WHAT is the best way to watch a sporting event? Live as a spectator or from the comfort of your sofa via the television coverage?
To see a road race unfold across 13.1 miles the TV is really the only option but when a world championship race is passing the end of your street you would feel as if you’re missing out sat in your living room. There is also so much more, from tragedy to triumph, to the World Half Marathon Championships than can be told by podium finishes.
I’d watched the first ever IAAF World Half Marathon Championships at home on TV in September 1992, when the Kenyan Benson Masya won the famous Great North Run in Tyneside, so was exited to see the championships come to my home city on Saturday, March 26. It is only the second IAAF world championship to be held in Wales, the first were the 1976 World Cross Country Championships at Chepstow.
Perhaps predictably holding any event in Cardiff at Easter meant the weather, or specifically rain, would be a factor and so it was for the television viewers as well as those, like myself, who lined the route.
At a crucial point in the men’s race, just as the Kenyan front-runners Geoffrey Kamworor and Bedan Karoki passed the 12 mile marker to begin the climb up Fairoak Road, to where I was waiting opposite Cathays Library, the heaviest shower of the day erupted. Rain drops as big and as heavy as snow hurtled to the ground.
The heavy rainfall interfered with the television picture and meant those who had turned out had no doubts about how tough the conditions were for the athletes. Most spectators, it seemed, had come for the chance to see Britain’s multiple world and Olympic champion Mo Farah. As one of Britain’s and world athletics’ biggest stars he’d dominated the build up and added much-needed A list glamour to the event.
For athletics fans Farah presented an intriguing challenge to the defending champion from 2014, Kamworor. The Kenyan had run Farah close over 10,000m on the track at last year’s world championships in Beijing and would hold the upper hand on the road.
But if Kamworor was the pre-race favourite he didn’t start as such when he tumbled to the ground almost as soon as the gun was fired. Amazingly, and almost unseen, Kamworor had taken his place among the leading pack within the first mile, joining them as they passed the Westgate pub.
As I transitioned from TV viewer to spectator it was no surprise to see the first three female runners to pass Cathays Library were Kenyans, a mile later they would complete a clean sweep. By the time the male runners approached it was clear to the assembled crowd, if not television viewers, that Farah’s famed sprint finish wouldn’t be enough to catch Kamworor and Karoki who’d passed a minute and many metres earlier.
Chosing to witness the race live, a mile from the finish line, meant I however missed Farah’s impressive turn of speed to claim bronze.
While many would have wanted to see Farah cross for a British victory the championships have since their inception in 1992 been dominated by the Kenyans.
The world’s first half marathon champion of course was Masya the former bantam weight boxer from the Kenyan postal service.
From memory he led that 1992 Great North Run from the front and finished in an hour. I can still recall his muscular frame that propelled him forward. His picture, with your eyes drawn to his rounded boxer’s shoulders, was the front cover of the next issue of Athletics Today, one of two weekly magazines then covering the sport in the UK.
I can also remember before and during the race the commentators mentioning that Masya had a week earlier won the Swansea Bay 10k. I didn’t think then that 24 years later the World Half Marathon Championships, which is always closely associated in my mind with Masya’s dominant run, would be held in Cardiff.
What would have seemed even more unlikely is if anyone had said Masya would be dead in just 11 years. Success on the roads had led to fame and fortune for Masya, who is said to have enjoyed a party lifestyle. But at 33, a time many runners reach their peak, he was suffering from a long illness, some believe HIV, and would die penniless.
Kamworor’s run typified the determination and strength of character that all distance runners, from the slowest to the very fastest, must possess. All Saturday’s runners would have had to have dug deep into their reserves of energy for weather conditions that tested them physically and mentally to the extreme.
But for me Saturday’s bravest performance came from Steve Cram, the former 1,500m great, in the BBC commentary box. His younger brother, Kevin, had died while out jogging just yards from the very route the runners were following and he was now commentating on.
While Cram is from Jarrow in the north-east of England, the home of the Great North Run, Kevin had moved to Cardiff, where he ran a bookshop.
He died in May 2001 close to his home after falling while out running towards Roath Park, a popular route for joggers, and a major feature of the Cardiff Half course. Cram has drawn inspiration from his brother’s life to raise funds for the charity COCO. Founded by the former athlete it works with communities in east Africa to help children access education. You can visit its website by clicking here.
Charity is of course another feature of major road races. The world’s best distance runners were followed by 16,000 men and women in a mass participation race. Some were club runners, with the fastest of them finishing among the world championship competitors. Others were fun runners who finished in some cases hours later but having achieved personal goals and many will have helped raise thousands of pounds for good causes.
Every runner, from the deserved and impressive champion Kamworor to whoever was the last to cross the line, will have their own memories of Cardiff and the World Half Marathon Championships. So will those who braved the rain, or persevered with the weather affected TV coverage, to witness some of the world’s best athletes race through Cardiff.
This post was first published on Sunday, March 27 and slightly ammended on Monday, March 28