The world championship women’s marathon was a race filled with races. Leaders took off at a pace that was five minutes faster than the world-championship record. Then they slowed. Then they surged. Then they slowed again. It was a fartlek workout disguised as a marathon.
In the end, Gotytom Gebreslase of Ethiopia and Judith Korir of Kenya were the ones to emerge and run stride by stride for the final miles of the race, chasing the 17-year-old world-championship record set by Paula Radcliffe of Britain.
Gebreslase won the race in 2 hours 18 minutes 11 seconds, besting Radcliffe’s 2:20:57.
The race, held in the streets of Eugene, Ore., and neighboring Springfield, was a lesson in patience for the chase pack, which included three Americans, Sara Hall, Keira D’Amato and Emma Bates, when they came through the first lap of the three-lap course. Immediately before the race, Hall asked her teammates if they wanted to work together should they find themselves running a similar pace. Both enthusiastically agreed, and they controlled the pace together in groups of two and three for portions of the race.
It was a different story up front, where the leaders were playing with the pace and ebbing and flowing with dramatic surges.
A lead pack of eight runners, led by the defending champion, Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, broke away early at a blistering pace of 2 hours and 16 minutes. (The world record for the women’s marathon is 2:14:04.) It became survival of the fittest and a test to see who would drop first and who would creep up on the leaders with a steadier hand.
It was Chepngetich — who holds the fourth-fastest marathon time ever — who stepped off the course around the 11-mile mark. She walked immediately into the brush and briefly disappeared, a move many runners may have recognized that was later confirmed to be stomach issues. She did not re-enter the race.
Then Ababel Yeshaneh of Ethiopia fell by the wayside. Yeshaneh, who was in contention for third place, dropped out of the race with less than seven miles remaining.
The race for bronze was then between Lonah Chemtai Salpeter of Israel and Nazret Weldu of Eritrea. Salpeter, who won the Tokyo Marathon in March 2020, was hungry for redemption on the global stage. She was in the lead pack with less than three miles remaining in the Tokyo Olympic marathon last year but had to pause because of menstrual cramps. (When asked about the incident, she looked to the lone female reporter in the crowd and said, “You understand.”) She finished 66th.
Salpeter made her move before the final straightaway, breaking away from Weldu and leaving no doubt in her mind that she would take home a long-awaited medal.
“If you don’t fail, you don’t know how to succeed,” she said after the race, giddy with excitement. She was quick to add that she would be flying back to Israel on Tuesday, as her young son was already asking when he would get the medal.
Hall, the first American to cross the finish line, was in fifth place with a time of 2:22:10, a smile plastered across her face.
“I think this is the most fun I’ve ever had in a marathon,” she said. Indeed, she was throwing her hands up to encourage the crowds as the race progressed and said she was even smiling through the final miles, encouraged by the Oregon crowds. Bates finished in 2:23:18, a new personal best, and D’Amato, the American record-holder in the marathon, finished eighth in 2:23:34.
D’Amato’s performance was especially notable because she was a late addition to the team. She was selected less than three weeks ago to replace Molly Seidel, the bronze medalist in the marathon at the Tokyo Games, who withdrew because of an injury. Sharing the news on Instagram, Seidel wrote that “if there’s anyone who could rise to the challenge on this short of notice, it’s her.”
It turns out you can’t exactly cram for a marathon, D’Amato said. “I was definitely humbled by this,” she said, laughing. “I think a short marathon build is not the way to go.”
She was training for shorter races when she was called to join the U.S. marathon delegation and did not hesitate. She did one long run in the past two weeks and said she laughed every time she really thought about what she had signed up for.
“I was so proud of us, you know, being the caboose of Team U.S.A. and finishing eighth is freaking awesome,” D’Amato said.