Unless you’re living under a rock, you saw Joshua Cheptegei break Kenny Bekele’s world record in the 5,000m on Friday night in Monaco. He ran 12:35.36 to break Bekele’s 12:37.35 from 2004.
Cheptegei had a pretty impressive resume coming into this race. At just 23 he’d won the 2019 World Champs 10,000m, set road world records in the 5k (12:51) and 10k (26:48), won XC World Champs last year in Doha, and had track PRs of 12:57 and 26:38. He specifically said he was targeting the world record in this race.
I watched the race and the word that came to mind was manufactured.
Cheptegei clicked off 60.x laps without really showing any strain or emotion on his face. Hutchings uses “robotic” and “metronomic” while calling it. It was kind of mind blowing that this was some sort of super human performance given how he looked.
To think that he was going faster than the Great Bekele all those years ago didn’t really feel right. Bekele’s run felt legendary. This felt… wrong. Who am I to say that this little guy from Uganda is ‘wrong’ for breaking a record that I cherish, but that’s how it felt.
Also he was apparently wearing Nike “Dragonfly” spikes. If they’re anything like Vaporflys are for the marathon, then that could be a huge difference too.
It feels wrong to talk about it right after the guy just broke the world record, but you can’t run 12:35 and NOT bring up the possibility of performance enhancing drugs.
Bekele was consistently crushing some of the greatest runners of all time at the peak of the EPO era. If you put a gun to the head of 100 track nerds and asked if he was on some sort of drugs, 90+ of them would say yes.
As testing got better in the late 2000s, times got slower.
Since 2010, there have been exactly four 5,000m races where the winner broke 12:50:
Gebremeskel ran 12:46 with a huge last lap and lead 5 guys under 12:50 behind him. This was insane when it happened.
Kejelcha had balls and kept the hot early pacing going only to get cucked by Barega who ran 12:43 and Hagos who ran 12:45 to Kejelcha’s 12:46. This was equally insane.
Mo Ahmed somehow ran 12:47 in a local meet set up by BTC for him to run fast (also with Dragonflys).
Cheptegei ran 12:35.
It seemed like the days of Geb, Bekele, and Komen casually running 12:45 or something were gone, and that times like that were truly ‘special’ nowadays.
Then this happens. 12:35! That is other-worldly.
It feels cynical and accusatory to watch a performance like 12:35 and immediately go to “drugs”, but it’s naive not to given the number of huge performances followed by drug busts in the last 5-10 years. I’ve seen people say “Everyone is on something. You just have to sort of accept what you’re watching and appreciate it for what it is“. And that’s kind of where I’m at.
Is it possible that this was the result of huge determination, new shoes, and a once in a generation talent? Sure, I’d guess 1-2%.
Conversely, if you watched a 21 year old Bekele run 12:37 in 2004 you may have been saying “How! Geb was godly and now this random bro just beat him?!” Then Bekele goes on to become literally the greatest distance runner of all time. Maybe in 10 years Cheptegei will have a huge slew of medals and incredible times and I’ll look at him the way I look at Bekele now.