NAIROBI, Kenya, March 21 – It’s an event described by those in the know as the athletics championship that is the most difficult to win.Next Saturday, the 37th edition of the annual World Cross Country will be held at the Al Bisharat Golf Course, a venue described as hilly that is located about 20km from the proposed accommodation for teams, officials and media.
Once again Kenya is expected to challenge for honours in both individual and team competitions in the four categories -12km senior men, 8km senior men, 8km junior men and 6k m junior women.
The unique competition first staged in 1973 in Belgium has over the years shaped World and Olympics champions, record holders as well as being a stepping stone to many decorated distance runners.
World Cross stars such as Kenenisa Bekele (six-time long race champion), John Ngugi (five-time long race winner), Paul Tergat (five-time long race winner), Tirunesh Dibaba (three-time senior women’s gold medallist) and Benjamin Limo (1999 short-course men winner) have gone on to triumph at either World Championships and Olympics Games or set world records.
The event is the most difficult to win in the sense that athletes specialising from 1,500m to the 42km marathon line up to compete at the World Cross serving up an event where a range of different running techniques are employed to triumph hence enhancing the competitiveness.
Prior to the discontinuation of the men and women senior 4km races at the 2006 World Cross in Fukuoka, Japan at least mid distance runners were kept apart from athletes specialising in longer races.
Many Kenyans are aware that 24 of the country’s cream of distance runners, selected at the February 21 intensely contested National Trials will depart on Tuesday to face the world in Amman after month long residential training at St. Mark’s Teachers Training College in Kigari, Embu.
Most are certain the squad are out to conquer arch-enemies Ethiopia and return home after March 28 laden with medals especially with news filtering from Addis Ababa that their most potent running machines, Bekele and Dibaba will miss the World Cross due to injury.
Never mind that some 68 other countries will be competing including neighbours Uganda whose team possess runners from Mt Elgon or the Gulf States of Bahrain and Qatar that have bought our athletes, everyone here believes that World Cross is a Kenya versus Ethiopia affair.
However, how many are mindful of what the event is about? Recall when the global World Cross was held in Mombasa? Didn’t millions here believe it was the ‘World Mombasa Marathon?’
Why were most dissatisfied with the team’s performance in Edinburgh last year despite Kenya winning the overall team title as Ethiopia ran away with all individual honours?
“Cross country involves competing outside the stadium where runners are taken through obstacles such as ditches, valleys and others in a clearly marked area,” national team head coach, Julius Kirwa explained the basics.
“In the World Cross, the aim for a team is to win individual titles in the senior men, senior women, junior men and junior women races and above all, win the team titles in those categories.”
“That is why we group them so that while runners chase after gold, silver and bronze, they also score points for the team,” Kirwa explained.
For the athletes, cross country offers a perfect platform for the track campaign that follows especially for distance runners.
“I made my name at the World Cross and cross country is a good measure of form ahead of track,” says 5,000m runner, Matthew Kisorio, who will be appearing in his third World Cross after taking bronze in Mombasa and finishing sixth in Edinburgh as a junior.
For the first time in the event’s history, every team will have six runners in the each of the four categories, four among them scoring points for the team.
Does it mean that coaches can sacrifice two runners for the sake of the team?
“We do not train them with that in mind. Each athlete is prepared to win a medal for himself or herself and points for the team.”
“There is prize money at the World Cross and it would be unfair to ask an athlete to sacrifice his ambition. It reflects well on us if our athletes compete for the medals among themselves after running clear of competitors,” assistant coach, David Letting disclosed.
The prize money for the 37th World Cross for the senior men and women’s races (IAAF does not award prize money to junior runners) will see the winners pocket Sh2.4m, runner-ups Sh1.2m with third placed runners taking home Sh800,000. The sixth finisher will pocket Sh240,000.
Both winning teams will be awarded Sh1.6m with Sh1.28m and Sh960,000 being awarded to squads that finish second and third.
FACTS ON WORLD CROSS
Cross Country running is a sport in which runners compete to complete a course over open or rough terrain.
Scoring is on team basis. Points are awarded to individual runners equal to the position in which they cross the finish line (first place gets 1 point; second place gets 2 points, etc).
Kenya or Ethiopia has won the men’s team title every year since 1981 in both short and long races as well as junior men’s races since 1982.
Kenya won the men’s title 18 times in a row from 1986 to 2003, a feat unparalled.
Only Portugal (1994) has taken the senior women’s title from Kenya or Ethiopia.
Kenyans or Ethiopians have won every junior women title since the event was introduced in 1989.
MEN 12km SENIOR: Mark Kiptoo (captain), Linus Chumba, Moses Mosop, Mangata Ndiwa, Leonard Komon and Matthew Kisorio
WOMEN 8km SENIOR: Lineth Chepkurui (assistant captain), Florence Kiplagat, Iness Chenonge, Linet Masai and Ann Karindi
MEN 8km JUNIOR: Titus Mbishei, John Kemboi, Paul Tanui, Charles Kibet, John Chepkwony and Japheth Korir
WO MEN 6km JUNIOR: Mercy Cherono, Hilda Kibet, Nelly Chebet, Jackline Chebii, Delvin Meringor and Jackline Chepng’eno
COACHES: Julius Kirwa (head), David Letting and John ‘Warm-up’ Mwithiga
TEAM MANAGER: Jimmy Kisalu
DEPUTY TM: Rodgers Kapsiwo
PHYSIOTHERAPISTS: Peter Nduhiu and Japheth Kariakim