In the end, it was a battle between two World champions for a World Championship neither had won at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain.
Vivian Cheruiyot is reigning World champion at 5000 metres. She won the World Junior Cross Country title in 2000, but had not placed higher than eighth in a World Cross Country Championships.
Linet Masai is reigning World champion at 10,000 metres. She won the World Junior Cross Country in Mombasa in 2007, but she had been upset by team-mates in the final sprint at each of the past two senior World Cross Country Championships.
Barring an unlikely dead-heat, only one of these two champion Kenyans could leave Punta Umbria a Senior World Cross Country gold medallist.
Masai settles for silver, yet again
Cheruiyot was the winner this day, breaking away from Masai mid-way through the final lap after her team-mate had split the field up on the penultimate circuit.
So Masai was second for the third year in a row and will have to wait another two years for her next possible chance of being champion. With due respect to Florence Kiplagat (winner in Amman 2009) and last year’s champion, Emily Chebet, there are two consoling elements to this third consecutive silver.
First, Kenya won the teams race again, beating arch-rival Ethiopia. Second, this time Masai was beaten by another World champion. But second is still second, one agonising place from victory.
One of the women dropped when first Masai and then Cheruiyot broke up the leading pack was Shalane Flanagan. But the American came charging back, moving past Meselech Melkamu of Ethiopia into third in the last kilometre and taking some ground out of Masai, but not enough.
Flanagan led her team to the bronze medal as well, behind Kenya and Ethiopia.
Surprise bronze medal for Flanagan
It was the second successive bronze for the Americans, but Flanagan’s numbers were even more impressive. Lornah Kiplagat, born in Kenya, won for the Netherlands in 2007, of course, but
Flanagan, the 29-year-old Beijing Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist is the first non-African born medallist since Benita Willis won the long race in 2004 and the first American medallist since Deena Drossin took the second of her two successive silver medals in 2003.
Flanagan credited her marathon training for her improvement from 12th place to a bronze medal (she made her marathon debut in New York last year).
“It’s elevated my game,” Flanagan said.
Of her brief chance at silver, Flanagan commented: “I was just so happy to be in the spot I was in. I didn’t realise how close I could be (to second).”
In any case, Masai rallied and the brief threat passed.
Masai and Cheruiyot have battled back and forth all this year, with their personal score now at 2-2. Masai won the Kenyan trial, but Cheruiyot took the win that mattered most.
“I feel very happy, because I hadn’t any medal. I had been eighth three times. I hope to defend my title in the next championship.
“I’m very happy about Masai because we are friends outside the competitions and we also train together.”
Masai endorsed the friendship line, but regret was not far below the surface.
“My goal was to win, because I came here very strong,” she said. “But finally I have been second once again.” Again she made the race; again she did not win it.
Flanagan’s team-mates Molly Huddle, Magdalena Lewy-Boulet and Blake Russell packed well into 17th, 18th and 19th places to ensure the bronze medal comfortably from Bahrain and Great Britain.
Charlotte Purdue was Britain’s leading finisher in 14th place, matching her finish in the junior race in Amman two years ago.
Shitaye Eshete led Bahrain home in 12th place, with dual World champion at 1500 metres, Maryam Jamal, finishing 23rd.
Fionnuala Britton of Ireland ran a fine race, chasing hard after the leaders throughout, to finish 16th.
Spain, which had hopes of a home bronze medal, finished eighth with the 2010 European women’s champion at 1500 metres Nuria Fernandez first finisher in 24th place.
Australia and Morocco, both recent bronze medallists, finished tenth and 11th, respectively.
Len Johnson for the IAAF