By Steven Mills, @trackside2018
(c) 2018 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND (04-Mar) — Yomif Kejelcha’s winning time in the men’s 3000m on the fourth and final day of the 17th IAAF World Indoor Championships here at Arena Birmingham was the slowest on record, but the Ethiopian ran a tactically superb race to defend his title in 8:14.41.

Now coached by Alberto Salazar in Beaverton, Oregon, under Nike’s Oregon Project program, Kejelcha was never out of position in an archetypal championship race with a painfully slow start, jostling, and flying elbows aplenty.

Kejelcha, 20, sat right at the back of the field with his Ethiopian teammates through the first kilometer in a ponderous 3:08.24, but he would wind up the pace incessantly over the last 800 meters in a manner not too dissimilar to Salazar’s former protege Mo Farah. Kejelcha covered the last kilometer in a blistering 2:22.71, the last 600m in 1:12.77, and the last lap in 26.82 to win by a clear distance from teammate Selemon Barega, the reigning world U18 3000m and world U20 5000m champion.  Barega clocked 8:15.59.

“I’m very happy to be the world indoor champion once again,” said Kejelcha. “During the race I saw everyone was very confident but I was the one controlling everybody.”  He continued: “Before I had a problem with my speed in the last few laps and I couldn’t control the race but I’ve been training a lot on that and now I’m very good with my kick at the end.”

The Ethiopians missed out on a clean sweep by just 6/100ths of a second as Kenya’s Bethwel Birgen, who was competing in his fourth successive World Indoor Championships, snatched the bronze medal in 8:15.70 from Hagos Gebrhiwet.

Sole American representative Shadrack Kipchirchir was in a good position with two laps remaining, but the 29-year-old drifted out of contention as the pace increased before getting disqualified for stepping inside the curb on the last lap.

By contrast, the women’s 800m final was sprightly from the gun with USA champion Ajee’ Wilson leading the field through 200m in 28.99 and 400m in 59.02. She felt comfortable running from the front, she said.

“I felt confident in the race and wanted to secure a good position,” said Wilson, reflecting on her tactics. “I think it was worth trying it.”

Reigning world indoor champion Francine Niyonsaba from Burundi tracked Wilson and made two concerted moves –the first one on the second lap and the second at the bell– to take the initiative, but the American countered both attempts by the Mark Rowland-coached athlete who trains in Eugene, Oregon.

Niyonsaba was running extra distance but it was third time lucky for the world and Olympic silver medalist as Wilson had to concede the lead and her grip on the title when Niyonsaba finally got to the front for good in the last 150 meters.  Niyonsaba powered away to a successful defense of her title in a world-leading 1:58.31 to become the first athlete since Maria Mutola in 2006 to win back-to-back world indoor titles in the four-lap discipline.

“I am always smiling when I wear this national flag of Burundi,” said Niyonsaba, who was the second American-based winner of the day on the track after Kejelcha in the 3000m.  “I did all I was supposed to do to defend this title despite the fact it was not easy. I did it for God and for my country. I want to be an inspiration for the youth and children in Burundi.”

Wilson won her second successive world indoor silver medal in an indoor lifetime best of 1:58.99. Shelayna Oskan-Clarke reeled in world-leader Habitam Alemu in the last 150 meters to claim bronze in 1:59.81, her first-ever sub-2:00 run on an indoor track.

“Normally I don’t hear the crowd because I’m in the zone, but you can hear them roaring around all the way which helped me push a little deeper,” Oskan-Clark said.

With Oskan-Clarke taking a bronze medal and Muir’s two medals in the 1500m and 3000m, Great Britain was the only nation to win medals in all three women’s middle and long distance races on the track.

The men’s 1500m final also had the distinction of producing the slowest winning time in championship history, 3:58.19, with comically slow opening splits of 75.84 for 400m and 2:23.68 for 800m.  The slow pace even elicited a few boos and whistles from the stands.

But the slow start made for a fast finish with six men still in contention at the bell. In that frenzied last lap, the win went to teenager Samuel Tefera of Ethiopia, who holds the world indoor U20 record of 3:36.05, with a powerful last circuit.  Tefera became the youngest ever winner of the 1500m title at the age of 18, defeating experienced campaigners Marcin Lewandowski from Poland (3:58.39) and Abdelaati Iguider from Morocco (3:58.43).  Iguider was side by side with Tefera at the bell, but ran out of gas in the last 50 meters where Lewandowski swept past him just before the line.  After the race, the Moroccan sat on the track leaning on his hands and shaking his head.

“The race was very slow early on,” said Tefera who covered the last 200 meters in under 26 seconds and the last 100 meters in 13.36. “It was very tactical and that wasn’t good for me, but in the last two laps I was able to use my power to win.”

Americans Ben Blankenship and Craig Engels were both in medal contention at the bell, but were run out of the medals, finishing fifth and seventh, respectively, in 3:58.89 and 3:58.92.  Nonetheless, it was the highest finish ever for Blankenship at a major championships; he was 8th at the Rio Olympics in 2016.  He knew that everyone would reluctant to lead leading to a last-lap scramble for the podium.

“Any time you go out and lead a World Championships final, unless you are head and shoulders better than the rest, you’re going to be eaten alive,” Blankenship told in the mixed zone after the race.

Cover PHOTO: Francine Niyonsaba of Burundi after winning the women’s 800m at the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Birmingham, England (Photo by Getty Images for IAAF; used with permission)