When Tigst Assefa won in Berlin last year with a course record on her first serious attempt at the marathon, it came as a complete shock.
This time, lining up as defending champion, more was expected of the Ethiopian. But even with higher expectations, she still managed to send shockwaves throughout the sport as she won in 2:11:53, smashing the world record by two minutes and 14 seconds.
Her first 10km – 31:44 – was swift. But even that proved to be her slowest part of the race. She covered the next three 10km sections in 31:07, 31:20 and 31:02, and her pace was still increasing as she charged through the finish line, finishing almost six minutes ahead of her nearest rival.
After covering the first half in an astonishing 1:06:20, her second half was even quicker at 1:05:33 – a time that just four women have bettered this year in a standalone half marathon.
“In the first half, I saved some energy for the second part,” said Assefa, a former 800m specialist, who ditched track running because of persistent injuries. “I trained for six months for this race. Now I think I will be nominated for the Olympic Games.”
(Sometimes listed as ‘Tigist Assefa’)
Born: 3 December 1996. Coach: Gemedu Dedefo.
Tigst Assefa didn’t realise it at the time, but she spent most of the early years of her career focusing on disciplines that were not completely suited to her natural ability.
She possessed decent speed, which meant she was initially encouraged to stick to the 400m and 800m during her teenage years. Her results were solid, too: in 2012, at the age of 15, she represented Ethiopia in the 400m and 4x400m at the senior African Championships in Porto Novo.
One year later, she earned 800m bronze and 4x400m silver at the African U20 Championships in Bambous. And in 2014, she was a regular on the international elite circuit, clocking an 800m PB of 1:59.24 at the Diamond League meeting in Lausanne. In 2016 she represented Ethiopia at two global events – the World Indoor Championships in Portland and the Olympic Games in Rio – but both times did not advance beyond the heats.
Soon after, her career progress began to stall due to injuries caused by frequent use of racing spikes. It forced her to rethink her options in the sport, and she decided to attempt a switch to road racing.
It proved a wise move, and she responded well to the move up in distance and the change of terrain.
She tested the waters – well, roads – in a low-key 10km race in Dubai at the end of 2018, clocking 34:35. In 2019, with more miles under her belt, she reduced her 10km PB to 31:45 and ran a highly promising 1:08:24 on her half marathon debut in Valencia.
She and her coach soon realised: the longer the distance, the better her results.
Perhaps somewhat against her better judgement, she decided to make her marathon debut in Riyadh in March 2022. She was not race fit, and she went into the event carrying an injury, but given her relative lack of racing in the years prior, it was difficult to turn down the appearance fee for the race. And, at the very least, she also knew it would be good experience for when she later contested a marathon in top form. She completed the race in 2:34:01, knowing that she was capable of going much quicker on a good day.
As the year went on, she rounded into good form. She notched up three 10km victories and two half marathon wins in the first half of that year. But she still wasn’t considered one of the favourites when she lined up for the Berlin Marathon in September 2022.
Her coach, Gemedu Dedefo – coach to the likes of 2022 world champion Tamirat Tola, Guye Adola, and former Ethiopian record-holder Amane Beriso – knew that Assefa was in good form heading into Berlin and that she was set for a sub-2:19 time. But even he was surprised when Assefa won it in a huge course record of 2:15:37.
While Assefa was delighted with her triumph in the German capital in what was her first serious attempt at the marathon, she also knew that she was capable of much more.
Sure enough, with another year of marathon training behind her, Assefa returned to the Berlin Marathon in 2023 and smashed the world record with 2:11:53*. She took two minutes and 11 seconds off Brigid Kosgei’s previous mark – the biggest single improvement on the women’s marathon world record since Joan Benoit’s 2:22:43 run in Boston in 1983 (which, incidentally, would not be record eligible according to today’s rules).
To put Assefa’s performance into context, as recently as 1967, no man had ever bettered 2:12:00 for the marathon.
TIGST ASSEFA’S SPLITS IN BERLIN
(Final 5km leading into the finish: 15:23)
TIGST ASSEFA’S PBs
400m: 54.05 (2012)
800m: 1:59.24 (2014)
10km: 30:52 (2022)
Half marathon: 1:06:20+ (2023)
Marathon: 2:11:53 (2023)
*Subject to the usual ratification procedure