Latvian capital stages the World Road Running Champs in 2023 and organisers hope thousands of ordinary athletes will join the elites on the start line
Regular runners have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rub shoulders with the best endurance athletes on the planet at the World Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia, on September 30 and October 1 next year.
The inaugural event features races over one mile, 5km and half-marathon with everyone from elite competitors through to club runners poised to take part.
Aigars Nords, head of the local organising committee, is urging the slower runners not to be intimidated. Instead, he says, it is the chance to race in a global championships and to receive a world championships medal.
“Our biggest challenge in the coming months is to get people to realise and get used to the idea that anybody can participate in a world championships,” he says. “We really need to get this message across not only in Latvia but across Europe and the whole world.
“They might be scared and thinking ‘that’s not for me, as it’s a world championships. I’ll just do the same event or routine that I do every year’. We want to try to get people out of that loop and to understand they can do a world championships.
“The idea that the world championships is for you, for me, for all of us is going to take some time for people to get used to. I want this to be an eye-opener for regular runners.”
World titles have been available in the half-marathon since the early 1990s but these new championships in Riga will offer global medals for one mile and 5km too. Given this, organisers are hoping to attract the best athletes in the world such as Olympic 1500m and world 5000m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen.
“For someone to be able to say ‘I just ran a world championships’ gives a very different meaning to someone’s experience,” says Nords. “Which other sport offers this? None.
“Here you will be able to run the mile, perhaps not directly alongside Ingebrigtsen, but at least from the same start line. For a regular runner to be able to say that and have the bragging rights is amazing.”
Pictured above (left to right): Mayor of Riga Mārtiņš Staķis, two-time New York City Marathon winner Jeļena Prokopčuka, Jakob Larsen of World Athletics, Dmitrijs Miļkevičs from Latvian Athletics, Riga 2023 organiser Aigars Nords and executive adviser of Riga 23 Paul Hardy
Along with Estonia and Lithuania, Latvia is part of the Baltic region in Europe and organisers say the World Road Running Championships will be the biggest-ever sporting event in the area. Basketball and ice hockey are the dominant sports in region but nothing in history has rivalled the sheer number of runners due to arrive in Riga in just under a year’s time.
World Athletics awarded the event to the city partly due to their success in growing the Rimi Riga Marathon. Just before the pandemic the annual 26.2-mile event was attracting 38,000 runners across a variety of distances during a weekend-long running festival. With next year’s Rimi Riga Marathon on May 6-7, organisers plan to use it as a “dress rehearsal” for the World Championships less than five months later.
The marathon starts and finishes by Riga Castle and passes many of the city’s picturesque sights. Latvia is also known for being very flat, which means a fast course for all distances. Indeed, the course records for the marathon are 2:08:51 set by Andualem Shiferaw and 2:26:18 by Birke Debele.
Nords and his team have been organising the Rimi Riga Marathon since 2007 and have included various race distances for several years. “One of the main distances for us was 5km because we understood from a beginning that you can’t just start with the marathon,” he explains. “You have to get people moving with smaller distances.
“At some point we had 12 or 13,000 participating in the 5km and now, years later, lots of these people have moved to 10km, half marathon or marathon and their kids are running. So it seemed logical for us to want to host an event of this magnitude (the world champs) over several distances.”
Latvia has a fine tradition in athletics. The country’s most famous athlete, Jānis Lūsis, won the Olympic javelin title in 1968 and four European crowns, whereas the nation’s best-known distance runner is Jeļena Prokopčuka, who was born in Riga and won the New York City Marathon winner in 2005 and 2006.
Prokopčuka has done much to improve the popularity of distance running in Latvia and Nords adds: “We always wanted to get Riga on the international stage for running. Before Covid we had almost 5000 international runners coming to Riga every year and this was maybe due to us going to international expos a lot and also we got the Gold Label. So holding the World Championships became a very natural next step.
“What do you do after getting the Gold Label? We wanted to hunt for the World Championships rights. Then when World Athletics allowed it to happen in September and October (instead of a spring date), we thought ‘okay, let’s do it’.
“I think we also showed that little guys can do big things too and World Athletics perhaps appreciated that.”
» The World Road Running Championships is also featured in the November issue of AW magazine