5 Takeaways from 2023 Valencia Marathon

By Owen Corbett

December 3, 2023

The 2023 Valencia Marathon went down on Sunday, and predictably there were fireworks in the streets of Spain. While all of the hype focused on one of the biggest marathon debuts we have seen in quite some time, an all-time field on the men’s side assembled in its shadow. In the women’s race, a two-woman battle at the front made way for an Ethiopian sweep, with both races offering top ten performances all-time. Below we get into some of the biggest takeaways from the race on Sunday, and what it means for the marathon going forward.

Joshua CheptegeiJoshua Cheptegei

Courtesy Valencia Marathon

Joshua Cheptegei Has A Rough Debut

For the first 13.1 miles on Sunday, Joshua Cheptegei looked very comfortable. He was in the lead pack of runners, the double-world record holder doing his best to blend in with marathon veterans. What makes his composure through the first half of the race all the more impressive, is that the first group of runners went through the halfway mark in an incredibly quick 1:00:35. Soon after, the front group of seven men began to stretch itself out, with Cheptegei being the first to fall off the pace, and falling off hard. When all was said and done, the three-time world champion finished in 37th place (2:08:59), staggering across the finish line, humbly shy of sparkling expectations, which in Cheptegei’s defense, he did not put on himself.

In a press conference leading up to the race, Cheptegei made sure to say he was not going after a record setting time, but mentioned that he wanted to make the podium - which he postulated would take a time around 2:03 to 2:04. Cheptegei managed to be spot on, Ethiopia’s Dawit Wolde was the third finisher of the day and ran 2:03:48. All in all, Cheptegei’s effort was admirable, he clearly meant what he said when he claimed he wanted to be in the mix with the day’s top runners. It was also clear however that he was in uncharted territory.

The excuses that Cheptegei could use to explain his performance are plenty: he had an abbreviated buildup delayed by a foot injury that ended his track season, and he hasn’t gone all-in on marathon training as he plans to return to the track next season. The marathon is not something you can only devote partial attention to. It is a beast that requires all of the energy you have… unless of course your name is Sifan Hassan. This one race by no means signifies that Cheptegei will not have a successful marathon career. Just look at the winner of today’s race: Sisay Lemma, who made his marathon debut in 2:11:58.

Kenenisa BekeleKenenisa Bekele

Courtesy Valencia Marathon

Good Luck Selecting Ethiopian Olympic Teams

Speaking of Lemma, Ethiopia has a problem on its hands, fortunately it’s the best kind of problem. Olympic teams are limited to three people per country in any given event, and on both the men’s and women’s side in the marathon, there are at least eight runners more than worthy of a spot. In the past, Ethiopia has selected its Olympic marathon teams subjectively – and not without controversy. For the Tokyo Olympics however, they organized a 35K trials race a few months before the games, yet it seems unlikely that they will do that again.

Starting with the men, you have Sisay Lemma (DNF at the Tokyo Olympics), whose 2:01:48 this weekend shot him up the all-time list from No. 18 to No. 4. It's hard to argue that one of the four fastest marathoners in history is not worthy of a spot on the team. One notch ahead of Lemma on the all-time list is Kenenisa Bekele, who finished fourth on Sunday in yet another comeback in his lengthy career. Bekele’s PB is four years old now, and he has been passed over for two Olympic marathon teams already, but he is a proven championship racer – evidenced on Sunday as he decided not to go out with the lead pack, and passed the majority of them over the back half of the race. Claiming back his masters marathon record (40+) in Valencia may have been Bekele’s first step to Paris.

The two athletes directly behind Lemma on the all-time list after yesterday are Ethiopians Birhanu Legese (No. 5) whose current fitness was proven with a sub-2:05 clocking this year, and Mosinet Geremew (No. 6), last year’s silver medalist at the World Championships in Eugene. The man who beat Geremew for gold? Ethiopian Tamirat Tola, who won the NYC Marathon just last month. Ethiopia returned to the podium at the world championships this year with Leul Gebresilase earning bronze, after finishing fourth at the 2023 London Marathon. Other wildcards include Tadese Takele who earned third at the 2023 Berlin Marathon with the third fastest debut in the event’s history, and Seifu Tura who finished fifth at both this year’s London and Chicago Marathons.

On the women’s side, things get even crazier. By virtue of her win in Valencia, Worknesh Degefa moved up to seventh on the all-time list, but she was only the fourth fastest woman of the year, nearly four minutes behind Tigist Assefa and her world record mark in Berlin. Coming in roughly thirty seconds after Degefa, Almaz Ayana is the third Ethiopian among the five fastest women of the year. Add in two of the five fastest women from last year, 2022 Valencia Champion and 2023 World Champion Amane Beriso and 2023 NYC Runner-up and fastest marathon debutant of all time Letesenbet Gidey, and you have half of the ten fastest women in history vying for three spots (Gidey might make the decision easier by deciding to focus on the track in Paris). Additionally, 2022 London Marathon champion Yalemzerf Yehualaw, 2022 World Champion Gotytom Gebreslase, and Genzebe Dibaba, who dropped out on Sunday just after half the race, are all worthy of selection.

