Kings of the cross again

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PUNTA UMBRIA, Spain, May 20- Team Kenya returns home Wednesday evening after a successful outing in Punta Umbria after holding on to six of the eight titles they won in Bydgoszcz last year to retain the title of ‘Kings of Cross Country’.

Faced by an Ethiopian outfit that was out for retribution after Kenya swept the floor with them in Poland, it took a combination of individual grit and teamwork to stem what was a spirited onslaught to knock the green, red and black out of their perch.

“This time, the Ethiopians came well prepared for us. In my years as a cross country coach, I have never seen such a difficult competition as this time. We should be proud of this performance since it was achieved through a big fight,” head coach, David Letting summed.

Keringet Township Primary School pupil, Faith Chepng’etich, who missed bronze by a whisker at the previous edition in Poland, got her nation off to the perfect start when she gallantly won the junior 6km race in 18: 53, fending off the close attentions of three charging Ethiopians.

“They were very tough and I realized I had to run my all since when I turned to look back, I saw all my teammates had fallen off the pace and it was left to me,” the tiny Chepng’etich who paled in size to the trio breathing down her neck in the sprint for the finish said.

Her run for gold was a culmination of the rich form she has enjoyed in the domestic KCB/AK National Cross Country Series where she enjoyed four victories out of four starts in Kangundo (first), Embu (fourth), Nyahururu (sixth) and Iten (seventh) meetings. Her third place at the National Championships was enough to secure her the Sh250,000 ($3,125) series jackpot in her event.

Geoffrey Kipsang, who was not given a look in when the favourites for the junior men 8km title were announced turned in a shift not seen at a cross country course in Spain since the six time senior men world champion, Kenenisa Bekele won the same race over a decade ago.

As if provoked by being overlooked, Kipsang staged a gun-to-tape victory that was accomplished by two bursts of acceleration, the first at the start and the more decisive after the bell to return home unchallenged in 22:21. He went through the first two kilometers in a scorching 5:22, leaving the rest of the field to contest the minor medals.

“I was not thinking of the team tactics. What was on my mind was I was winning this. I was in good shape and I knew I could do it,” Kipsang who turned his sights to securing a place in the 5000m team for the Daegu World Championships in the summer stated.

His eagerness to take on his seniors is not borne out of hope but rather, experience. The 18-year-old who was on his national team debut topped senior fields at the Discovery Cross Country in Eldoret after arriving late to find the junior race entry closed. He also won last year’s Masai Mara Half Marathon.

The senior women’s race turned out as expected with world track champions, Vivian Cheruiyot (5000m) and Linet Masai (10000m) knocking the seven bells out of each other in the dying embers of the race. The fleet-footed Cheruiyot prevailed with one of her trademark searing sprints for the finish to leave the latter clutching to her third, yes, third, successive World Cross silver.

“This is good motivation for me as I prepare to defend my title. Our work here was to ensure Ethiopians were back, back and back and we achieved that,” Cheruiyot who relished adding one of the two gold medals she has not won in her glittering career expressed. The only missing ‘bling’ is Olympic gold and she promised to keep herself fit to challenge for that as well.

The only result that punctured Kenya’s grand march to total domination was delivered by Imane Merga, the Ethiopian 5000m specialist who deployed a storm of a finish in the final 80m to deny Paul Tanui, Vincent Chepkok, Matthew Kisorio and Geoffrey Mutai the perfect sweep in the senior men 12km.

“We tried all we could to drop him but he would not go down. He was very strong today and we accept it. We are very happy however, for the performance out there today,” Tanui, who sprinted for silver at the expense of Kisorio and Chepkok, said.

With a two year hiatus since Bydgoszcz once again holds the next World Cross, other nations challenging the hegemony of Kenya and Ethiopia have a bigger window to plot on how to infiltrate the two neighbours’ fortitude.

Having been hit by a devastating Tsunami a fortnight ago, the Japanese junior women team stole hearts when they took bronze behind Ethiopia and Kenya while the USA did likewise in the senior women 8km category.

Uganda who had their biggest star, Moses Ndiema Kipsiro succumb to a knee injury to finish 11th in the senior men’s race, took home three medals, the junior men individual silver won by the outstanding Thomas Ayeko, junior men team bronze and the senior men team bronze. 

“We must learn from them and train hard to get close to Kenyans and Ethiopians. They are wonderful athletes who make it look so easy but it is the hard work they put in that has made them so successful,” US runner Shalane Flanagan, who won a noticeable bronze in the senior women’s race remarked.

The day’s melodrama was provided in the finish to the senior men’s race when Ethiopia’s Feyisa Lilesa and Eritrea’s Adhanom Abraha took their countries’ hostilities to the field. The pair traded punches in front of world cameras 100m to the finish when the latter tripped the former.

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