5 February 1999 - Monte-Carlo After a three week hibernation, the IAAF Cross Challenge springs back to life this Sunday in Vilamoura on the occasion of the 23rd Cross Internacional Das Amendoeiras. One of the most prestigious cross country events in the world, the "Almond Blossom Classic" has enhanced Portugals reputation for cross country, in terms of tradition, popular appeal and outstanding athletes. In just over a year Vilamoura will also play host to the World Cross Country Championships, and the success of the annual fixture was a significant factor during the selection process.
Portugals current reputation as a distance running giant is mainly due to its women, so it is hardly surprising that there will be eight "local heroes" in the field on Sunday. They are led by the 1995 World and 1996 Olympic 10,000m champion Fernanda Ribeiro, 1993 World Cross Country Champion Albertina Dias and 1995 World Championship Marathon winner Manuela Machado. But there will be great interest also in the renewal of a great rivalry between Ethiopias Gete Wami and Moroccos Zahra Ouaziz. The latter was a brilliant second in the World Cross short race in Marrakesh last year and went on to set African records at 3000 and 5000m on the track. She beat Wami at the last Cross Challenge in Seville, but lost to the Ethiopian in a previous encounter in Amorebieta. Wami currently heads the Cross Challenge standings after three events. Among other leading women are former World Cross Country Junior champion Anne-Marie Sandell (FIN) and Jackline Maranga (KEN) - 2nd and 3rd in the Standings - and South Africas Colleen de Reuck.
In the mens race, Portugals Armada is led by the former European champion Paulo Guerra (the current champion Sergiy Lebid is also in the field) and Jose Regalo, but they will have their work cut out dealing with the Kenyan contingent. With 10 representatives, Kenya will make a big impact in what will be the last European stage of the Cross Challenge before the World Cross Championships in Belfast. Although every Kenyan runner could be a threat, Paul Koech and Thomas Nyariki (2nd and 3rd respectively in the Challenge standings) have shown the best form recently. The Kenyan aiming for an historic fifth consecutive World Cross title - Paul Tergat will not be racing and has returned home to make his final preparations. Among the other contenders in Vilamoura will be Belgiums Mohamed Mourhit currently leading the standings and Hendrick Ramaala of South Africa. A former European indoor champion Gennaro Di Napoli has opted for the other type of winter racing and will also start in Vilamoura.