Joshua Cheptegei takes aim at the Mons Olympus of distance records
At least the one everyone talks about.
The brilliant, almost spectral career of Kenyan legend Daniel Komen came into renewed focus—as it periodically does—when Joshua Cheptegei, the Ugandan who claimed Kenenisa Bekele’s 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter world records last year, announced that he would formally seek to erase Komen’s outdoor 3,000-meter world record of 7:20.67 from 1996.
Cheptegei, who ran 12:35.36 in August and 26:11.00 in October, will chase the record today in Ostrava at the Golden Spike Meet in the Czech Republic. The race will start at 1:45 p.m. in the U.S. Eastern Time Zone. Flotrack owns American broadcasting rights to the meet, so anyone who wants to watch live from the U.S. can either pay Flotrack and turn the sound off, or, via any number of rumored free browser extensions, instruct their device to pretend that it is accessing webservers from a place like the Netherlands and watch the meet on the World Athletics YouTube Channel.
Total Running Productions and Letsrun.com both comprehensively previewed the attempt on the record, widely heralded as the least breakable of men’s track world records. And being a men’s record, Komen’s mark is often viewed by default as the least breakable distance-event world record, period. I’ll skim through my view of the reasons for this at the end.
The TRP video emphasizes that Komen’s record is inherently vulnerable, meaning that, regardless of the strength of any challengers, simple math reveals that it has undeniable flaws. Translation: If that if you look at how Daniel Komen achieved a time of 7:20.67, it’s obvious he could have run even faster. While the fact that each of Komen’s full laps was under 60 seconds has rightfully earned gravitas, this ignores that there was a lot of variability in those laps, especially given how much of a difference a full second makes in so short a race and at 3:56-per-mile pace. Komen plowed through 1,500 meters of his record run in an absurd 3:38 and change—and then and today, it really was just absurd—meaning that the second half of his race was around four seconds slower than the first.
No one ever quite achieves perfect pacing even in a world record, of course, but that applies to both fast and ridiculously fast records, and there is no way to rationally conclude after juggling the pertinent numbers that Komen was not capable of a sub-7:19.0 on that already sublime day. This being the case, breaking Komen’s record doesn’t really require surpassing the best possible version of Daniel Komen—only a version that was impressively close to ideal. Even while looking right at the tale Komen’s splits undeniably tell, it’s easy to overlook or simply deny the conclusion given how fast the actual record is and the five-second margin by which Komen scorched the old one.
The take-home message is that anyone who runs a more evenly paced race makes up ground on Komen without doing anything else, and there is considerable wiggle-room in this area.
So how do you guarantee fast-but-even pacing? Perhaps because LED pacing lights trespass into a zone of excessive (and gaudy) trickery, it took a while for these easily conceived devices to emerge onto the track scene. But they’re here, and they not only help ensure an even target pace in the increasingly difficult middle laps of a race longer than a mile, but also prevent—in theory—overzealous starts by athletes or their human pace-setters in these races. The latter factor is clearly more critical at the margins, where world records are either nipped or narrowly missed.
These lights were flickering throughout both of Cheptegei’s record romps last year, and as the Letsrun.com story notes, they’ll be guiding Cheptegei et al. along today at 2:26 to 2:27 per kilometer.
The TRP video explores how the 24-year-old Cheptegei, a true long-distance runner, has tried to overcome the fact that the much faster Komen seems to have been the best human ever constructed for a footrace lasting about seven minutes. Komen’s 3:29.46 1,500 meters is far superior to anything Cheptegei has been able to at the distance, which is a recent 3:37.46 at about 3,937’ above sea level. That altitude-converts to a 3:34-ish time, but Cheptegei was born and raised at an elevation of around 6,200’, so all that’s really gleanable from his 1,500-meter time alone is that the known version of Joshua Cheptegei looks to be about a 3:50 sea-level miler. If true, this, by itself, all but eliminates his taking a meaningful shot at Komen’s record.
