The 2023 women’s World Half Marathon race at the inaugural World Road Running Championships reaches its crescendo.
Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi leads as they enter the final kilometres. Her stride imperceptibly opening, it is a face of struggle that appears to stalk her.
Peres Jepchirchir has won this title two times before, but in Riga her compatriot is intent on denying her. Small gaps appear to open.
Or at least that is how we saw it then.
From 2020 to 2022 Olympic marathon champion Jepchirchir was arguably the finest endurance athlete on the planet. Though Eliud Kipchoge had won greater plaudits, it was Jepchirchir that had displayed the more indomitable sequence.
World Half Marathon champion in 2020, then a women’s only world record. Valencia Marathon victor two months later, her 2:17:16 then the fourth fastest of all-time. Olympic, New York and Boston titles all followed in quick succession.
Fast on her way to the greatest of all-time.Embed from Getty Images
Back to earth
Until she wasn’t. Defeat in a New York 10k in June 2022 could be accepted, the distance well below those in which she had excelled. But being outsprinted by Hellen Obiri at the Great North Run, that wasn’t in the plan. When London came seven months later, and Sifan Hassan stretched away from her with ease towards Buckingham Palace, the benefit of the doubt was over.Embed from Getty Images
All was not, however, as it seemed. I caught up with Jepchirchir on her return to the UK in September 2023. Backs to the North Sea, agent Gianni Demadonna handed over the phone and we began our conversation.
Asking any athlete whose latest outing saw disappointment can be a difficult dialogue. Not so with Jepchirchir. She didn’t see any:
“For me I was happy because I was able to train for only two months when I was preparing for London so I was happy because I was coming back.”
Since the middle of 2022 Jepchirchir had faced issues with her hip, the consistency of her record-breaking sequence between 2020 and 2022 interrupted thereafter by time on the sidelines.
Each appearance in that difficult period met with the reasonable prospect her body would not comply.
Jepchirchir is adamant though cautious. That injury is over.
“Training is going very well. I pray for good health.”
Her health is the main thing that concerns her. Each time I press on potential rivalry, on the challenge of the arrival of the track stars to the marathon Jepchirchir portrays little emotion:
“I can say it’s good to have such people because they are strong , they will push hard and it helps me to work extra hard, knowing the strong people are coming.”
Though the connection on the call at time struggles, one sentiment is clear. Jepchirchir is confident what she does is most important. If back to her best few can compete.
The next day Jepchirchir shrugged off the challenge of 2022 New York City Marathon champion Sharon Lokedi. In 24 degree heat, Jepchirchir ran over 20 seconds better than the year before, almost a minute ahead of her compatriot.Embed from Getty Images
Yet in all truth, the Great North Run was never going to provide the clearest indication of any return to form. At the level to which Jepchirchir aspires, the 30-year-old need beat not just the world class but the very best.
13 of the top 15 female marathoners of all-time are currently actively competing. Shoes of course play a part but the depth in the distance continues to get stronger.
That is the background against which Jepchirchir intends to create history. No female has ever defended their Olympic marathon title.
Why not check out our previous article detailing Jepchirchir’s rise prior to Olympic glory?
Peres Jepchirchir heads to Tokyo seeking Olympic glory. With the era of Eliud Kipchoge nearing its end, Kenya looks for its next great marathon hope and in the 27-year-old they may just have the heiress. The early career of Peres Jepchirchir It is over seven years since Jepchirchir ran her first marathon. A third place…
Chasing Kipkemboi at Riga
Four weeks later as the metres ticked down in the race to the World Half-marathon title, more and more of that Olympic champion returned. Pained as she may have looked at times, at her best Jepchirchir has made her name making her move at the critical moment.
We saw it in Tokyo as she distanced the then world-record-holder Brigid Kosgei over the final two kilometers for her Olympic title. We saw it again in New York as she moved away from Violah Cheptoo and Ababel Yeshaneh down First Avenue. If there at the end invariably it is Jepchirchir who takes the crown.
Chelimo Kipkemboi was just over one tenth of a second from being a 10,000m World Champion in 2022, bettering Hassan in the final sprint. But as they strided past the Freedom Monument in Riga, there seemed little doubt as to who would find a way. Jepchirchir was back, still undefeated in three attempts at World Half gold.Embed from Getty Images
New York return for Peres Jepchirchir
Jepchirchir returns to New York on November 5. A rematch with Obiri beckons but there will be plenty of other challengers. Former world record holder Kosgei, 10,000m and world half-marathon record holder Letesenbet Gidey and fellow Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw. Not to mention defending champ Lokedi.
Following Chicago earlier this month, in essence another unofficial Olympic semi-final.
Jepchirchir could move a step closer to a place in Paris with a strong performance. That said a poor one could also end it.
As I look back to our September conversation, I see it through a painful lens. Defeat at the London marathon had allowed me to believe that perhaps Jepchirchir’s time at the top was coming to an end.
I confused humility with a lack of confidence and have been proved wrong ever since. A career where so much has already been achieved I asked how much she had left to do:
“I think there’s a lot.” was the simple response.
New York first, a maiden Olympic defense second, Jepchirchir is on her way.