In this feature, Dej Ogeyinbgo reminds us how amazing the performance of Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who has the best marathon debut ever, now has a win in London on her resume.
Yalemzerf Yehualaw reaches new heights with a win at London Marathon
As one Ethiopian great faded from the leading pack, another star emerged. Running great, Kenenisa Bekele was the headline act for the London marathon heading into the English capital as athletes hoped to take inspiration from Eliud Kipchoge after the Kenyan broke the world record in Berlin last weekend.
But like last year, the veteran, who is the second fastest marathoner of all time, dropped off the leading group as he paved the way for a new champion in Amos Kipruto of Kenya. Before the win, Ethiopians celebrated the win of a new star in Yalemzerf Yehualaw, who won the women’s race in 2:17:26 as he became the youngest-ever winner at the London Marathon.
The 23-year-old was not up to five when Bekele won consecutive cross-country titles before winning multiple World and Olympic medals on the Global stage. He can’t cheat time for all of Bekele’s exploits and how he transcends the sport of distance running. He has to pave the way for younger and precocious talents like Yehualaw, whose rise is nothing short of meteoric.
The decisive break for Yehualaw came in the 24th mile, in which she ran an extraordinary 4:43 pace with last year’s winner Joyciline Jepkosgei. Afterward, Yehualaw, said: “I am so happy to win here in London. I have worked very hard to prepare for this race, and taking the victory is amazing.”
What made the Yehualaw victory in London all the more impressive was that she tripped up spectacularly on a sleeping policeman speed bump with six miles left. It sent her sprawling along the tarmac and caused her to lose at least 25m on the field. It brought back scenes of Sifan Hassan falling at the Tokyo Olympics on her way to qualifying for the women’s 1500m final.
Maybe it was the difference between the time she finished and her Personal Best, which is just three seconds shy of her clocking in London. Still, she won. And that’s all that matters. More races will come to run inside 2:16, maybe going on to break the world record or win all the marathon majors.
Only two women in history have now run faster than Yehualaw’s winning time at the London Marathon: Paula Radcliffe in 2003, when she ran a then-world record of 2:15:25, and Kenya’s Mary Keitany in 2017 with a 2:17:01 clocking.
No one in history has ever achieved that. Yehualaw is, however, special. Very few runners usually have the confidence to ditch the track and concentrate on the road early in their career. A large chunk of the all-time running greats makes it a great deal to make a name for themselves in the outdoor circuit by competing in the Olympics and world championships before transitioning into road racing.
Anyone with even a passing interest in distance running has known about Yehualaw for a while now. Although she’s yet to compete in an Olympics in 2021, the youngster rose to prominence last year when she clocked 1:03:44 for a half marathon in Larne, which would have been a world record, but the course was found to be 54 meters short.
Yehualaw followed it up a couple of months later with a fine performance at the Valencia Half marathon as she finished behind her compatriot Letesenbet Gidey with a time of 1:03:51. It didn’t take long before she left the shadows to the more established Gidey and began to forge a path for herself.
Her coach, Tessema Abshero, who is a 2:08 marathon runner himself, has picked Yehualaw up and developed her into one of the best in the sport at such a young age. Their partnership seems to blossom like that of Patrick Sang and Eliud Kipchoge. So, it was no surprise when she took down the 10km world record at the Castellón 10K in February this year.
Yehualaw, the world half marathon bronze medallist from 2020, improved on Joyciline Jepkosgei’s record of 29:43 as she ran a time of 29:14 in the Spanish coastal city. She also became the first woman in history to dip under the 29:30 and 29:20 barriers on the roads.
It didn’t stop there. After her near misses and record-breaking feat in such a short while, Yehualaw took up the challenge of running the marathon. The runner who hails from the Amhara region north of Addis Ababa just wanted to test her body over the 42.2km distance, but she did more than that as she reached new heights.
And in April of 2022, Yehualaw made history in Hamburg, running 2:17:23 for the fastest-ever women’s marathon debut. After her achievements in Castellón and Valencia, her marathon debut was highly anticipated. She delivered in fine style as she won the race by almost nine minutes, breaking the process’s Ethiopian and German all-comers’ records.
The performance put Yehualaw seventh on the women’s world marathon all-time list, topped by Brigid Kosgei’s world record of 2:14:04 set in 2019. Aside from the numbers, she looked a perfect fit for the marathon. “She has got a little bit more used to the endurance (training). Before Hamburg, she didn’t know about the marathon, but now she knows about the marathon.” Her coach Tessma said after the win in Hamburg.
Beyond the technical splendor of running, Yehualaw performs with an exuberance that’s been missing a sport that’s leaned self-serious of late. Maybe Gidey, who is ahead of her, oozes such too, but there is a feeling she might topple her compatriot on the road, considering it takes more of her attention. In London, she announced herself to the world.