17 March 2000If Paul Tergat manages to triumph on
Vilamoura's sun-baked course on Sunday, the tall, elegant Kenyan will have written perhaps
the most astounding chapter in an already marvellous history.
A win here would be Tergat's sixth consecutive victory in what is widely regarded as the world's most competitive distance race.
Tergat's domination of the World Cross Country Championships - winning the individual title each year since 1995, and team gold medals with Kenya each year since 1993 - has seen off memorable challenges from Salah Hissou and even Haile Gebrselassie.
The Ethiopian multiple world record-holder on the track has not returned to these championships since 1996. Then, in Cape Town, he said that the phalanx of Kenyans at the head of the lead group - operating almost like team riders of a cycling peloton - made it impossible for an individual from another country to survive repeated, surging attacks.
On the track, Tergat has been somewhat overshadowed by Gebrselassie, the Kenyan finishing runner-up at the 1997 and 1999 IAAF World Championships, and the 1996 Olympic Games.
But Tergat's pedigree is still impressive, including a 10,000m world record (27:27.85) and half-marathon world best (59:17). These results have encouraged him to believe that his future may lie with the marathon, after the Olympic Games in Sydney later this year.
But first, Vilamoura, and the challenge of maintaining his win streak.
Tergat and the rest of the Kenyan men's team - which holds one of world sport's most impressive win streaks in this competition - have been training for the event by chasing after a local school bus.
"The course in Vilamoura is a very fast one," Dan Muchoki, the head coach, said. "That is why we have been racing against the school bus: to build up our speed."
And all reports out of the Kenyan camp at Embu suggest that Tergat, the 30-year-old air force sergeant, is the one that has been really motoring.
"I can never say I am going to win this title again," Tergat said. "All I can say is that I am going to try."
Despite the depth of talent in Kenya, in the national trial race, staged in Nairobi in February, Tergat was once again a class apart. Nevertheless, his greatest challenge is still likely to come from within his own team.
Charles Kamathi, the world's fastest 10,000m runner in 1999, is a new talent who, at 21, could unsettle the reigning champion again, having beaten Tergat twice this season already, in races in Italy and Portugal.
But Tergat refuses to be intimidated by this. Instead, typically, he is gracious: "I am about to retire as a track runner and I feel encouraged when I see younger athletes coming up, following in my footsteps.We still need our flag to fly high."