GUIYANG, March 27- On the eve of the 41st World Cross in Guiyang, the chill descended on the capital city of Guizhou province, southwest China with vengeance in a telling challenge to pretenders of the senior men 12km throne to dare the elements for glory.
With high humidity and the mercury dropping sharply, the Holy Grail of the World Cross is vacant after titleholder, Japheth Korir, was ruled out of the competition after bombing out at the Kenyan Trials.
Not even a three week stay at the team’s training camp in Kigari, Embu some 200km north of Nairobi could convince coaches Korir, who made history as the youngest ever winner of the top medal when he stunned the field in Poland in 2013, would be fit to defend the most coveted prize of the biennial global contest to include him in the Guiyang squad.
A 2:19 marathon run in Taipei a week to the February 18 Trials left him with little time to recover although the outgoing champion and his Golazo camp strenuously denied he was the ‘Japheth Korir’ who finished fourth at that event, although by finishing 48th, the fatigue was there to see.
With the surprise Poland champion and fifth Kenyan after John Ngugi, Paul Tergat (both five-time champions), William Sigei (two-time winner) and Joseph Ebuya to bag the signature title of the event absent, a straight battle between his compatriots and Ethiopia is expected in the race to fill his shoes.
– Karoki v Kamworor-
At the pre-race IAAF Press Conference, reigning World Half Marathon champion, Geoffrey Kipsang Kamworor who uncorked a gun-to-tape victory in the junior 8km race at the 2011 Punta Umbria edition was asked whether the contest for the crown would be a straight shootout between him and the Japan based athlete who beat him to second at the Kenyan Trial, Bedan Karoki.
“This is not a competition between me and Karoki; it is a race for all who will be there since anyone can win. I’m not focusing on anyone but my aim is to do my best on the day with my teammates to ensure we defend our title.
“There are good runners from Ethiopia, Uganda and our brothers in Bahrain and Qatar and the Eritreans at well so we trained hard expecting to come here and find strong competition,” the 22 year-old who has finished thrice at London Marathons on two occasions told the gathering.
According to the form book, there is no other nation with the potent force the Kenyans bring to Guiyang but on a hard twisting course in high humidity and cloudy conditions that favours endurance over speed, then another surprise is well in the cards.
Karoki was one of the in-form runners in 2014 but in a fallow championship year, the Japan-based Kenyan didn’t leave as much of a mark as he might have done. Among other accolades, Karoki won the Kenyan cross-country title, went unbeaten on the roads, and set PBs over 5000m and 10,000m.
Five-time winner Tergat was the last Kenyan to leave home as national champion to return with the Holy Grail with the honour of winning the toughest cross country race, perhaps even harder than the World Cross itself proving to be a poisoned chalice.
But having retained his domestic cross-country title on February 18, the stage is set for Karoki, who hails from the same region in as five-time champion Ngugi, to challenge for his first international title.
Karoki, who finished fifth over 10,000m at the 2012 Olympics, is making his World Cross debut in Guiyang after turning down the chance to compete at last year’s continental showdown in Kampala, Ugana.
“Coming here was my dream and the World Cross was my target for two years. Last year, I refused to go to Kampala because my aim was to come and try to win this.
“I have trained well and this is one title I would love to win before going up to the marathon in future,” Karoki underlined.
Kamworor has mainly excelled over longer distances, but the strongman of the Kenyan team will be in contention to add this title over 12km to his world half-marathon crown from last year.
The third leading contender is another Japan-based runner, Leonard Barsoton. He won silver in the junior race two years ago, and won the African senior title last year.
– Ethiopian cream-
World 5000m silver medallist Hagos Gebrhiwet and last year’s top-ranked 5000m runner Muktar Edris are the best-known names on the Ethiopian squad but the renowned track runner, who won gold and bronze in the junior race two years ago, might not be in their best form.
At the Ethiopian Cross Country Championships seven weeks ago, they only finished fourth and sixth respectively in a race won by 2:06:17 marathon runner Tamirat Tola.
Gebrhiwet’s form is difficult to gauge, as he has only raced once since the track season, although Edris did rebound a fortnight later with a win at the famous Cinque Mulini race.
Atsedu Tsegay, who broke Haile Gebrselassie’s Ethiopian half marathon record three years ago with 58:47, is also on the team.