Why Joshua Cheptegei has officially reached legendary status
Ugandan athlete Joshua Cheptegei celebrates after breaking the 10,000m track world record during the NN Valencia World Record Day at the Turia stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2020. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Wednesday’s NN Valencia World Record Day lived up to the billing as Uganda’s Joshua Cheptegei (26:11.00) and Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey (14:06.62) smashed the world records in the men’s 10,000m and women’s 5,000m.

Only 11 men have held both the 5,000- and 10,000-metre world records. Several of the names on that list — Paavo Nurmi, Emil Zatopek, Haile Gebrselassie, and Kenenisa Bekele — were considered the greatest distance runner of all time upon their retirement, and that’s a title that is certainly attainable for Cheptegei should he continue on his current trajectory.

But even if he retired today, Cheptegei would go down as a bona fide legend of the sport. World cross country champion, world champion on the track, world records in the 5,000 and 10,000 on the track, world records in the 5k, 10k, and 15k on the roads.

That’s an incredible career for any athlete, and Cheptegei has accomplished all of it in the last 24 months. The temptation is always to think of what is next — and at 24 years old, Cheptegei is far from done — but sometimes it’s worth pausing to realise how lucky we are to watch one of the all-time greats at the peak of his powers.

In his 5,000 world record in Monaco, Cheptegei’s final six laps never varied by more than a second. But that was nothing compared to Wednesday night.

Excluding his first and last laps, Cheptegei’s other 23 laps were all run between 62.4 and 63.3 seconds, a staggering level of consistency.

It’s even more stunning when you break it down by kilometer.

Cheptegei said after his 5,000m WR that he barely looked at the wavelight pacing lights during the race, and if you watch the final mile, he was indeed in front of the lights for most of it.

But it certainly seemed to help him on Wednesday night; once the final pacer stepped off just after halfway, Cheptegei ran roughly between the blue lights (intended for the pacer) and green lights (WR pace) until he began to kick on the final couple laps. 

Why Joshua Cheptegei has officially reached legendary status
Ugandan athlete Joshua Cheptegei competes in the men’s 10,000m event during the NN Valencia World Record Day at the Turia stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2020. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Either Cheptegei is a human metronome, or the lights helped him judge his pace. At the very least, it clearly helped him during the first half of the race by helping to ensure his pacers didn’t go out too fast or too slow.

That said what Cheptegei did on Wednesday was still remarkable. To run 13:03, all alone (the rabbit, 12:51 man Nicholas Kimeli ,dropped behind Cheptegei at 5200 (Kimeil would finish in 27:12.98), after having already run a 13:07 5k is ridiculous, pacing lights or not.

While Covid-19 wiped a significant portion of the 2020 racing season off the calendar, if the season had proceeded as usual, it’s unlikely that Cheptegei would be a double WR holder right now as he would have been completely focused on peaking for the Olympics.

With no Olympics to target, Cheptegei was free to pour all his energy into world record attempts. The result? Three races in 2020 and three world records.

Considering the next year without a global championship is 2026, it’s possible Cheptegei never takes a crack at another track world record. That being said, we think he’d be foolish to not try to lower them any more.

Wednesday’s 10,000m world record run came 7.5 weeks after his 5,000m world record.

Kenenisa Bekele no longer holds any major outdoor world records (he still holds the indoor 5000 at 12:49.60 and indoor 2000 at 4:49.99) but his reign atop the outdoor 5,000 and 10,000 world record board was definitely the longest in history.

He held both records for more than 16 years each. He was the simultaneous record holder of both the 5,000m and 10,000m for 5,911 days or 16 years, two months and six days.

For Cheptegei to match Bekele’s reign atop the record boards, he’ll have to hold the records until December 13, 2036.

Why Joshua Cheptegei has officially reached legendary status
Ugandan athlete Joshua Cheptegei celebrates after breaking the 10,000m track world record during the NN Valencia World Record Day at the Turia stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2020. – Joshua Cheptegei broke the 10,000m track world record today in Valencia with a time of 26mins 11seconds. He lowered the previous mark of 26min 17.53s set by Kenenisa Bekele in 2005 in Brussels. This was the 24-year-old 10,000m world champion’s third world record this year. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

In 10 days, Cheptegei will make his half marathon debut at the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland. With projected temps in the 50s, the temperature could be ideal for running fast. If the wind holds up (Gdynia is on the coast and often windy this time of year), might Cheptegei go for a fast time in Gdynia?

It is possible to simultaneously appreciate Cheptegei and Gidey and acknowledge that they have access to technology that their predecessors did not.

While we don’t have the same data to back it up as with the Nike shoe Vaporfly used in marathon, some have said that Nike’s new Dragonfly spikes offer a significant boost compared to previous spike technology.

In addition, both benefited from the new wavelight pacing technology, which — in the case of Cheptegei specifically — may have helped him to run ridiculously even splits.

Could Bekele have run 26:11 in Dragonflys while following the wavelight? Probably. But technological progress is an inevitable part of sports, a point Cheptegei made after breaking the 5,000m WR in August.

“We are not in 1980s, we are not in 1990s, we are not in 1970s. So every time, we have to accept the new developments in the sport, the new technology…the spikes in 1980, the spikes that Gebrselassie was using, the spikes that Kenenisa Bekele was using at that time, they were special at that time.”

The question, however, is how much the recent advancements have pushed the sport forward.

In the marathon, Nike’s Vaporflys were such an improvement on the pre-existing technology, pushing the sport forward so much in such a short period of time, that times from just a few years ago began to lose meaning. Are we in the middle of a similar period of rapid, significant change on the track? Only time will tell.

Why Joshua Cheptegei has officially reached legendary status
Ethiopian athlete Letesenbet Gidey (L) and Ugandan athlete Joshua Cheptegei pose after breaking the 5,000m and 10,000m track world records, respectively, during the NN Valencia World Record Day at the Turia stadium in Valencia on October 7, 2020. – Joshua Cheptegei broke the 10,000m track world record with a time of 26mins 11seconds while Letesenbet Gidey set a new women’s 5,000m world record of 14 minutes 6.65 seconds today in Valencia. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

 

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