Antrim, UKLast year's champion, Mike Kigen of Kenya, returns to defend his title at this weekend's Antrim International, the sixth IAAF Cross Country Permit race of the season, which takes place on Saturday (22) at Greenmount.
Kigen posted a time of 27:49 to take gold ahead of Britain's Andy Vernon last year, and will again face a stiff challenge this time around.
Vernon bounced right back to form in Edinburgh two weeks ago when he finished fifth in a classy race won by British number 1 Mo Farah. However, the 24-year-old Aldershot athlete may be pushed to improve on this position at Antrim such is the quality of the Men's line-up over the 9km course.
Kigen is part of a strong Kenyan involvement, and will be challenged for his crown by 20-year-old Titus Mbishei. The youngster was a silver medallist at the World Junior Cross Country Championships two years ago and just missed out on a medal in the Commonwealth Games 10,000m in Delhi last October.
Also in contention will be Dennis Masai who demolished the opposition to take the World Junior 10,000m title in Canada last summer. The fourth Kenyan is 3000m specialist Jacob Chesari who is ranked in the world's top 10 list, on 2010 form.
Paddy Hamilton and Eddie McGinley are among the hosts' top competitors, with Brian Farrell fancied to lead Ireland's challenge. The high class field also includes Spain’s Abdelaziz Merzougei, who took the European Junior Cross Country title in Albuferia a month ago. Ethiopia's Desene Gebremeskel and Ali Abdosh have had to withdraw from the event, along with female contender Aheza Kiros.
There will be intense interest in the Women's 5.4km field where the biggest threat should come from 17-year-old Kenyan Esther Chemtai.
Chemtai took a bronze medal in the World Junior Cross Country last March, and will be hoping to triumph at Antrim where Ireland's Mary Cullen reigned last year in a time of 18:45.
A strong quartet of British runners, consisting of Charlotte Purdue, Louise Damen, Gemma Steel and Stevie Stockton, will be aiming for high finishes. The 19-year-old Purdue has carried all before her in recent weeks, starting with a massive 17-second victory margin when taking the European Cross Country title in Portugal. She also had an easy win in last Saturday's McCain Cross Challenge in Cardiff.
Late Antrim withdrawals have made Purdue's task a little easier but should the race come down to a sprint finish she can rely on her track experience - she just missed out on a medal in the Commonwealth 10,000m.
Damen and Steel were the second and third-placed British finishers in Portugal, while Stockton was 12th at Antrim a year ago. Also amongst the strong field is British international Laura Kenney who finished ninth last year, and Romania's Cristina Casandra who was fifth in the Beijing Olympic steeplechase.
Athletes will compete for a prize fund of over $15,000 between the Men's and Women's events.
Cóilín Duffy for IAAF