Valencia Marathon — Speedy Vets Lemma & Degefa

30-somethings Worknesh Degefa (left), the ’19 Boston winner, and Sisay Lemma, the ’21 London champ each won with substantial PRs. (@MARATHONVALENCIA VIA INSTAGRAM)

VALENCIA, SPAIN, December 03 — With its 43rd running, the Valencia Marathon continued on a fast track to established membership among the world’s best races. The 2023 edition produced not only swift, but compelling competitions that impacted both the men’s and women’s all-time lists.

Ethiopian Sisay Lemma broke clear of a deep men’s field at 35K to finish in 2:01:48, paring 5 seconds off Kelvin Kiptum’s year-old course record. Lemma’s clocking now ranks as the sixth-fastest, and the veteran of 25 marathons, 9 days shy of his 33rd birthday on race day, now trails only Kiptum, Eliud Kipchoge, and Kenenisa Bekele on the all-time performers list.

A pair of Ethiopian veterans also stood out on the women’s side, as 33-year-old Worknesh Degefa (2:15:51) and 32-year-old Almaz Ayana (2:16:22) both returned from extended competitive breaks to reestablish their super-elite status.

Degefa broke away at 32K for a convincing win in her first marathon in 3 years after taking a two-pregnancy leave. The 2019 Boston champ now rates as the 7th-fastest performer with the 9th-fastest clocking.

Ayana managed to stay close to Degefa’s break through 37K and follows her as the 8th-fastest performer with the 11th-fastest run — in a sense eons removed from her stunning 29:17:45 WR 10,000 win at the Rio Olympics. In the years since Ayana followed her Games shocker with a Worlds 10K gold in ’17, no races in 2018, just a single 3000 in ’19, and no further competitions until April of 2022. The period included pregnancy leave and rehabilitation time after surgical reconstruction of both knees.

Valencia’s combination of perfect weather and zip-line course presented the irresistible opportunity for runners to redline their efforts and 13 men jumped right on the pace train targeting a 61:00 opening half (2:53.5 kilo pace).

Fast and steady opening 5K segments of 14:27 and 14:28 had the pack right on 2:02:01 pace at 10K (28:55). However, a 2:57 11th K seemed to trigger Lemma, who urged a quicker tempo — much quicker as he pushed the pacers through a trio of 2:46 kilometers.

This unexpected early surge radically recalibrated the pace to a 2:00:59 clip at 14K, shredding the lead pack as runners had to quickly decide to stay or let go. Last year’s 2nd- and 3rd-placers Gabriel Geay and Alexander Mutiso bought into what turned out to be a wild ride, as did Dawit Wolde, and Deso Gelmisa.

Also on board were Kibiwott Kandie, the half-marathon king of Valencia, and Joshua Cheptegei, the World Record holder over both 5000 and 10,000 — this pedigree so respected that he ran in bib #1 for his marathon debut.

Among those who let go was 41-year-old Kenenisa Bekele, No. 2 all-time with his 2:01:39 from Berlin ’19.

While the trio of 2:46s suggests a steady high pace, the only constant was Lemma ensconced between the two pacers, pushing them on at every turn. Behind this lead trio an ever-changing cast of chasers were strung out along the road as they struggled to keep pace with the 5K segment of 14:07 that sent Lemma across the 15K mat in 43:02 — 2:01:03 pace.

The flat-out racing and chasing only became more frantic when Lemma saw the projected pace dipping to Kiptum speed.

“At kilometer 15 I tried to go at a World Record pace,” he said, “but the pacemakers were being irregular at that pace and I decided not to go for the World Record but for the race record.”

Indeed, a 2:49 16th kilometer dropped the pace to 2:00:52, but it would get no lower as Lemma eased up and led a group of 8 past halfway in 60:35, with Bekele maintaining the pre-surge pace at 60:58.

Bekele admitted, “I lost some training due to a calf strain, but the last 3 months were good and I was able to develop my strength, but not so my speed.”

The lead group had little time to settle in as Lemma initiated another strong attack at 24K (1:09:01) after the pace slipped to 2:01:20.

The ensuing 2:51 K had Lemma passing 25K in 1:11:52 – with only Gelmisa, Wolde and Geay in close contact. This time Lemma got extraordinary value out of the lone remaining pacer, Kenyan Hillary Kipkoech who rattled off a series of 2:49 and 2:50 kilometers that recast the race over the 14:10 5K segment.

This was a chaotic stretch in the chase pack as first Gelmisa then Geay were dropped. Kandie and Mutiso worked to close the gap. Wolde managed to stick with the leader until Lemma bolted to a 20-meter margin in the 28th kilometer. He would not get away as Kandie rallied to catch Wolde and the two of them caught Lemma, running together past 30K in 1:26:02. At this juncture pacer Kipkoech stepped off after sustaining a 2:01:00 pace.

While this was Valencia, it was Valencia in its full marathon incarnation and the staggering pace led to many staggering finishes. This race would be decided by who managed to slow down the least over the final 12K.

Sans pacer, Kandie moved to the front for a couple of kilometers, then it was Wolde’s turn. For the first time since the gun Lemma was content to follow even as the pace slowed to a 2:01:18 clip with a 2:58 for the 34th kilometer.

