Letesenbet Gidey throws a hematocrit party on the streets of València
Supershoes aren't Uber rides
“I'd rather see a dirty woman than a clean man have a female world record.”
Such was the reaction of a crusty friend to Letesenbet Gidey’s world record at the València Half-Marathon on Sunday, where Gidey’s 1:02:52 hewed 70 seconds from Ruth Chepngetich’s standard, set in April. Observers of professional running appear to be facing exactly this Sophie’s choice with increasing frequency, and this reflects the unspoken consensus among the significant percentage of rabid but realistic track fans jaded by the sport’s loss of integrity, but unable to transition away from being rabid track fans.
In 1993, the entire running world declared Wang Junxia’s 29:31.78 10,000 meters, run on a track, to be illegitimate. That stunning mark had cleaved 42 seconds from Ingrid Kristiansen’s 1986 world record. Ten years and one day before Junxia’s romp in Beijing—where she also ran a still-standing record of 8:06 in the 3,000 meters days later— Raisa Sadreydinova of the Soviet Union had taken the mark in that event down to 31:27.58 in Odessa; after Junxia’s feat, it seemed en route to dropping under 29:00 before the turn of the century.
A fair argument could have been made even before 1993 Chinese National Games that a time in the 29:30 range was not merely plausible but, at least mathematically, long overdue. After all, the years 1984 through 1986 saw the record topple from 31:27 to 31:13.78 (Olga Bondarenko) to 30:59.42 (Kristiansen) to 30:13.74 (Kristiansen again). But, right or wrong, the consensus by wise observers is that this was no mere continuation of the distaff party—that the time for such massive gains in women’s running had passed, as the “they’re still new at this” trope had already outlived most its utility.
When Lornah Kiplagat ran 1:06:25 in 2007, her time broke Elana Meyer’s eight-year-old “world best” by 19 seconds, and was considered the first official women’s world record in the event. Over the next ten years, that mark was bested six times by four women by a total of 94 seconds, lowering the world record to 1:04:51.
Enter “supershoes.” In February 2020, Ababel Yeshaneh ran 1:04:31 to knock a healthy 20 seconds from Joyciline Jepkosgei’s first sub-1:05:00 from three years earlier. In April, Chepngetich broke that record by even more with a 1:04:02 in Istanbul. In August, Yalemzerf Yehualaw appeared to secure history’s first sub-1:04:00 (as well as its funniest name, which sounds like something Yosemite Sam would scream at Bugs Bunny in drunken frustration) with a 1:03:44, but the course was determined to be 54 meters short; that’s about 10 seconds’ worth, making Yehualaw’s second-place 1:03:52 in València a remarkably similar, and no doubt especially gratifying, effort.
Gidey’s 1:02:52, which she ran in Nike’s ZoomX Vaporfly Next% 2, is just under a two-minute improvement on Jepkosgei’s 2017 world record. Ending with that 1:04:51, it had taken the world’s best runners nineteen years to move the half-marathon record by the same two-minute amount despite operating in more record-permissive territory.
Gidey, only 23, is the world record holder in both the 5,000 meters (14:06.62) and the 10,000 meters (29:01.03). She ran the latter record, by far the intrinsically superior of the two performances, in June of this year, but only managed a bronze medal at the Olympics. (The contrast between the learned running world’s reaction to Junxia’s 29:31 and to Almaz Ayana’s demolition of that record by 14 seconds in 2016 is an interesting subject in itself; here, I’ll just interject that 29:01 is a half-minute faster than a record that was widely—and, as it happens, correctly—declared drug-aided at time.)
1:02:52 is two back-to-back 10Ks in 29:48, plus a few more minutes at that pace. 29:48 on even an optimal road layout is infringing on, maybe even equivalent to, 29:31 on any 1993 track. In any case, a woman—a real cutie, too, which I shouldn’t say because if we were standing together, it would be obvious I could be Gidey’s father—just held a pace for over an hour on pavement that no woman had ever held for even 30 minutes on a track until Junxia arrived.
Jon Gault of Letsrun.com, whose story was the only one I saw that even raised the specter of doping, uses a variety of numerical tricks to shoehorn Gidey’s run into the realm of "maybe she’s just that good,” just as I use similar but less far-ranging tricks to exclude it from the same realm. As a writer for a dedicated running site, that’s Gault’s job whether he swallows any of it or not. He mentions her winning two World Junior National Cross-Country titles. I don’t know if it was a good idea for him to use Paula Radcliffe as an example of an outlier widely accepted to be clean today, but who cares? Between the female people who cover it and the non-female people allowed to do it, women’s running is now largely a sideshow act, with childish, opportunistic humblebragging by retired elites made financially secure by the targets of their bitching now considered normative or even praiseworthy. (Robert Johnson, the unnamed figure in that rant and likely not the one you’re thinking of, does indeed sound like an asshole, but that is galaxies removed from the real point of Goucher’s outburst.)
The thing I marvel at—and what matters a lot more than historical laurels or hypothetical estimates of the maximum boost provided Gidey’s racing shoes—is how Gidey stands out from her peers, rather than how she compares to pre-supershoes athletes.
Those peers include men. 1:02:52 is within 9.27 percent of Kibiwott Kandie’s 57:32 world record from last December in València, a big 29-second improvement on Geoffrey Kamworor’s mark and therefore a solid enough record even allowing for supershoes (three other men broke 58:00 that race).
Here are what the women’s world records on the track would be if they were exactly 9.27 percent slower than the men’s:
10.46 in the 100m
47.01 in the 400m
1:50.27 in the 800m
3:45.09 in the 1,500m
8:01.52 in the 3,000m
13:45.38 in the 5,000m
28:36.63 in the 10,000m
When a woman’s time gets within even 10 percent of the men’s record, the performance usually jumps out as suspect even to people not hyper-focused on the arithmetic. Even Brigid Koskei’s 2:14:04 marathon record from 2019—a time only one woman has ever come within two minutes and 57 seconds of—lags the men’s world record by 10.21 percent. Also, if anyone tells you the male-female performance gap is still narrowing at the very top, they’re either lying or wrong, so you should request their data for sheer shaming purposes—they won’t be able to produce any.
If you asked virtually any man who just broke 1:03:00 for a half if he thinks he would have struggled to break 14:00 for 5,000 meters on a track that day, he would tell you “no.” Those guys are operating in closer to 13:30-13:45 territory. This isn’t an entirely fair comparison because of the differences in male and female physiology, but those differences don’t result in vastly different distance-vs-pace curves for men and women. In other words, Gidey’s apparent ability to hold a speed relatively close to her established 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter race paces for a very long time is weird indeed, even accounting for supershoes and the fact that Gidey is clearly a born long-distance runner.
I believe that it was naive in 1993 to declare, in effect, that no woman can run 29:30 clean, as this was long before the emergence of Ethiopian women in significant numbers. I think that this can be and probably has been done. But I don’t think it’s remotely likely that a woman can run 1:02:52 for a half-marathon without some kind of undisclosed help; those two marks are whole talent levels apart.
One of many problems with accepting a 1:02:52 as legitimate, not that people have much choice, is that it gives a woman running five minutes slower that much less bargaining power when it comes to landing a contract. 1:07:52 is both a great women’s time by conventional standards and a full mile behind the world’s very best. This is just one more reason I wish more distance runners would abandon the idea of relying on income from running alone during their running careers, another topic I keep kicking down the road.
Maybe one woman really is that much better than the rest of the world, including all its known dopers. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it, but I would bet that most of the Alison Wade and Erin Strout types breathless over Gidey’s feat wouldn’t make that bet, either.