October 28, 2020

A prodigy’s teenage career at an end, are world records on the horizon?

One of the most scrutinized teenagers in the history of distance running, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, just celebrated his 20th birthday. His last race as a teenager was a stunning 3000 meter, where he came close to setting a new European record, but was beaten into second place by fellow teenager Jacob Kiplimo.

Jakob is part of an exceptional feel-good story of three brothers, Henrik, Filip and Jakob who, despite coming from a Northern European country better known for producing athletes racing on snow rather than tartan tracks, have managed to break into the world’s elite middle distance ranks.

All of them became European 1500 meter champions in the span of six years, with Henrik winning in 2012, Filip in 2016 and Jakob in 2018. They are coached by their self-taught and outspoken father, Gjert, who has no formal coaching education.

You can follow their exploits in the documentary TV-series “Team Ingebrigtsen”.

Jakob has been making headlines in his native Norway for almost a decade. Ten years ago, when Jakob was ten, he ran 29.56 for 8 KMs. Around this time a university professor obtained permission to test Jakob’s VO2 max and threshold running pace at the University of Stavanger.

VO2 max is widely used as an indicator of cardiorespiratory fitness, and threshold running pace is the fastest pace you can run without generating more lactid acid than your body can utilize and reconvert back into energy. Both are widely used benchmarks in the world of sport science.

Considering Jakob’s age of 11, his VO2 max of 68 ml/kg/min and threshold pace of 15.6 km/h were stunning figures and led to him being tested regularly.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen has achieved spectacular results as a teenager. He is the European record holder in both the 1500 and 2000 meters. He is one of the nine all time fastest runners in three event, the 1500, 2000 and 3000 metres and one of only three athletes ever to both have run faster than 3.29 for 1500 and faster than 7.28 for 3000. Considering that the two others are Hicham El Guerrouj and Nourredine Morcelli, it highlights the magnitude of his teenage achievements.

Jakob has been widely discussed on the forums of websites like Lets Run and Track and Field news.

His supporters have been told off for celebrating races he did not win and it has been pointed out that Jakob hardly ever wins against top notch competiton and that even if he has many successes on the continental level, he has never won a global championship not even at the junior level.

It has been claimed that the reason Jakob rarely wins is that he lacks grit and the ability to dig deep and that his perceived lack of speed means he is unlikely to do well in championship races.

Furthermore it has been argued more or less every year for the last few years that Jakob has peaked already and will not improve further. That because he started training very seriously at an earlier age than most elite athletes, he is bound to peak early in his career.

I can easily see where some of this is coming from. It is a valid question if Jakob Ingebrigtsen would have attracted the same level of attention if he had come from any of the countries that have dominated middle distance running after the era of Ovett, Coe and Cram?

It is easy to assume that Jakob has attracted the attention because people see him as some kind of «great white hope» in an event which has been dominated by runners of African descent the last decades.

However, as age cheating is seen as a rampant problem in many sports, it is just as plausible that people are thrilled to follow an emerging super-talent who they are confident is not an age cheat.

While it is a matter of fact that Ingebrigtsen has not yet won much at the pinnacle of the sport, I find the suggestions that this is because he lacks grit completely unreasonable. Surely a more sensible observation would be that he has not won many races at the very top level, because he is a young and still developing talent who does not shy away from competiton and as a result has been overmatched at times.

Sometimes I wonder if people claiming that Jakob lacks grit has seen all of his races? There are many examples of Jakob running himself into the ground, showing grit in abundance. One not well known example springing to mind is his 1500 meter heat during the U-20 World Championships in Bydgoszcz in 2016. A 15 year old Jakob, facing significantly older rivals had to literally throw himself across the finish line to qualify for the final.

The misconception that Jakob lacks grit has likely arisen because he is able to maintain his running style supremely well, no matter how tired he is. This can easily create the appearance that he is not flat out, even when he is.

That Jakob could lack the speed to win championship races is an observation supported by numbers. His 800 best is a meager 1.46,44 and his 400, albeit from when Jakob was a 16 year old, is 51,03. Furthermore there are hardly many races where Jakob has shown tremendous bursts of speed.

To put it in proper perspective, Matthew Centrowitz last lap (50,62), when he won the Rio Olympics 1500, is faster than Jakob’s current 400 best.

To be fair, I think Jakob sometimes has appeared slower than he is, simply because he has been chasing fast times and run out of gas in the home straight in some of his races.

The recent 3000 race where Jacob Kiplimo moved past him in the final 50 meters, is good example. The last 100 meters was Jakob’s slowest section of the last lap. His penultimate 100 was about a second faster than his final 100.

