in the air.
I don’t know Tigist Assefa. But I do know people, trustworthy to me, who believe in her.
“I think they view her as sort of a generational talent,” said a friend much closer to her retinue. “…They trust and believe in the coach [Gemedu Dedefo] wholeheartedly.”
It’s at once kinda rotten and understandable — having nothing to do with Assefa — that fans muse when gobsmacked by a mark.
Call me Pollyanna if you wish. Here’s an attempt to add perspective. You find Assefa’s record literally unbelievable?
• The “800 Runner Can’t Have Done That” proposition: Assefa ran the 800 as a teenager. She was 19 after the Rio Olympics when injury curtailed her ability to race or train in spikes. Three years of struggle (no races at all in ’17) ensued before the ’20 pandemic shutdown. Last year her road rebirth took off. On general principal — think of less talent-blessed runners you’ve known personally — is an injury-delayed discovery of one’s event “unbelievable”? Starting out in the middle distances is not uncommon.
• The “Her First Marathon Was A 2:34” proposition: Sure, but disastrous debut marathon mistakes and disappointment happen all the time. Few get it right the first time. Assefa handled elite fields in three half-marathons before her sparkling Berlin ’22 win 5 months later.
• The “Nobody Does That” proposition: On a percentage basis Assefa cut down Brigid Kosgei’s WR by about, round numbers, 1.5%. Yet in two bites pre-super shoes, Paula Radcliffe lowered the women’s record by about 2.5%. Guess what? Twenty years of training-, talent- and footwear-development post-Radcliffe the women’s WR, now Assefa’s, is just under 2.5% improved.
Yes, I understand percentages in WR improvement are harder to match each time the record drops. But have you heard of Eliud Kipchoge? Find him equally “unbelievable”? In the literal sense? The men’s WR at the end of ’03 when Radcliffe hit her peak was Paul Tergat’s 2:04:55. Since then, four men (pre-super shoes) and then Kipchoge with his two WRs have improved that standard over the same 2-decades by a tiny bit more than 3%.
Why then do many seem to find Assefa’s performance wildly more impossible to accept? Because she’s a woman? Track distance records have tumbled by similar percentages in the last 20 years. See Tsegay in Eugene.
Super shoes: Nike’s Vaporfly of two years ago promised a 4% performance boost. Independent studies have verified that — although some athletes see better results than others. Assefa ran in $500, three-striped Adizero Adios Pro Evo 1 shoes built for just a single race. Although shoe size will affect weight, these flats would appear to be 2oz lighter than the Nikes Kipchoge used for his 2:01:09. Let’s be conservative and assume these adidas “only” afford 4% aid.
That makes Assefa a 2:17-and-change marathoner in before-the-super-era flats. Did you find Radcliffe running 2 minutes faster than that “unbelievable”?
Assefa’s record could fall in Chicago. Or not for 20 years. We’ll see.