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The 30-minute race was decided in the final second. Four runners barreled down the homestretch toward the finish, their form breaking down, stride getting sloppy. It was ultimately Ethiopia’s Letesenbet Gidey who maintained her mechanics just enough to cross the line first in Saturday’s 10,000 meter world championship final. She out-leaned the other three women—Kenya’s Hellen Obiri and Margaret Chelimo Kipkemboi and the reigning Olympic champion in the event from the Netherlands Sifan Hassan—to secure victory in 30:09.94, just 0.08 seconds ahead of Obiri who finished second.
“My legs tied up. I tried to get her, but I couldn’t,” Obiri said of the finish, keeping her answer plain and simple. Because that’s what racing is—plain and simple.
The first 9,900 meters weren’t very dramatic. World-class 10Ks on the track usually go the same way. Everybody runs together at the start and people gradually fall off the back of the pack when they can’t handle the pace. Today was no different. The pace was honest (15:19 through 5K) and then even more honest, with fewer women in contention every lap. It makes sense that so many athletes fell off the pack: The leaders ran 14:50 over the back-half 5K.
Most athletes don’t want to be in the driver’s seat. Leading the race is vulnerable. Karissa Schweizer, who was the top American today, said she loves when the pace is fast and she just has to go along for the ride. “My coach always says my biggest skill is following,” she said. “I just latched on. My goal was to never run by myself and I did that.”
The reigning Olympic champion in the event, Sifan Hassan, was also vying for the title down the homestretch. Coming off the final turn it looked like she had more momentum than anybody. Gidey was certainly the favorite; she’s the current World Record holder in both the 5,000 and the 10,000. A Hassan win over Gidey would’ve been extraordinary—but not necessarily unexpected. Hassan loves to flirt with the history books. Last year in Tokyo, for example, she attempted an unprecedented distance triple crown: She told everybody she wanted to win gold in the 1500, 5,000, and 10,000. She came pretty close. She won gold in both of the long events and placed fourth in the 1500. When it was all said and done, she’d raced six total times with all the qualifying rounds.
Hassan was exhausted—so exhausted she didn’t run for eight months. “I’d trained so hard for so long,” she said. “After Tokyo I crashed. Mentally crashed. I didn’t even care about running.”
Hassan came off the track and the media expected her to be upset. The double Olympic gold medalist had to watch three other women step up onto the podium, so she must be upset. “That was fantastic,” was the first thing she said. “I’m standing here so happy. It’s amazing how I ran.”
Hassan’s first race of the season was last week in Portland. She ran a 5,000 by herself in 15:13, close to a minute slower than her personal best. There were rumors that she’d been injured, that she was out of shape, that she’d scratch from the World Championships. Clearly, none of it was true.
Schweizer has a similar story. She finished ninth today in 30:19, a 30-second improvement to her personal best. She had Achilles surgery in October and said the recovery period that was required of the surgery was the reset she needed to race at a high level this summer.
Though Schweizer said she was constantly in pain, she trained through it for close to two years. “It really wasn’t sustainable, just for my mental health. I was going out and just not enjoying my runs,” she said. “Being able to get that surgery done, I realized how much pain I was actually in. I was kind of limping out of bed, limping to start my runs. Not anymore.”
Schweizer was disappointed with her finish in Tokyo last summer and said today proved she’s moving in the right direction. “Coming into this meet last year I was very overwhelmed. I feel like I got pushed around and then I left disappointed,” she said. “This year I wanted to be in contention with two laps to go, and I feel like I did that. If my best is ninth place today, then that’s what it is. If I just keep showing up, hopefully one day my best will be a medal.”