The 28-year-old became the first Ethiopian woman to set an outright world record in a road event.
Ethiopian women have broken numerous world records on the track, indoors and outdoors, and Netsanet Gudeta set a women-only world record when winning at the 2018 World Half Marathon Championships. But Yeshaneh is the first to jump to the top of a world all-time list in a record-eligible road event.
Her performance heralds something of a breakthrough for the East African nation. Ethiopia has long been a powerhouse in distance running, but Kenya has generally led the way on the roads with the likes of Mary Keitany, Florence Kiplagat, Peres Jepchirchir and Joyciline Jepkosgei all having improved the half marathon world record in the past decade. Brigid Kosgei, meanwhile, recently broke the long-standing marathon world record with her 2:14:04 run in Chicago.
Ethiopia has now produced the fastest half marathon women in history – in both mixed races and women-only events. But it has been a long road of gradual improvements to get to this point.
At the end of the last millennium, the Ethiopian record belonged to Derartu Tulu at 1:08:26, almost two minutes shy of the world record at that time. Berhane Adere improved it to 1:08:17 in 2001, but it was still shy of breaking into the top 10 on the world all-time list.
It wasn’t until 2009 that an Ethiopian woman broke 68 minutes – in fact, three managed it within the same race as Dire Tune (1:07:18), Asselefech Mergia (1:07:48) and Abebu Gelan (1:07:57) all set PBs at the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon.
The national record underwent several revisions over the next decade, but so too did the world record. As Ethiopia’s best started to close in on 67 minutes, Kenya’s leading women were breaking 66. And by the time Ethiopia joined the sub-66-minute club in 2018, courtesy of Yeshaneh, the world record had been reduced to 1:04:51.
It has been a similar story in the marathon. Although there haven’t been as many world records at that distance over the past two decades, Ethiopia has trailed Kenya on the world all-time list and in terms of depth. But they’re improving in that regard too and Ethiopia now has 22 women with sub-2:20 PBs – more than any other nation.
Given the rising standard of distance running worldwide, it may not be long before Yeshaneh’s world record is broken again. But for now she can revel in the fact that she is the fastest woman in history over 13.1 miles.
Born: 22 July 1991.
Like many young athletes, Ababel Yeshaneh was first exposed to the sport while watching people around her town compete in local races.
She recalls watching international events on TV and it sparked in her a desire to try it out for herself. She started joining her father for morning runs and went on to represent her school in district competitions, focusing mainly on middle-distance events.
Perhaps it was fate that when Yeshaneh made her international racing debut in 2011, it was in a half marathon. Aged just 19 at the time, she won that race in the Indian city of Vadodara in 1:09:00. She followed it with a few more half marathons and track races and then made her marathon debut in November of that year, clocking 2:34:36 in Turin.
In 2013 she reduced her 10,000m PB to 30:35.91, which was enough to gain selection for the World Championships in Moscow. She went on to finish ninth in the Russian capital in what was her major championships debut.
After gaining more international racing experience in 2014 and 2015, including an appearance at the African Cross Country Championships, she improved again in 2016, clocking 14:41.58 for 5000m and 1:07:52 in the half marathon. She represented Ethiopia at the Olympic Games, finishing 14th in the 5000m final.
Yeshaneh continued to specialise in the half marathon and she started her 2018 campaign with victories in Istanbul and Yangzhou. Although she finished second in Copenhagen, her time of 1:05:46 broke the Ethiopian record.
She has returned to the marathon in recent years and in 2019 she finished sixth in Tokyo (2:24:02) and second in Chicago (2:20:51).
Her 1:04:31 world record run in Ras Al Khaimah suggests that her other PBs could be due for revision this year. But she also recommends keeping a look out for her younger sister, Mesret.
“She had a better idea in terms of training and competitions,” she told The National. “I hope she can one day be successful like me, if not better.”
Half marathon world record progression
1:09:57 Grete Waitz (NOR) Gothenburg 1982
1:09:14 Joan Benoit (USA) Philadelphia 1983
1:08:34 Joan Benoit (USA) Philadelphia 1984
1:08:32 Ingrid Kristiansen (NOR) New Bedford 1989
1:07:59 Elana Meyer (RSA) East London 1991
1:07:59 Uta Pippig (GER) Kyoto 1994
1:07:58 Uta Pippig (GER) Kyoto 1995
1:07:36 Elana Meyer (RSA) Kyoto 1997
1:07:29 Elana Meyer (RSA) Kyoto 1998
1:06:44 Elana Meyer (RSA) Tokyo 1999
1:06:25 Lornah Kiplagat (NED) Udine 2007
1:05:50 Mary Keitany (KEN) Ras Al Khaimah 2011
1:05:12 Florence Kiplagat (KEN) Barcelona 2014
1:05:09 Florence Kiplagat (KEN) Barcelona 2015
1:05:06 Peres Jepchirchir (KEN) Ras Al-Khaimah 2017
1:04:52 Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) Prague 2017
1:04:51 Joyciline Jepkosgei (KEN) Valencia 2017
1:04:31 Ababel Yeshaneh (ETH) Ras Al-Khaimah 2020
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