But the TRP people do their homework, and they underscore that in that 3:37.46 effort, Cheptegei blasted through the first 300 meters in about 41 seconds (3:25 pace) before settling into steady just-under-59-second laps. This suggests that the run was not a genuine effort at a best-possible time, but some combination of time-trial and strategic training session in anticipation of today’s race. Despite the altitude possibly being a negligible factor, the gung-ho-then-steady pacing wasn’t, and it marks Cheptegei as probably as much a couple seconds faster over a mile than my most charitable guess above.
The Letsrun crew notes that the Nike “super-spikes” Cheptegei will wear tomorrow give him an unknown-but-non-negligible advantage over Komen, all else held equal. While this is literally true, that advantage seems to have already been incorporated into Cheptegei’s capabilities, assuming that what he wore for his 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter records are identical or nearly so to what will enclose his feet at the Golden Spike meet this evening.
TRP doesn’t come out and say that they think the record will fall, but my take-away is that they believe that Cheptegei can break it, is probably the only runner who can break it right now (whither Yomif Kejelcha?) and that there’s at least an even chance that he will break it. Letsrun.com took no discernible position in the linked article, but I would probably find one in the discussion thread they punted the question to if I had time to check. I only found out about this record attempt on Tuesday afternoon.
I foresee Cheptegei either running 7:22-point-something or blowing up mid-race to a time in the 7:30 range. I expect that he will stay faithful to the pacers and pacing lights for as long as he can, but I believe he’ll be nearly gassed with 600 meters left and relegated to “holding on” to 60-second pace after that. If he fails, it won’t be for lack of heart; this 115-pound man is already a beast for the ages, and is entering his prime at an age when Daniel Komen’s legs were all but gathering dust.
Komen’s record is considered the most difficult to break among men’s track records—I'll leave Jonathan Edwards’ surreal triple-jump world record and other field-event marks aside—and often mentioned as such for one simple reason: The implicit assumption among track aficionados that all of the men’s records, however impressive, are vulnerable.
This is not the case with the women’s track records. No sane observer thinks that a clean woman is remotely likely to break the records in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 400-meter dash or 800-meter run; all are grossly and unquestionably drug-distorted or otherwise considered illegitimate. The track world being tacitly resigned to this reality has, I believe, led people to not take as close a look as they should at the women’s outdoor 3,000-meter record, 8:06.11.
That mark was set amid a flurry of other world records at the 1993 Chinese National Games—the 1,500m, the 3,000m, and the 10,000m world records all fell by galactic amounts, and the second half of the record 10,000m was faster than the existing 5,000m world record. These records were set by athletes who later admitted that, to no one’s surprise, they had been doped to the moon and back (or at least to the fringes of Tibet) by their less-than-progressive-minded male coach, Ma Junren.
At the time, as anyone around for the circus will recall, these records created an earthquake in track and field. If you’re fairly young, try to appreciate how fast those still-otherworldly times looked to 1993 eyes. Then, the facility at which the records were set was renovated the year after the meet, raising suspicions of a short track and thus the possibility of distance cheating stacked upon (not-then-but-since-confirmed) pharmacological cheating. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it’s well within the established ethical boundaries of the players involved.
The records were, en bloc, immediately declared unapproachable, and understandably so. Each was senseless on its own, and the times came in an apocalyptic storm no one forecasted. As a logical consequence, any woman who even neared these records was automatically going to be declared a cheater—an easy sell because it didn’t look like anyone in those days would live long enough to even see anyone, in fact, come close.
Then eventually the Ethiopian women (mostly) came along, and almost too slowly to notice, Wang Junxia’s 29:31 became a target. Then it fell, somehow without appropriate fanfare, and right now stands at 29:17.45—a time that corresponds to about a 13:57 5,000 meters, well under the recently set mark of 14:06.62, and just six World Athletics points shy of an 8:06.11 3,000 meters.
Maybe this is already in the works, but this would be a wondrous time for someone to gather Sifan Hissan and whoever can keep up with her at the moment for a 3,000 meters in Europe explicitly aimed at breaking Junxia’s 28-year-old record, the most ludicrous of them all from that week of mayhem in Beijing. They can capitalize on the momentum of today’s record attempt: Whether Cheptegei does it or whether he fails, a group of women can step up and aim to break an even better record—one so good no one even mentions it. But I don’t want to be accused of spreading warlike ideas like these, so you didn’t hear this from me.