KAMPALA, Uganda, March 24 – After Ethiopia prevented Kenya from winning a fifth successive senior women’s team title two years ago in Guiyang, the east African powerhouse comes armed and ready to recoup from that loss and begin another streak at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Kampala 2017 on Sunday.
Heading the Kenyan squad is Agnes Tirop, the winner two years ago, who is bidding to become the first back-to-back champion since Tirunesh Dibaba in 2005-2006, before the championships shifted to its current biennial schedule.
The 21-year-old has struggled to distinguish herself since, however, although her fifth-place finish at the national championships last month was enough to earn the chance to defend her crown in a competition where she’ll be part of a Kenyan all-star line-up.
There’s Faith Kipyegon, just 23, and already the Olympic 1500m champion. While her Rio triumph was paved by world youth and junior titles over the distance, she’s hardly a slouch off the track or at longer distances.
After a solid fourth-place showing in the junior race in her World Cross debut in 2010, she won back-to-back U20 titles in 2012 and 2013, and followed up with her first title in the senior ranks when she won the African crown in 2014.
This season she was second in San Giorgio su Lignano over 6km and third at the Kenyan Cross Country Championships over 10km.
Meanwhile, Alice Aprot brings solid credentials at 10,000m, having won the African Games title over the distance in 2015, the African title in 2016, and finishing fourth in Rio where her sub-30-minute run left her without a medal.
More recently, she won the always difficult Kenyan Prisons cross-country title in late January and finished fourth at the national championships a month ago to book her ticket to Kampala.
This will be the 23-year-old’s second appearance at a World Cross, after a ninth-place showing in the junior race in 2010. She also took the continental cross-country title last year.
Irene Cheptai brings experience with her third straight appearance in a Kenyan vest at these championships. The junior runner-up in 2008, she was 10th in the senior race in 2013 and seventh two year later.
Boding well, she has won each of her three cross-country races this year, including the national title one month ago.
The squad also includes world steeplechase champion and Olympic silver medallist Hyvin Kiyeng, who is making her first appearance at the World Cross.
Meanwhile, Lilian Kasait, the 2013 world U18 champion at 3000m and still 19, finished second in both Eldoret and at the national championships to earn her spot.
And for good measure, the roster also includes Margaret Wambui, the world indoor and Olympic 800m bronze medallist.
The Ethiopian team is also potent, but by comparison, almost low-key.
Teferi leads Ethiopian hopes
Leading the squad is Senbere Teferi, who finished five seconds behind Tirop to take silver two years ago. Later that year she also took silver over 5000m at the IAAF World Championships Beijing 2015, and finished fifth over the distance in Rio last summer. She has impressed this cross-country season, taking victories in Seville and Elgoibar, Spain, on successive weekends in January.
Belaynesh Oljira, who’ll be making her fifth straight appearance at a World Cross, brings the most experience after finishing 10th, fifth, third and ninth in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
Dera Dida, the runner-up in the junior race in Guiyang, returns for her first senior national team appearance. She has been busy on the roads; most recently she clocked a 1:08:06 lifetime best in January’s Houston Half Marathon.
Likewise with Gebeyanesh Ayele, the runner-up at January’s Xiamen Marathon where she clocked 2:34:07.
Rounding out the team is Sentayehu Lewetegn, 20, runner-up at 5000m at the 2015 African Junior Championships, and 20-year-old Zerfie Limeneh whose best international appearance came at the African Cross Country Championships last year where she was seventh in the junior race.
Uganda finished third in the team race two years ago, and will be gunning for a similar performance on home soil.
They’ll need a strong performance from Mercyline Chelangat, still 19, who won the national title on this course in January to follow up her fourth-place finish in the 5000m at the World U20 Championships last July. Emily Chebet, who was part of the 2015 bronze medal team, returns as well.
Making a stronger case for a podium finish in the team hunt is Bahrain led by Olympic steeplechase champion Ruth Jebet. Ninth in the junior race two years ago, she has risen to an entirely different plane in the interim and could be a factor.
She will be backed up by Rose Chelimo, who was eighth in the Olympic marathon, Eunice Chumba, the Asian cross-country champion, and Bontu Rebitu, the world U20 5000m bronze medallist. In the latter half of January, Rebitu was third at the Cinque Mullini cross country and won in San Sebastian.
Elsewhere, the race will likely be among those with ambitions to break into the top 10, or at least, break through the east African wall.
Among the leading European hopes is Spanish champion Trihas Gebre, who also turned in top-three finishes in Amorbieta and Elgoibar in January.
Canada’s Sasha Gollish arrives on the heels of her victory at the NACAC Championships.
Mao Ichiyama, 19, showed promise after winning the Japanese title last month.
Athletes from 34 countries are entered.