TRACK STATS.

Is the steeplechase a more predictable distance event?

25 Aug 2015

“Conseslus and Kemboi, they’re so good at doing that. Obviously Kemboi has shown that he can do it better than anyone else in the world, probably ever,” Evan Jager said after the men’s 3000m steeplechase in Beijing, referring to the Kenyans’ ability to surge throughout the race and ultimately pull away from the field over the course of the last lap.

Championship distance races are generally more tactical than major headline running competitions earlier in the summer, and this year’s steeplechase was not an exception. Ezekial Kemboi’s winning time was 8:11.28, compared with his season’s best time of 8:01.79 run in Eugene, Oregon in May. Jarius Birech, Kemboi’s national teammate, ran the world’s leading time in 2015 (so far), clocking 7:58.83 in Paris. This variation in between the winning time at the World Championship and the fastest time of the year is relatively consistent with past years, as well as the variation across other distance events, as evident in the chart below.

Specifically, these charts show the percentage difference between these marks for the 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m, and 10,000m for the world championship years 2005 (Helsinki), 2007 (Osaka), 2009 (Berlin), 2011 (Daegu), 2013 (Moscow), and 2015 (Beijing).

% Difference between the World Championship winning time and the best in the world that year

The men’s 5000m discipline generally has the largest degree of variability between the world lead and the top mark at the worlds, followed by the steeplechase and the 1500m with a medium degree of difference, followed by the 10,000m, which has the lowest degree of percentage difference—possibly because of the rare opportunities for quality races over the distance.

This does not paint a particularly clear picture of what makes the steeplechase different from the other distance disciplines with respect to championship races, so let us delve a little further and analyze who is exactly winning these races and where they ranked in the respective event ahead of the world meet.

This chart shows the world rank of the World Championship winning athlete in the same year over the same four distance events. For example, Benjamin Limo of Kenya won the 5,000m in 2005 at Helsinki, and was 7th in the world that year on the world lead descending list, with a time of 12:55.26. The marker for the 5000m in 2005 is therefore on the “7” line*.

Season world rank of the winner of the World Championship title

As shown, the steeplechase has a very low degree of variability when it comes to the winner’s peg in the world rankings. In fact, with respect to the steeplechase, 2015 is the first year where the winner didn’t have either the first or second fastest time in the world since 1999. And this year, Kemboi’s place on the list is 3rd, with only a few opportunities left in the summer for others to best that mark. With that said, when using median to analyze the above information, the winner of the steeplechase is typically the athlete top in the world rankings.

The above analysis goes to show that this year’s World Championship men’s steeplechase race was essentially status quo for the likes of Kenya and the top-performing barrier-hurdling distance specialists. Kemboi held the third-fastest time of the year heading into Beijing and left with a gold medal. Variation and uncertainty are seemingly best left to the non-barriered distance events, at least for the time being.

*Footnotes: Bernard Lagat ran 13:30 in the 5000m ahead of the 2007 World Championship and won gold in Osaka. As this time does not register on the world lead list, his position from the previous season (18th) was used in its place.

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