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Tigst Assefa: Marathon world record from middle distance

September 25, 2023

Tigst Assefa's path to smashing a world record in Berlin was an unusual one. She's gone from one of the world's best in the 800 meters to the best in the world in the marathon.

Tigst Assefa
The new world record marathon runner Tigst AssefaImage: Markus Schreiber/AP Photo/picture alliance

Tigst Assefa's performance at the Berlin Marathon on Sunday stunned the sporting world. She chopped more than two minutes off the previous world record set by Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, finishing in just 2:11:53 hours.

While the 2022 Berlin Marathon winner had been among the favorites, nobody expected a performance like that. In fact, nobody even thought a time like that was possible for a woman.

"I wanted to break the marathon world record, but I couldn't imagine that it would result in a time under 2:12," Assefa said. "I am very happy."

Holding back for a strong finish

Moments earlier, after she'd crossed the finish line near the German capital's Brandenburg Gate, she crossed herself, sank to her knees, and kissed first the asphalt, then her shoes.

It had been clear from the split times early on in the race that she was on course to set an incredible time. That's despite the fact that by her own account, Assefa had held back in the first half of the race, "so that I wouldn't be tired in the second half. I was able to put a lot more effort into the second part."

In fact, Assefa ran the penultimate of the 42 kilometers in 3:03 minutes – a mere four seconds slower than the men's winner, Kenya's world-record holder, Eliud Kipchoge.

From 800 meters to the marathon

It's by no means unheard of for a runner to switch from a shorter distance to the marathon a few years into their careers. Kipchoge was an outstanding 5000-meter runner before turning to the marathon. Britain's Paula Radcliffe was the world's top 5000-meter and 10,000-meter runner before choosing the marathon, in which she would go on to hold the world record from 2003 to 2019 (2:15:25).

Tigst Assefa running at the 2014 ISTAF Athletics Meeting in Berlin
Tigst Assefa won her first race in Berlin in the 800 meters at the 2014 ISTAF Athletics MeetingImage: Michael Sohn/AP Photo/picture alliance

However, Assefa's path was more unusual, having started out as a sprinter and middle-distance runner – in the  400 and 800 meters. In 2014, at the age of 17, she ran her best time in the 800, at 1:59:24 minutes. She won bronze the 2013 African junior championship in the 800 and went on to represent Ethiopia at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.

However, she subsequently opted for the 10-kilometer road race – and later the marathon distance – reportedly because running in spikes caused her Achilles-tendon pain.

19-minute improvement in six months

While it's clear that Assefa is from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, it is less clear exactly how old she is. Some sources list her age as 29, while others, like her manager, Gianni Demadonna, say she is 26.

Assefa's coach is Gemedu Dedefo, Ethiopia's "super coach" credited with getting the best out of stars such as Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba.

It was just 18 months ago that Assefa competed in a marathon for the first time – the Riyadh Marathon – finishing with a time of 2:34.01 hours. Her second was the 2022 Berlin Marathon six months later, which she completed in a time of just 2:15:37 hours – an improvement of 19 minutes.

Tigst Assefa
Although she had set out to break the world record, even Tigst Assefa was surprised by her timeImage: Markus Schreiber/AP/picture alliance

Demadonna explained the rapid improvement by, among other things, the fact that she had still been eight kilos (17.6 pounds) overweight at her debut, due to a COVID-19-related forced break.

She trains in Trento in northeastern Italy, among other places, but also in Iten, on the Kenyan plateau, at an altitude of about 2,400 meters (7,874 feet).

'Miracle shoe' improves efficiency

What's also unusual about Assefa is the extremely lightweight Adidas shoes that she wears for a marathon. The extra-thick sole is made of a foam that, on the one hand, absorbs the impact of steps on the asphalt, but at the same time releases energy upwards for the next step. In addition, a carbon plate is incorporated into the sole. According to experts, this shoe can shave many seconds or even several minutes off a runner's marathon finishing time. Assefa is one of only 10 female athletes worldwide that Adidas outfits with this model.

This "miracle shoe," though, has a downside; it's completely lacking in durability and loses its performance-enhancing effect after just a few hours – rendering the €500 ($531) footwear essentially useless for most users.

Comparison with marathon legend Abebe Bikila

In her homeland, Assefa is already being compared to Ethiopia's greatest marathon runner, Abebe Bikila.

Bikila won Ethiopia's first Olympic gold medal – in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Summer Games. While his time of 2:15:16 hours was much slower than Tigst Assefa's world-record, he was running barefoot through the streets of the Italian capital.

This article was adapted from German.