Halfway through the 35th kilo, Lemma struck out for home, and by the 35K post (1:40:22) had broken clear. The powerfully-built, black-clad athlete’s high arm carry drove his stride, tapping out a steady rhythm like a boxer quick-punching the air.

Only in the final kilometers did Lemma lose his punch, his face tightening with fatigue and his velocity slipping over 3:00K pace for a close in 6:36 over the final 2195m.

“I feel great to win in Valencia,” beamed Lemma. “It is a very fast course and once I passed the half-marathon, I realized that I was running at a record pace and that I had the strength to run and beat the race record. My only regret is that fatigue overtook me in the final kilometers and I missed the opportunity for the Ethiopian record.”

Behind Lemma, chaos continued to rule as Wolde (3rd in 2:03:48) and Kandie (6th in 2:04:48) struggled to finish. Mutiso (2nd in 2:03:11) sped past the wreckage. So did Bekele (4th in 2:04:19), who not only retained his Ethiopian record, but set a Masters WR.

For a very happy Bekele, “The best part is that I am healthy with no problems. I hope to compete in the Paris Olympic competition but most likely will have to improve my position in another race [to merit selection by Ethiopia].”

Also looking ahead to Paris were the 28 runners who bettered the 2:08:10 Olympic standard. Just missing the cut was debutant Cheptegei who did well to finish his debut in 2:08:59.

High Pace Women’s Race

The women’s race was far less frenetic but ever swift, locked in on 2:15 pace from the gun. Quite ambitious as Ayana, who ran 2:17:20 in her debut a year ago in Amsterdam, and Degefa who ran her PR 2:17:41 almost 5 years ago in Dubai, were the only women in the field to have bettered 2:18.

Accompanied by a trio of pacers and a swarm of sub-elite men, the leaders ran a fast and steady opening 20K with 5K segments in the 15:56–16:02 range. They passed halfway in 67:27.

Around 30K (1:36:20, 2:15:30 pace) the racing intensified even as the tempo slowed, and a couple of minutes later, Degefa stepped out of Ayana’s slipstream and following her personal pacer bore down to quickly open a 20m lead. Ayana mounted a challenge to close within 3m at 32K, only to have Degefa counter with a surge of her own that this time carried her ahead for good.

Like the men, the early pace was so hot that getting home was a struggle and Degefa did well to keep it under 2:16. “I enjoyed running here and I am very happy with the result,” she said. “From the 30th kilometer onwards I started to push hard. I decided to run my race without looking at Ayana, so I decided to run alone.”

While both races featured over-the-top pacing, that may well become the norm. After watching the thrilling contests on his hometown streets, race benefactor Juan Roig announced a 1-million Euro prize for the first runner to better 2:00 in Valencia.


1. Sisay Lemma (Eth) 2:01:48 PR (4, 6 W);

2. Alexander Mutiso (Ken) 2:03:11 PR; 3. Dawit Wolde (Eth) 2:03:48 PR; 4. Kenenisa Bekele (Eth) 2:04:19 (fastest since 09/19); 5. Gabriel Gerald Geay (Tan) 2:04:33; 6. Kibiwott Kandie (Ken) 2:04:48 PR; 7. Deso Gelmisa (Eth) 2:05:14; 8. Huseyidin Mohamed (Eth) 2:05:40; 9. Mehdi Frere (Fra) 2:05:43 PR; 10. Gashau Ayale (Isr) 2:05:46; 11. Tariku Novales (Spa) 2:05:48 NR; 12. Derseh Kindie (Eth) 2:05:51 PR; 13. Girmaw Amare (Isr) 2:05:52 PR; 14. Nicolas Navarro (Fra) 2:05:53 PR; 15. Haimro Alame (Isr) 2:06:04 PR; 16. Félix Bour (Fra) 2:06:46 PR; 17. Morhad Amdouni (Fra) 2:06:55;

… 37. Joshua Cheptegei (Uga) 2:08:59 (debut);… 81. T-Roy Brown (US) 2:16:37;… 110. Dominic Jones (US) 2:18:22.


1. Worknesh Degefa (Eth) 2:15:51 PR (7, 9 W); 2. Almaz Ayana (Eth) 2:16:22 PR (8, 11 W);

3. Hiwot Gebrekidan (Eth) 2:17:59 PR; 4. Celestine Chepchirchir (Ken) 2:20:46; 5. Majida Maayouf (Spa) 2:21:27 NR; 6. Sultan Haydar (Tur) 2:21:27 NR; 7. Desi Jisa Mokonin (Bhr) 2:22:29; 8. Genevieve Gregson (Aus) 2:23:08 PR; 9. Sofiya Yaremchuk (Ita) 2:23:16 NR; 10. Isobel Batt-Doyle (Aus) 2:23:27 PR; 11. Gerda Steyn (SA) 2:24:03 NR; 12. Joan Chelimo (Rom) 2:24:16; 13. Lisa Weightman (Aus) 2:24:18; 14. Fabienne Schlumpf (Swi) 2:24:30 NR; 15. Laura Hottenrott (Ger) 2:24:32 PR; 16. Camilla Richardsson (Fin) 2:24:38 NR; 17. Mekdes Woldu (Fra) 2:24:44 PR; 18. Silvia Patricia Ortiz (Ecu) 2:24:50 NR.