Worknesh DegefaWorknesh Degefa

Courtesy Valencia Marathon

The Deepest Marathon Field Ever

This year’s Valencia marathon not only produced some incredibly fast times at the front of the pack, but was almost inarguably the deepest marathon field ever, specifically on the men’s side. 14 runners finished with a time under 2:06, just one behind the previous record from this year’s Berlin Marathon. In Berlin however, there was a harsh dropoff after that, as no finishers came through with a time between 2:06 and 2:08. In contrast, Sunday had a record 17 men finish under 2:07. But the most impressive mark by far is the 28 men that finished under 2:08, smashing the previous record of 18 runners from the 2023 Osaka Marathon. This is not new for the Spanish city, as there have been eight marathons in history to produce 16 or more runners faster than 2:08, and half of them are the last four editions of the Valencia Marathon.

Perspective: The 28th place finisher on Sunday, Spain’s Yago Rojo, stopped the clock at 2:07:47, the same time that gave American Conner Mantz a sixth place finish at this year’s Chicago Marathon.

Valencia Marathon 2023Valencia Marathon 2023

Courtesy Valencia Marathon

Valencia Should Be A Marathon Major

As the Sydney Marathon moves forward to the next step in its candidacy to become the seventh World Marathon Major, it’s hard not to think that Valencia shouldn’t also be considered among the most prestigious group of road races in the sport. In addition to the incredible depth mentioned above, fast times are becoming commonplace on the streets of Valencia. This year it became the second marathon in history to produce back to back winners with a time under 2:02 on the men’s side (2018/2019 Berlin Marathon), and it matched the feats of this year’s Berlin and Chicago races as the third marathon to produce back to back winners under 2:16 on the women’s side. Valencia already has the status – one of 14 World Athletics Platinum Label marathons, the highest label offered – and the prize money (offering more to top finishers than Berlin or London) to attract big name athletes, and it should be rewarded as such.

In reality it may not make a difference. Over the past few years, Valencia has had no issues lining up an incredible field, aside from Lemma and Degefa, past winners include: world record holder Kelvin Kiptum, World Champion Amane Beriso, Boston/NYC Marathon winner Evans Chebet, Olympic Champion Peres Jepchirchir, and Leul Gebresilase. Other marathon major winners that have come to the “Ciudad Del Running” include Tamirat Tola, Geoffrey Kamworor, Birhanu Legese, and Joyciline Jepkosgei, along with world record holders Letesenbet Gidey, Almaz Ayana, and Genzebe Dibaba (who ran this year’s race less than two months after completing the Chicago Marathon).

No, negative splitting a marathon is not the new trend – the way Kelvin Kiptum runs the historic distance is unique. Through the race on Sunday, at each major split in the men’s race, the broadcast offered a comparison to the split recorded during Kelvin Kiptum’s world record run in Chicago, and it told a clear story. At the halfway mark, seven men went through 13 seconds ahead of Kiptum’s half marathon time in Chicago, and by 30k they were a startling 27 seconds ahead of the ghost of Kiptum. But just five kilometers later, they had fallen 19 seconds behind the world record holder’s pace, what happened? It wasn’t a drastic slowing in pace as they covered the distance between 30k and 35k in 14:37, but it paled in comparison to the 13:51 that Kiptum threw down over the same stretch. At the next split it was more of the same, the leaders in Valencia had even picked up the pace, running a 14:31 to get to the 40k mark, but they had fallen 49 seconds back of Kiptum’s time, thanks to his remarkable 14:01.

This means that over the same 10,000m stretch, Kiptum ran 76 seconds faster in Chicago than the leaders did in Valencia. To put that in perspective, if the race were playing out on a track, in just that time Kiptum would have lapped every single runner in the lead group from Valencia, including the athlete that ended up finishing as the fourth fastest man in history. It wasn’t reasonable to expect anyone at the front of the race to take down the two month old world record, and Lemma finished over a minute back of the mark. That’s because he was hurting at the end of the race – as he is supposed to be. It’s actually wildly impressive that Lemma went out as fast as he did and managed to hold on so well, only positive splitting by 38 seconds (1:00:35/1:01:13). One thing that we are left wondering however, is how fast Kiptum could have run if he was in a race that went out as fast as this one did on Sunday.

Owen Corbett

Huge sports fan turned massive track nerd. Statistics major looking to work in sports research. University of Connecticut club runner (faster than Chris Chavez but slower than Kyle Merber).