Women’s World Championship Marathon 2019 – Review

On Sunday 27 September 2019, the city of Doha was host to the first ever night-time marathon at the World Athletics Championships. In this post, I’ll answer the question “What happened during the 2019 women’s World Championship marathon?” and explore what lessons all runners can learn from this historic race.

What happened in the race?

The women’s marathon was full of experienced champions. But the 70% humidity, and 32℃ temperature levelled the field. Although cooler than earlier in the day, conditions were at the limit of what the organisers would allow for the race to go ahead. The 25-year-old Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich stood on the start line as the favourite. She didn’t disappoint.

The course was along the Corniche in downtown Doha. Crowds were not as huge as would have been expected. But those who were along the waterfront promenade saw athletes slightly more than six times throughout the 7-km flat loop.

Athletes took sponges and doused themselves within the first 90 seconds of the race. Most athletes sensibly took on water in the early miles. Sardana Trofimova, an authorised neutral athlete, was an early leader. She opened up a five-second lead. But it only lasted another kilometre or so. The East Africans then pushed on and subsumed her into the lead pack. The lead group contained 16 athletes. They ran the first 5 kilometres in 18:21. This pace predicted a 2:34 marathon finish. 

Salpeter then lead from the front but Chepngetich took over at 7km. Chelimo used her hands to signal to move closer to aid stations. Salpeter surged at times, dropping her drinks bottle as she retrieved a towel. The lead group ran 10 kilometres in 36:44. But Chepngetich soon surged. Three athletes responded, her compatriot Visiline Jepkesho, Bahrain’s Rose Chelimo and Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga. The field was strung out along the road.

At 13 kilometres Chepngetich held a nine-second lead, but she slowed so that a new lead pack emerged before 15 kilometres. Four athletes ran alongside her; Helilia Johannes, Edna Kiplagat, Rose Chelimo and Visiline Jepkesho. Before the halfway point athletes were starting to drop out of the race, including Aga and Britain’s number one marathoner Charlotte Purdue. The lead pack ran the first half of the race in 1:16:40. Jepkesho dropped off the pack before 25km. Salpeter continued to chase for many miles by herself. But she dropped out just after 31 km.

At 35km a decisive break happened on the last lap. Chepngetich surged with a 3:19 kilometre. Only the defending champion Rose Chelimo could stay within touching distance. The Kenyan’s slight head bobbing and high arm drive was pronounced as she extended her lead. She began lapping other athletes. Her lead extended to 30 seconds with a few kilometres to go. Whilst Chelimo appeared to slow, with justifiably tired legs, Chepngetich maintained a quick leg turnover and relatively high knee lift.

At 39km Johannes pulled ahead of Kiplagat. It was then that the medals would be decided. Chepngetich won the first gold medal of the 2019 World Athletics Championships. She never needed to look back.

Running lessons from the race

There were three running lessons from the women’s World Championship marathon; 1. negative-split pacing remains a winning race strategy for the marathon ; 2. tough conditions are too difficult for some experienced athletes to cope with, and 3. extra fluids are crucial in humid conditions.

Negative-split pacing is still most effective strategy for marathon

Although conditions were brutal for the athletes to run peak performances, Chepngetich proved why a slight negative-split strategy is the best race strategy. Her second half was 37 seconds faster than her first. She was one of only two athletes in the top ten to record a negative-split performance (the other athlete was Mizuki Tanimoto). As a result she won the race in an eventually comfortable 1:03. Her strength in the final seven kilometres showed that rather than surging excessively, she could simply maintain. As most athletes slowed slightly, she did not. 

Even experienced athletes can’t always execute in tough conditions

The field of athletes was strong. Yet, experienced athletes, could not cope with the tough conditions. This was partly surprising because as professional athletes they would presumably have trained specifically for the conditions. Although it was sensible to drop out of the race if athletes were genuinely struggling, the early exits showed in part that athletes had obviously severely underestimated the challenge. Heat tolerance and pain thresholds are different for every athlete, but every athlete would have been aware of the conditions well in advance.

There were sixteen nations who had no athletes finish the race despite having at least one on the start line. Most surprising were Ethiopia, Uganda, Italy and Great Britain. Notable DNFs included marathon national record holder for Israel, Lonah Salpeter, who won the 10,000m gold at the 2018 European Championships. Charlotte Purdue, the best British marathoner this year, also suffered in Qatar’s conditions.

Extra fluids are essential in humid, hot conditions

Athletes drank more during the race than what would usually be expected in a marathon. The humid and hot conditions meant that athletes sweated much more rapidly than under cooler conditions. This meant that athletes were more prone to heat exhaustion, especially if they had not adequately acclimatised themselves to the conditions pre-race. Most, if not all athletes took advantage of their special drinks, available to them every 5 kilometres. Another water station was set up so that no runner was too far from any fluids. To ensure everyone got what they needed, there was always a spread of athletes whenever they reached water stations. Athletes poured water over their heads, and weaved across the road.

It must be emphasised though that although hydration is important during hotter conditions, slowing your pace to an appropriate level is just as crucial for success. The demands of the marathon are rigorous even on favourable days. This is why it wasn’t unsurprising to see no athlete record a personal best. Even the champion Chepngetich ran 15:35 slower than her personal best set only eight months ago in Dubai.

Conclusion

The 2019 women’s marathon at the World Championship was a unique race. Not only was the evening time, hot weather and repetitive course different from other World Championships, it was controversial. With 28 athletes in the elite field (equivalent to 41%) unable to finish the race, many would argue that this was far from ideal for spectators, coaches or athletes. 

There should be recognition that the athletes all worked hard to get to Doha. Still, there should be as many questions asked of the organisers as there should be of the athletes. The relatively low finishers’ rate for such an important race shows neither the organisers or athletes truly grasped this Middle Eastern challenge to the detriment of the sport.