Yomif Kejelcha and Running’s Worst Near Misses

One of the headline stories going into the Millrose Games, which took place in New York City earlier this month, was whether Yomif Kejelcha could break the world record in the indoor mile. The 21-year-old Ethiopian, who competes for the Nike Oregon Project, was looking to improve on Hicham El Guerrouj’s time of 3:48.45, which was set 22 years ago and is among the longest-standing records in professional track and field.

It was not to be. Kejelcha ended up running 3:48.46, coming up short by one-hundredth of a second. After he crossed the line, it took a few moments for him to register just how close he’d come to entering his name in the record books. (And also, presumably, getting a fat bonus from Nike.) As grim reality set in, a frustrated Kejelcha smashed his victory bouquet against the track

In honor of Kejelcha’s near miss, here’s a brief refresher on a few of the more devastating moments in pro running. 

El Guerrouj Gets His Heart Broken in Sydney

Kejelcha was chasing the legacy of the finest middle distance man in history—a man who had his own trials back in the day. In addition to his indoor mile record, Morocco’s El Guerrouj still holds the outdoor mile world record, as well as the outdoor world record for the 1,500-meters. He set all of them back in the late 1990s, an era when it seemed like he was close to invincible. Going into the Olympic 1,500-meter final in 2000, El Guerrouj had triumphed in all but one 1,500-meter race since taking an unfortunate fall in the 1996 Olympic final—a streak that included two World Championship titles. It seemed like there was no surer bet for a gold medal in Sydney. You can probably guess where this is going. With over 600 meters to run, the Moroccan suddenly found himself in the lead, which would have been okay except that two of the best closers in history, the Kenyan superstuds Noah Ngeny and Bernard Lagat, were lining up over his shoulder. Ngeny timed his kick perfectly and moved past Guerrouj in the home straight, beating him by a quarter of a second. 

Julia Lucas Outleaned at the Line

There’s no need to feel too sorry for El Guerrouj. He would go on to win Olympic gold in both the 1,500 and 5,000-meters in 2004. Besides, for most pro runners, merely making an Olympic team would be the high point of their career. Just ask former Oregon Track Club standout Julia Lucas. At the 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Lucas was among the favorites to finish in the top three in the women’s 5,000-meters and punch her ticket to the Games in London. Although Lucas had struggled with injuries in recent seasons, she came into the 2012 Trials having run the fastest 5,000 of any American woman that year. In the race, Lucas made a bold, seemingly decisive move with three laps to go, gapping the field and opening up a lead that she would carry all the way into the bell lap. Even though she would be caught by Molly Huddle and Julie Culley going into the final bend, Lucas appeared to have third place locked up. Over the last 100 meters however, she began teetering awkwardly, as, somewhere in the distance, Kim Conley was hammering for home. In the end, Conley would nip Lucas at the line, literally catching her on her final stride. All I can say is don’t watch this race unless you want to risk having vicarious track stress dreams for the rest of your life.       

Vanderlei de Lima Gets Accosted

While we’re on the subject of stress dreams: Imagine you’re professional runner and, at age 35 and nearing the end of your career, you unexpectedly find yourself with a big lead in the final miles of an Olympic marathon. You’re closing in on athletic immortality when, all of a sudden, a deranged spectator charges onto the course and messes you up so bad that you only barely salvage a bronze medal. But this is exactly what befell Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil in Athens in 2004. Up until that race, de Lima had had few major wins in his career, but with only four miles left in the biggest marathon of all, it seemed that he was about to pull off a remarkable upset. At least he was, until Neil Horan, a defrocked priest turned agitator, attacked de Lima for no apparent reason. “I cannot explain why I assaulted that young man, put him aside like a rugby tackle,” Horan told the New York Times twenty years after the incident, before adding some Panglossian wisdom for good measure. “I believe there is such a thing as destiny, things that are meant to happen, and my only feeling is that it was meant to happen. It was providential,” Horan said. What a swell guy. 

Des Gets Outkicked On Boylston

Thanks to meteorological conditions that combined cool temps with a fortuitous tailwind, the 2011 Boston Marathon saw some of the fastest times in the race’s long history. On the men’s side, Geoffrey Mutai won in 2:03:02, in what would have been a world record on an eligible course. Among the women, Des Linden ran an American course record, running a tactically flawless race. In fact, Linden’s strategy worked so well that she found herself leading on Boylston Street, Boston’s famous final straightaway. Unfortunately, she had company. In the end, Linden didn’t have enough to hold off Caroline Kiel and finished runner-up to the Kenyan by two seconds. No matter how good a day you’ve had, losing a 26.2-mile race by two seconds is going to hurt. “As the race broke and my race plan was unfolding, it just went perfect for me, minus not winning,’’ Linden told the Boston Globe afterwards. (Fortunately for Linden, in 2018 she once again found herself leading on Boylston—this time with no challengers in sight.)    

Kejelcha Comes Up Short—Again

One week removed from coming within one-hundredth of a second of the indoor mile record, Kejelcha once again found himself on the verge of historic achievement. At the Muller Indoor Grand Prix in Birmingham, England, he appeared well-positioned to attack El Guerrouj’s indoor world record for the 1,500-meters (3:31.18), which has stood since 1997. After the pacemakers dropped out, Kejelcha took the lead at the 1K mark with the intention of pushing the final two and a half laps. However, rather than the clock, this time Kejelcha would be defeated by another, even younger, Ethiopian athlete. With 100 meters to go, 19-year-old Samuel Tefera surged by Kejelcha and came home for the win in a new world record of 3:31.08. (Kejelcha had to settle for a personal best of 3:31.58.) 

Of course, it need hardly be said that, in the zero sum world of pro distance running, one runner’s near miss is often another’s triumph. “I’m delighted with the outcome,” Terefa said after his win last weekend. “To have the world record is a special feeling.”

Outside Magazine: Fitness

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