When Letesenbet Gidey headed to Valencia – the ‘city of running’ – for her half marathon debut, she knew she was capable of producing something special.

“I’m ready to run a world record,” she said at the pre-race press conference. “I’m sure I can do it.”

The 23-year-old Ethiopian had good reason to feel confident, too. She already held the world records for 5000m (14:06.62) and 10,000m (29:01.03) and was well rested since her last race of the track season. She had done training runs of up to 30km back home in Addis Ababa, so she didn’t fear the 21.1km distance.

Indeed, the way she attacked the World Athletics Elite Label road race was exactly that: fearless.

She covered the first 5km in 15:00, by which point she had already dropped compatriot Yalemzerf Yehualaw. The next two 5km sections were quicker still – 14:45 and 14:44 – meaning she covered the middle 10km segment in a stunning 29:29, nine seconds faster than the official world record for the distance.

She reached the 20km point in 59:46, by which point her lead over Yehualaw had grown to 49 seconds. Gidey reached the finish line in 1:02:52, becoming the first woman to officially break not just the 64-minute barrier but the 63-minute barrier too.

The world and Olympic 10,000m medallist also becomes just the second athlete in history to hold world records for 5000m, 10,000m and the half marathon concurrently after Norwegian distance-running legend Ingrid Kristiansen, who achieved the feat in the late 1980s.

“I want to thank everyone who helped me to achieve this,” said Gidey, whose world 5000m record was set in the same city. “I love Valencia, it is a wonderful city and it’s almost a second home for me. I ran very fast in the first part of the race, but I had trained hard for it, and here is the result.”


Letesenbet Gidey
Born: 20 March 1998. Coach: Haile Eyasu.

Letesenbet Gidey may have harboured her world record dreams for more than half a decade, but early in her career, she was a very reluctant competitor. So much so that in 2011 she was expelled from school for refusing to run in physical education classes.

“I really did not like racing,” she said, recalling her 13-year-old self. “I brought my parents to school to talk to the headmaster with the hope of getting reinstated. He agreed to reinstate me only if I ran for the school. I reluctantly agreed, just for the chance to get back to school.”

That headmaster deserves at least a modicum of credit for the career trajectory of Ethiopia’s latest distance running star, because if any reluctance remained, Gidey hid it well.

Born in Endameskel in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, Gidey – the fourth child in a family of two brothers and two sisters – grew up on her family’s farm looking to initially pursue academic interests. But after being drawn to the sport in an unorthodox fashion, she knew that it could be her calling in life after competing in a regional race in 2011.

“I ran a 3000m race representing my Woreda [district] and finished second at the All-Tigray Games,” she recalls. “It was this performance that convinced me that I may have a future in athletics.”

But it wasn’t an entirely happy introduction to the sport. Early on, Gidey struggled for consistency when competing in her region, sometimes even getting lapped in races.

“I remember finishing 44th in my first cross country race [the junior women’s race at the Jan Meda national championships] in 2012,” she says. “That really did not feel good at all.”

But she stuck with it. In late 2012, Gidey won a 3000m/2000m steeplechase double for the Tigray region at the Ethiopian Schools Championships in Shashemane, which captured the attention of club scouts. A few weeks later, she joined the Trans sport club and moved to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray region. She then spent the next two years working her way into the national ranks which led to her first global breakthrough.

In 2015 Gidey led an Ethiopian podium sweep in the U20 race at the World Cross Country Championships, a title she successfully defended in Kampala two years later. She performed admirably on the track in her international debut, finishing fourth in the 3000m at the 2015 World U18 Championships.

Her steady rise continued. In 2018, her first season in the senior ranks, she improved to 8:30.96 and 14:23.14 in the 3000m and 5000m, respectively. The latter remained her lifetime best until her record run in Valencia in October 2020.

She returned to the global spotlight in 2019. In March she raced to bronze at the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus and improved by a spot in Doha where she took 10,000m silver at the World Championships. She then capped the year with a 44:20 world best over 15km at the Seven Hills Run in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with the ongoing conflict in Tigray, made it difficult for Gidey to travel outside of Ethiopia in 2020, but she managed two competitive appearances. Her first was a 14:26.57 clocking at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Monaco, beaten only by two-time world champion Hellen Obiri. Two months later, Gidey produced a stunning 14:06.62 world record run in Valencia, improving the previous mark by almost five seconds.

Gidey opened her 2021 campaign in April at the Ethiopian Championships where, competing in the altitude of Addis Ababa, she ran 14:56.7 for 5000m to finish second to world indoor 1500m record-holder Gudaf Tsegay.

Gidey wasn’t dispirited by the defeat, though; she knew that in normal racing conditions at sea level, she’d be capable of producing her best performances. And that’s exactly what she did in Hengelo two months later when she clocked 29:01.03 for 10,000m, breaking the world record that had been set on the same track just two days earlier by Sifan Hassan.

It set the scene for a mouth-watering clash between the pair at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. With an incredible burst of speed in the closing stages, Hassan strode to victory in the 10,000m in the Japanese capital, having already won the 5000m and earned bronze over 1500m. Gidey, making her Olympic debut, took bronze in the 10,000m with 30:01.72.

Two weeks after the Games, Gidey finished second over two miles at the Wanda Diamond League meeting in Eugene, clocking 9:06.74, the third-fastest outdoor time in history. She then wound down her track season and turned her attention to the roads, specifically the half marathon distance.

It proved a good move. Returning to the city where she set her first world record, Gidey triumphed at the Valencia Half Marathon in a stunning 1:02:52.


Letesenbet Gidey’s progression
(3000m, 5000m, 10,000m) 2014: -, 16:19.3, –
2015: 9:04.64, 15:39.83, –
2016: -, 14:45.63, –
2017: -, 14:33.32, –
2018: 8:30.96, 14:23.14, –
2019: 8:20.27, 14:29.54, 30:21.23
2020: -, 14:06.62, –
2021: -, 14:56.7, 29:01.03

World all-time women’s half marathon top 10
1:02:52 Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) Valencia 2021
1:03:51 Yalemzerf Yehualaw (ETH) Valencia 2021
1:04:02 Ruth Chepngetich (KEN) Istanbul 2021
1:04:31 Ababel Yeshaneh (ETH) Ras Al Khaimah 2020
1:04:49 Brigid Kosgei (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2020
1:04:51 Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) Valencia 2017
1:04:51 Hellen Obiri (KEN) Istanbul 2021
1:04:52 Fancy Chemutai (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2018
1:04:53 Sheila Chepkirui (KEN) Valencia 2021
1:04:55 Mary Keitany (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2018

Women’s world half marathon record progression (mixed race)
1:06:44 Elana Meyer (RSA) Tokyo 1999
1:06:25 Lornah Kiplagat (NED) Udine 2007
1:05:50 Mary Keitany (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2011
1:05:12 Florence Kiplagat (KEN) Barcelona 2014
1:05:09 Florence Kiplagat (KEN) Barcelona 2015
1:05:06 Peres Jepchirchir (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2017
1:04:52 Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) Prague 2017
1:04:51 Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) Valencia 2017
1:04:31 Ababel Yeshaneh (ETH) Ras Al Khaimah 2020
1:04:02 Ruth Chepngetich (KEN) Istanbul 2021*
1:02:52 Letesenbet Gidey (ETH) Valencia 2021*

*Pending ratification

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