Cathal Dennehy has written for us for over a decade. I never give him an assignment; we collaborate, mostly post articles. I have never second-guessed his columns, and I love this one.
If two dots make a trend, then the past 18 months have firmly shown the way forward for all world-class 1500m runners not named Jakob Ingebrigtsen.
First, there was Ethiopia’s Samuel Tefera at last year’s World Indoors, and then there was Britain’s Jake Wightman at the World Championships in Oregon. Then along came Josh Kerr, the childhood clubmate of Wightman at Edinburgh AC, all of them taking on and taking down Ingebrigtsen in his one and only Achilles heel – the last 200m.
The thing Tefera, Wightman, and Kerr had in common? They all toed the line as huge underdogs, going up against the strength, speed, and tactical acumen of the Tokyo Olympic champion who, outside of those three races, has ruled the event with dictatorial dominance in the past 18 months, going 13 for 13 at either the mile or 1500m.
But when it mattered most, he was found wanting at his favored distance.
Yes, there were reasons. Let’s not call them excuses because Ingebrigtsen has always shown no-nonsense honesty in his dealings with the press, standing and answering a barrage of questions with a kind of patience and generosity that is sometimes lacking in his counterparts. For that, he deserves immense credit, giving the fans a window into his inner thoughts, his true self.
In Belgrade last year, Ingebrigtsen admitted he didn’t feel right from early in the world indoor 1500m final and after flying home the next day, he found out why, recording a positive test for Covid. In Oregon last July, he lost to Jake Wightman for many reasons. Ingebrigtsen had got drawn into a battle for the lead with his longtime nemesis, Timothy Cheruiyot, with Wightman coasting sensibly behind and saving his energy for one killer move with 200m to go. Ingebrigtsen had been softened up by Cheruiyot by the time Wightman landed his blow, the acceleration entering the final turn allowing him to break Ingebrigtsen’s rhythm. He never could claw his way back.
For all his dominance on the circuit, there was no real excuse for Ingebrigtsen that day. In the end, he lost to a better athlete, even if he did go on to say he had lost to an inferior one. Of course, better has many meanings. In paced races, there’s no doubt Ingebrigtsen is the best athlete right now. But championship finals are not won the way Diamond Leagues are, with a pacer or two taking you to 800m in 1:51, teeing you up perfectly for a wind-up that will kill off the kicks of your opposition.
In a situation like Oregon, Ingebrigtsen’s cloak of invincibility can quickly be torn to shreds.
But it takes a special athlete to do so – one capable of running, like Wightman, 800m in 1:43 and 1500m in 3:29. That mix gives you the strength to go with Ingebrigtsen and the speed to outkick him. Kerr’s 1500m best is also 3:29, and while his 800m best is 1:45.35 – not as lethal as Wightman’s – it’s still faster than Ingebrigtsen.
The man with the best record against the Norwegian is Timothy Cheruiyot, who is 13-8 against him during their careers, counting the mile and 1500m. The Kenyan is a 3:28 and 1:43 man.
Ingebrigtsen’s strength is his strength, that ability to sap the life out of his rivals long before they can reach for the heavy artillery with 200m to run. But there’s no getting away from it: his raw speed is inferior to many of his rivals. Ingebrigtsen’s 800m best is the 1:46.44 he ran in 2020. In June this year, he lined up for an 800m in Bergen and clocked 1:47.22, finishing fourth and more than half a second behind Tony van Diepen of the Netherlands.
The flip side of that? Ingebrigtsen is an aerobic monster who came back from 1500m defeat in Oregon to wipe the floor with the world’s best 5000m runners later in the week, running with them until the last 200m, then using his superior speed to leave them for dust.
Ingebrigtsen has already broken the world best for two miles this year, and he’ll target the 2000m world record at the upcoming Brussels Diamond League. Chances are, he’ll get it.
Josh Kerr, photo by Kevin Morris
Given his two-mile time, 7:54.10, the 5000m and 10,000m world record both seem ripe for revision by Ingebrigtsen in the years to come and when the 22-year-old moves up to those distances, he flips the 1500m scenario on its head. At those events, he is the Jake Wightman, the Josh Kerr, the man they can’t run fast enough to drop, the man they won’t be able to live with due to his closing speed.
In Budapest, it seemed clear Ingebrigtsen was not quite at his best, though it’s hard to tell how much the sore throat he developed on Sunday truly affected him in Wednesday’s final. He was certainly gracious in defeat. “All credit to Kerr,” he said. “He did a good race. I don’t feel like I could have done much differently. If you’re not 100%, it’s frustrating not being able to get out your best.”
Kerr unleashed a 52-second last lap to claim gold, with a 26-second last 200m, giving him a final time of 3:29.38. The Brit had timed his run to perfection, not only in the final but in the season as a whole, his coach Danny Mackey bringing him to a well-timed peak.
“I get slated all year (but) this is the day I’ve always wanted to be fit,” he said. “Every year it’s the same. I show up at championships.” He certainly did, and his reward was a world gold to add to his Olympic bronze.
Ingebrigtsen had to settle for 1500m silver, again, at his third straight global championship, the kinks in his armor now there for all to see. Still, it will come as a surprise if he doesn’t repeat his comeback in Oregon and claim the 5000m title this weekend. That could well prove the distance at which he ultimately proves unbeatable. Because for all his undoubted brilliance, it’s quite clear that’s not the case at 1500m.