Arguably he did not lose the race because of a lack of speed, but because he attacked hard coming in to the last lap as he was chasing the European record, which he missed narrowly, and because Jacob Kiplimo was able to maintain his pace better in the home straight.

Considering the scale of what Kiplimo has achieved already, there should be no shame for anyone in losing to him, even at a distance which is hardly ideal for Kiplimo.

Interestingly the 5000 meter duel Jakob lost to Hagos Gebrhiwet in London, July 2019, is a bit similar. The pace tested Jakob’s stamina, which was further tested by his attack with 550-600 to go. He walked away from the race with a huge PB and national record. His penultimate 100 (12,6ish) was about half a second faster than his final 100 (13,1ish), again indicating that it is far from sure that a lack of speed is the reason he did not win.

Considering the above, I am not sure that his perceived lack of pace will make it difficult for him to win titles. I am also far from sure that he has the speed required to decide a tactical 1500 meter of the highest caliber. However, I think Jakob is unlikely to let the important 1500 races develop into tactical afairs in the future. Based on how he has run his races in the past, I think it far more likely that he will be pushing the pace from some way out, if no one else seems willing to take on that job.

All in all I suspect that the the criticisms about his lack of speed are mostly valid. It seems to me that Jakob does not have much natural speed, and it does not seem to be something that has been a priority in his training. Furthermore I suspect that Gjert’s long term plan for Jakob is to have him racing distances a fair bit longer than 1500.

Aged 16, Jakob beat considerably older athletes while winning the U-20 class of the European Cross Country Championships.

This was his first of seven European U-20 golds, 2 on the track and 5 cross country of which 4 are individual.

Even if Jakob had been well known in Norway for years already, he established himself firmly on the radar of international athletics by becoming the youngest ever to run a sub four minute mile during the Prefontaine Classic 2017, running 3.58,07 as a 16 year old.

He improved to 3.56,29 as he won the U-20 mile race at the Bislett Games in Oslo later the same summer.

He qualified for the 2017 World Championship in the 3000 steeplechase by running  8.28,81 in Kortrijk, Belgium.

Participating in heat three of the steeplechase in London 2017, he fell at the last hurdle, with his chance of qualifying for the final likely already gone, as he tired badly the last 200-250 meters of the race.

The next year he scored an upset win, at the Payton Jordan Invitational, and in the process he beat many elite runners, like Olympics 1500 champion Matthew Centrowitz , Paul Chelimo and Craig Engels.

This was followed up by several solid races. The fourth place in the Diamond League meet in Monaco, where he ran 3.31,18 and was only beaten by the 1500 medalists from London 2017, Elijah Manangoi, Timothy Cheruiyot and his older brother Filip Ingebrigtsen, was a stand out race.

The week before the Monaco race, Jakob had taken the silver medal in the 1500 behind George Manangoi, Elijah’s little brother, and a bronze at the 5000 during the U-20 world championship in Tampere, Finland.

In August 2018, Jakob arrived at the European Championships in Berlin, as a contender but not a favourite in the 1500 and 5000. He left with two gold medals and the status of the youngest track gold medalist in the history of the European Championships.

No athelete had previously won the 1500-5000 double at the European Championships, Jakob Ingebrigtsen did it aged 17.

Interestingly, a mistake had been made with the lapcounter in the 1500. When Jakob came down the home straight he could see the lapcounter indicating that there was one lap to go. This combined with the fact that no other athletes seemed to challenge him in the first part of the home straight made him unsure, and he was thinking that maybe he had made a mistake and that there was one lap to go.

Looking back at this incident in an interview with NRK, some time after the race, he indicated that he is annoyed thinking about it as he knows he would have been able to finish at lot faster, if he did not harbour this doubt that there could be one more lap to go.

The expectations were sky high coming in to the 2019 European World Indoor Championships in Glasgow with Jakob competing in the 1500 and 3000.

Even facing quality opposition, Jakob entered both his finals as a prohibitive favourite with the bookmakers. He won the 3000 in dominating fashion to become the youngest ever European track champion indoors and outdoors.

However, the next day in the 1500 final, Jakob came up against a superb championship performer, Marcin Lewandowski. Lewandowski is maybe even better racing indoors than outdoors as he has tremendous speed, acceleration and tactical awareness. Coming in to the final Lewandowski’s 800 PB was 1.43,72 from 2015. Compared with this, Jakob’s 800 PB was a modest 1.49.40. Even if Jakob likely would have been capable of improving that substantially, there seemed to be an obvious mismatch in 800 speed and based on the interview after the heats, Lewandsowski was well aware of this.

