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PORTLAND, ORE. — With distance action kicking off on Friday afternoon on day two of the IAAF World Indoor Championships, all of the major medal favorites advanced through the preliminary round of the men’s 3000m and 800m, as well as the women’s 1500m. Five of the six Americans racing also will be moving on to their respective finals.
While all podium contenders are set to race again on the emerald green oval, the prelims were not without a bit of drama. In the second heat of the men’s 3000m, reigning indoor world champion Caleb Ndiku of Kenya was tripped with 850 meters remaining. The Oregon Convention Center crowd gasped as he hit the track.
Tangling legs with Britain’s Lee Emanuel and Australia’s Collis Birmingham, Ndiku dropped some ten meters back of the pack. Regaining his composure, the 23-year-old slowly but surely regained contact with the field, running in lane two and three for multiple laps.
“I had to catch up but I could see the clock and the time that we were crossing and it was good enough as it was a fast heat, not too slow, so my first thing that I wanted was to qualify for the finals. Yes,” said Ndiku, shaking his head.
Dealing with a lingering lower back injury that has plagued him since 2014 (and has flared up more since having knee surgery last winter), Ndiku finished fifth in 7:53.21, the first to advance to the final based on time.
“I have got an injury for lower back, but that cannot make me not win this race. I am still the guy to watch,” he said confidently. “I could not do enough of the sprints [in training] because of the injury. But right now it is getting better versus last year.”
Winning the heat was Morocco’s Abdalaati Iguider in 7:51.65, followed by Kenya’s Isiah Koech (7:52.64), American Paul Chelimo (7:53.00) and Britain’s Emanuel (7:53.18). Iguider would jog through the mixed zone without comment, but Chelimo—fresh off a runner-up spot at last week’s USA National Championships—spoke of how meaningful it is to make the final.
“I came here to represent and run well, so my main goal—I’ll say—is to go for the medals, top three,” said Chelimo, who is coached by Olympic marathoner Dan Browne. “With 200m to go, I feel like anything can happen. If I get there 200m to go, the final lap, I’m pretty confident in my kick.”
Before leaving the mixed zone, Ndiku was asked by LetsRun.com’s Jonathan Gault if he would pull any surprises in Sunday’s final, like he did at the 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Sopot. At that meet, he ran the 3000m prelim wearing a winter hat, and then came back for the final sporting bright red hair.
“That is my own secret and I will keep it until the last minute and see what we do,” he said with a laugh.
In the first section, Ethiopian teen sensation Yomif Kejelcha and Kenya’s Augustine Choge turned it on with 400 meters to go, finishing first and second in 7:51.01 and 7:51.77, respectively. Like Iguider, Kejelcha did not speak to the press.
Running comfortably within the top four for most of the race’s closing laps was USA champion Ryan Hill; he finish fourth in 7:52.08. Hill was glad that the heat did not zap his legs, and feels fresh for Sunday’s final.
“It ended up being a little bit easier than I anticipated. I thought we’d have a real battle in the last couple laps,” said the North Carolina State alum. “I was really cognizant of the fact that I might be tired and wanted to take it easy in this prelim.”
Canadian Cam Levins did not advance to the final, placing sixth in the first heat (7:54.81). The disappointing result was not a surprise to the Nike Oregon Project member, as he has faced problems in training since last year’s World Championships in Beijing.
“You know, I haven’t been very good all season, so I was kind of expecting a Hail Mary to get to the finals in the first place. I’m just looking towards the outdoor season now and hoping to do a better job there,” said Levins.
Ethiopia’s Dawit Seyaum and the Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan were preliminary winners in the women’s 1500m. Hassan, who is the favorite for gold after running 3:56.05 last year, is coming off a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships In Athletics last August in Beijing. She led a trifecta of women under 4:10 in the second section, winning the heat in 4:07.28.
“I feel very good,” said Seyaum in quiet English. “It was a difficult race because I couldn’t find the place [on the inside] and it was a little bit difficult. But I am OK… If the competition is fast, I will be happy.”
Placing sixth was Cory McGee, failing to advance to Saturday night’s final.
Seyaum (4:09.05), compatriot Axumawit Embaye (4:09.43), and American Brenda Martinez (4:09.75) were the top three automatic qualifiers in the first heat. All three prevailed in the extremely aggressive section, where elbows were thrown in bunches. Martinez didn’t flinch after receiving a few jabs from Seyaum.
“I’m confident going in. I just wanted to race confident and I did that. I stayed in the top three I think the whole time, and I started to make a move when I needed to which was critical in the last two laps,” said Martinez. “I don’t know how the [final] is going to play out, but I need to be smart and be also real, give it all I have.
Reigning IAAF World Indoor Championships bronze medalist Nicole Sifuentes of Canada finished tenth in her section, the victim of a lost shoe early in the race.
American Boris Berian made a bold move trying to capture the pole with a lap to go in the second section of the men’s 800m. Yet the U.S. champion was denied by Burundi’s Antoine Gakeme, an unheralded 24-year-old who trains in Spain.
“It was a little more challenging than I thought it would be, fitness-wise,” said Berian after timing 1:48.55 for second to Gakeme’s 1:48.09. “I was pretty nervous. It was definitely a big goal to make the final this year.”
Berian would have to wait and see what happened in the final section, as only the top finisher automatically qualified onto the final.
Thankfully, a strong section that featured Musaeb Abdulrahman Balla, Mo Aman, and Erik Sowinski would not bump Berian out of the final. Balla ran away with the win in 1:47.61 as Aman nipped Sowinski steps from the line, 1:48.02 to 1:48.11. The opening heat went to Mostafa Smaili of Morocco in 1:52.16.
Reiterating the sentiments of all those advancing on to finals, Sowinski told Race Results Weekly that anything can happen on the world’s biggest stage, when adrenaline takes over and upsets become reality.
“This is the thing you dream of, you know, making a World Championships final. Hopefully, you just got to get in the mix and go for it.”