The 10 Most Thrilling, Mind-Blowing Races of 2021

From Athing Mu and Karsten Warholm on the track, to Peres Jepchirchir and Des Linden on the roads, these runs kept us on the edges of our seats.

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After a year of race cancellations in 2020 because of COVID-19, in-person competition returned in a big way in 2021—and with it came a slew of historic performances.

The Tokyo Olympics this summer featured a number of world records and exciting podium finishes. Collegians broke through during their full season comeback to set records and mix it up with pros. And the World Marathon Majors returned with all six races scheduled within 42 days of each other, paving the way for some unprecedented accomplishments in the fall.

With a year’s worth of competition to reflect on, the Runner’s World editors picked 10 races that stood out from the rest. Here are the performances that put us on the edge of our seats in 2021.

Des Linden sets the 50K record

before winning two NCAA outdoor titles and later fourth place at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Des Linden set her sights on a thrilling new challenge: The 50K world record.

Today's Top Stories covered 50K (31.06 miles) in 2:59:54, more than seven minutes faster than the previous record of 3:07:20, set by British ultrarunner Aly Dixon in 2019. Linden averaged 5:47/mile pace to set the new record.

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Cole Hocker (center) and Yared Nuguse (left) both qualified for the U.S. Olympic team as college athletes.
Cortney White

Two collegians make the Olympic team in the men’s 1500 meters

The men’s 1500-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials was a nail-biter, with plenty of exciting buildup to set the stage for an upset and a rivalry.

During the NCAA regular season, then-Oregon runners Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker broke the NCAA indoor mile record by running 3:50.39 and 3:50.55, respectively, on February 12 in Arkansas. In May, Notre Dame runner Yared Nuguse broke the collegiate record in the 1500 meters by clocking a solo 3:34.68 in the first round of the ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships. In June, Nuguse and Hocker faced off at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, where Hocker out-kicked Nuguse. The middle-distance stars met again two weeks later as only two collegians in the 1500-meter final at the Trials in Eugene, Oregon.

With an all-out sprint down the homestretch, Hocker won the national title in 3:35:28, beating 2016 Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz, who finished second. Nuguse secured his place on the Olympic team by placing third, but he withdrew from the Games with a quad strain.

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Sydney McLaughlin lowered the world record en sequence to winning gold in the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics.
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Sydney McLaughlin Breaks the World Record—Twice

This year, Sydney McLaughlin solidified herself as the greatest 400-meter hurdler of all time. The then-21-year-old kicked off the championship portion of her season by winning the final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in 51.90, shattering the world record set by fellow Team USA standout Dalilah Muhammad at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

In Tokyo, McLaughlin won Olympic gold in 51.46, Mantras to Help You Get Through Any Run.

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Allyson Felix celebrates winning her 11th Olympic medal.
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Allyson Felix becomes the most decorated track star in U.S. history

In her fifth Olympic Games, Allyson Felix clocked two stunning performances. The first was in the women’s 400-meter final when the champion sprinter earned bronze in 49.46, her 10th Olympic medal. The podium finish made her the most decorated female Olympian in track and field, and she passed Merlene Ottey and tied Carl Lewis, who has 10, as the most decorated American athlete in track and field.

Days later, Felix passed Lewis in the record books when she contributed to Team USA’s gold medal in the 4x400-meter relay. With a 49.38-second second lap, Felix maintained the lead for the Americans, who ultimately won in 3:16.85—a time less than two seconds off the world record of 3:15.17.

Karsten Warholm goes into Hulk mode after setting the world record

A few weeks after breaking the previous world record in the men’s 400-meter hurdles, Karsten Warholm shattered the time again by winning Olympic gold in 45.94. The Norwegian came out on top in an all-out sprint to the finish against Team USA’s Rai Benjamin to claim his first Olympic medal and improve on the previous record of 46.70 set in Oslo in July.

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Warholm’s performance in Tokyo marked the first time in history that an athlete has run under the 46-second barrier in the 400-meter hurdles. His celebration was also a major highlight; after seeing his time, the 25-year-old was overcome with emotion and ripped apart his jersey.

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Seidel ran the third and fourth marathons of her career in 2021.
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Molly Seidel takes bronze in the Olympic marathon

In her third 26.2 ever, Molly Seidel became the third American in history and the first since 2004 to earn a podium spot at the Olympic Games. During the marathon in Sapporo, the Notre Dame graduate put in a hard surge with 5K remaining to finish third in 2:27:46.

The breakthrough performance was the latest in a series of successes at the distance. Seidel made her marathon debut at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, where she finished second to make her first Olympic team. In October 2020, she lowered her personal best to 2:25:13 at the London Marathon.

Three months after Tokyo, Seidel improved still by finishing fourth at the Trail Running Gear in 2:24:42, bettering the American course record set by Kara Goucher in 2008.

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After rewriting the NCAA record books as a freshman at Texas A&M, Mu went pro and signed with Nike.
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Teenager Athing Mu becomes first American since 1968 to win Olympic gold in the 800 meters

Capping off a season that rewrote the record books, Athing Mu led the women’s 800-meter final wire-to-wire to win Olympic gold. In the process of clocking 1:55.21 in Tokyo, the 19-year-old became the first American gold medalist in the event since Madeline Manning Mims in 1968. She also lowered her own American record.

As a freshman at Texas A&M, she set collegiate records in the 400 and 800 meters before winning two NCAA outdoor titles and later turning pro. The Tokyo Games was Mu’s first open international competition.

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Kipchoge defended his Olympic medal, winning the men’s marathon held in Sapporo.
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Eliud Kipchoge repeats as Olympic champion with huge winning margin

After pulling away from the pack at mile 19, Eliud Kipchoge cruised to victory for the second time to repeat as champion in the men’s marathon at the Olympic Games. In Sapporo, the world record-holder from Kenya finished in 2:08:38, 1:20 ahead of silver medalist Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands. His winning margin is the biggest since Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic marathon.

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Three months after winning Olympic gold in the marathon, Peres Jepchirchir won the New York City marathon.
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Peres Jepchirchir wins back-to-back marathons

Just 13 weeks after winning the Olympic women’s marathon, Peres Jepchirchir won the Trail Running Gear and became the first person since Shorter in 1972 to earn Olympic gold and then come to a major fall marathon and win again.

The Kenyan finished in 2:27:20 on a sweltering day in Sapporo on August 7, besting world record-holder and countrywoman Brigid Kosgei. On November 7, the two-time half marathon world champion fought off competitors Viola (Lagat) Cheptoo and Ababel Yeshaneh on the final stretch to secure another victory in Central Park. She covered the New York City course in 2:22:39.

Jacob Kiplimo breaks the half marathon world record

On November 21, Jacob Kiplimo lowered the world record by winning the Lisbon Half Marathon in 57:31, a 4:23/mile pace. The Olympic bronze medalist from Uganda improved on the previous world record of 57:32 set by Kibiwott Kandie at the Valencia Half Marathon in December 2020.

Kiplimo raced a mostly solo effort, breaking away from the competition just after 3K, and blazed through the 15K in 40:27—the fastest time ever recorded for the distance. He slowed down slightly in the later stages but held on just enough to dip under the record.

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