Furthermore Jakob was not in the perfect position for making it a fast race, as he had done two 3000s and one 1500 in the days leading up to this final.

After Lewandowski grabbed the lead at the bell the outcome never seemed in doubt and Jakob had to settle for the silver medal.

The start of the 2019 outdoor season saw Jakob compete in various Diamond League events and finish third in the 1500 meter in Stockholm. This was followed up by a sixth and fourth in the Mile races in Oslo and Eugene.

During the 1500 meter in Lausanne, he started towards the back of the field, but gradually moved up and courtesy of the fastest last lap he finished second with a new PB of 3.30,16, after slowing down a touch the last few strides.

A week later, the superbly fast middle distance venue of Monaco awaited. Hopes were high that Jakob potentially could break the 3.30,0 barrier at the tender age of 18. However, this turned in to a strange looking race, as the pace dropped significantly between 800 and 1000 meters. As a result Timothy Cheruiyot was the only athlete able to break 3.30,0.

The 5000 in London where he challenged Hagos Gebrhiwet, but finished in second place, was his last race in a Diamond League meeting of the season.

A couple of months later he arrived at the Doha World Championships to compete in both the 5000 and 1500. Like in Berlin the year before, he was a contender but not a clear cut favourite in any of these events.

He was intially disqualified after his 5000 heat, but got reinstated for the final, after having launched a protest.

In the final he moved into the lead with slightly more than 300 to go and pushed the pace. He looked like a potential winner down the back straight, but tired badly around the last bend and collapsed across the finish line in fifth place. His last 100 was, by his standards, a pedestrian 17,17 seconds.

Jakob advanced somewhat easily through the heat and semi in the 1500, but stayed with the pack as Timothy Cheruiyot time trialled into a sizeable lead in the final. He challenged for a medal in the home straight, but were never able to move by any of the medalists.

Fourth and fifth as a teenager, is far from bad at a global championship. Even so, Jakob was devastated in interviews after the 1500 final. Based on his conduct it seems obvious that he had higher ambitions.

Jakob Ingebrigtsen and Jacob Kiplimo are hardly the first teenage prodigies in the sport. More than 50 years ago Jim Ryun set the world of athletics on fire. He was the first high schooler to run a mile under 4 minutes, and he did it on a track of far inferior quality if compared with the tracks being raced on in the current era.

Aged 19 in 1966 he set several world records. The year after he improved his world record in the mile to 3.51,1. This record stood almost eight years and is better than Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s current mile record, as of September 2020.

Ryun’s 1500 best is less than five seconds worse than Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s, and at the time he ran it it was a world record.

To put the scale of Ryun’s teenage achievments in the proper persepctive, ESPN named him the best high school athlete of all time, beating illustrious athletes like LeBron James and Tiger Woods.

However, Jim Ryun was at his best in 1966 and 1967. He would never again be as good as he was as a 19 and 20 year old. Some see this as a consequence of burning too bright too early and seem to think that the same faith can easily be in store for Jakob Ingebrigtsen. Others think Ryun’s regression was caused by pushing too hard in training for the 1968 Olympics while recovering from mononucleosis and a torn hamstring.

Nobody knows the future, but it is deeply ingrained in human nature to try to predict what will happen. Maybe the person in the best position to predict the future of Jakob’s running is his coach and father Gjert Arne Ingebrigtsen. Luckily he appeared on a Norwegian language podcast last week, saving us the trouble of trying to reach out to him to obtain a comment.

In episode 42 of this podcast, from about 30.03 to 30.49, Gjert is asked how fast he thinks Jakob will run in the 1500.

Below is a rough translation:

«Interviewer: How fast do you think he will run the 1500?

Gjert: 3.25

Interviewer: 3.25?

Gjert: (Making affirmative noises)

Interviewer: That would be a world record.

Gjert: I don’t think so, I think he will run 3.25.

Interviewer: That’s the plan?

Gjert: It is not the plan, but I am convinced that he will do that.

Interviewer: How long will it be before that happens?

Gjert: During the next couple of years I assume he will be faster than the world record. Feel free to call it madness, but if you are not willing to realize that boundaries are there to be moved, you better find something else to do. He thinks so and I do as well.»

The above interview is interesting for many reasons. First and foremost because Gjert clearly thinks Jakob will run faster than the current world record, but also because, unless I misheard, it seems to include a hint that Gjert thinks Jakob can run 3.25 and still not get the world record, because someone else has already lowered it.

