Vilamoura, in Portugal's scenic Algarve region, will play host next weekend (March 18-19) to the 28th edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships.
The event is not just the most prestigious international event of this first winter season of the new Millennium but the most historic as well. Way back in 1903, the Nations Cross Country Championships was held featuring teams from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Soon, France was in on the act and 97 years later the event has evolved into the greatest international cross country event in the world with 72 countries attending, from every continent. There will be races for Senior and Junior men and women - with the seniors having the option of long course (12 km for men, 8 km for women) and short course events (4km for men and women).
Vilamoura will also be - for the last time - the decisive fixture of the IAAF Cross Challenge circuit. After events in Brussels, Seville, Durham, Vilamoura, Nairobi and Chiba, Kenya's Charles Kamathi is leading the men's category with 74 points. He is followed by two of his countrymen Patrick Ivuti and Paul Tergat who have 70 and 69 points respectively and a hardy European, Sergey Lebed of the Ukraine (with 60 points). In the women's Challenge, Lydia Cheromei (who, eight years ago, won bronze behind Wang Junxia and Paula Radcliffe in the Junior Women's WCC race) leads with 88 points from another Kenyan Jackline Maranga (79 points) who will not be in Vilamoura because of injury. Third and fourth are the Ethiopians Gete Wami and Ayelech Worku (with 75 and 70 points respectively).
Those who finish from first to sixth in the final standings (decided at Vilamoura) will receive, respectively, competition awards of $25,000, $15,000, $12,000, $10,000, $5,000 and $3,000. Double the usual points are available for participants in the World Cross Country Championships - i.e. 50, 44, 38, 34, 32, 30 and so on down to the 20th finisher.
Paul Tergat, who has already earned himself a place in the history books with five successive World Cross titles, is on course to increase his tally in Portugal. His most difficult rivals are likely to be his young Kenyan team-mates, new members of the fantastic brotherhood of East African distance runners.
In the women's long course race, most people would consider Ethiopia's Gete Wami - who won the world title last year in Belfast and also in Cape Town in 1996 - the favourite. But she will need to hold off the challenge of her countrywomen Merima Denboba, Ayelech Worku, Derartu Tulu and, of course, Britain's Paula Radcliffe who has won two silver and one bronze medals over the last three years.