3.25 is so fast that it seems a bit far fetched. However Jakob Ingebrigtsen has already defied many expectations. Can he do it yet again?

An impressive feat of Jakob’s career has been his ability to steadily improve every year. Considering his age, he is far more likely to keep improving than to regress, but how much would Jakob have to improve to run 3.25?

With his 3.28,68, Jakob sits in eight place in the 1500 meter all time list. Jakob would need to improve by 2,69 seconds to run 3.25,99.

Timothy Cheruiyot, who has dominated the event the last couple of years, is only 27 hundredths of a second faster in seventh place.

Some point to this small and fast dwindling margin as proof that Jakob is about to eclipse Cheruiyot and become the dominant athlete in the event. An in-depth evaluation paints a more nuanced picture. The reality is that Cheruiyot has never lost a single race to Jakob. There has only been one race where the winning margin was less than 3 meters, and that was a strange race in several ways. Timothy went out way too fast as the pacemaker ran the first lap in 52,59. Jakob was leading the pack for the first two and a half laps, with some way up to Timothy and the pacemakers. If the race had panned out better, Timothy would very likely have improved his personal best and Jakob would have produced an even faster European record.

During the Doha 2019 Championships, Cheruiyot lead every meter and essentially time trialled to a 3.29,27. Jakob finished 15-20 meters behind, he was unable to move by any of the medalists and only closed the gap to Timoty by a few meters the last 200 of the race.

The gap in performences between these athletes have been a fair bit larger than the meager difference indicated by their personal best times. In other words, unless Cheruiyot regresses, Jakob is likely to have to improve by more than a couple of tenths of a second to become the world leader of the event.

As we have already touched upon, Jakob would need to improve by 2,69 seconds to run 3.25,99. How much has Jakob improved, his 1500 meter best, the last few seasons?

2015 3.48,37

2016 3.42,44

2017 3.39,82

2018 3.31,18

2019 3.30,16

2020 3.28,68

Some of the years up until 2018 he made giant strides, however this was mostly caused by his young age and maturing body. 2018 was the breakthrough season in the senior ranks. The two seasons following that, he has improved his best by precisely two and a half seconds in total. This is roughly the same margin he will have to improve to challenge 3.25.

However, improving gets harder and harder the faster you get. Improving 3 seconds when running 3.28 is a much tougher task, than improving 3 seconds when running 3.31. Furthermore an athlete is likely to improve more from 17 to 19, than he will the following few years.

I am a big fan of the sport, all the Ingebrigtsens and Timothy Cheruiyot. If I evaluate the facts carefully with a cool head, I have to conclude that I will be surprised if Jakob ever runs 3.25. However Team Ingebrigtsen have already achieved so many seemingly unrealistic goals that ruling out Jakob running 3.25 would in my opinion be sheer folly.

The latest news is that Jakob is considering running the half marathon World Championships in October. This would be the first time we would get to see him take on such a long distance. No matter what you think about Gjert’s prediction and Jakob’s chances of making them come true, it is a fact that the crop of runners making a name for themselves in the 1500 to 10000 meters the last few years are a truly spectacular group. Names like Joshua Cheptegei, Jacob Kiplimo, Timothy Cheruiyot, Yomif Kejelcha, Selemon Barega and Jakob Ingebrigtsen make sure that following the sport going forward is bound to be a true pleasure.

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad

Mathis Brorstad is a Norwegian freelance writer. He is mainly covering Athletics, Biathlon and other Winter Sports. In the past he has done work on odds and probabilities.

View all posts by Mathis Brorstad →

2 thoughts on “A prodigy’s teenage career at an end, are world records on the horizon?

  1. I think YES! World records are a possibility for Jakob. Interesting take on both sides in your article. I love that you embedded all of the videos of his races and really dissected his young career. In his race with Cheruiyot, Jakob really showed maturity by not going out with the pacer who went out too fast. As a young athlete, it was great to see him run his own race and get the silver. We have been following his career and sharing about it on the A to Z Running Podcast as well. He’s a great one to watch!

  2. Hi Andi,

    Thanks for the kind words about our article. I completely agree that Jakob showed great maturity by sitting back rather than going with the too fast pace in Monaco. Actually he did a similar thing when the pacers started a bit too quickly in the Brussels 1500 this year as well. He did not sit as far back, as the pacer did not make a misjudgment of the same scale as Sein (pacer) made in Monaco.

    I took a look at your site and enjoyed listening to the Mary Wineberg pod 😉

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