Amman, JordanJust as Linet Masai was perhaps savouring the prospect of being the woman to break a 15-year drought of Kenyan wins in the long-race at the World Cross Country championships, her teammate Florence Kiplagat burst past her on the grueling final hill to take the championships gold medal.
If Kiplagat, 22, surprised Masai with her speed of foot, she surprised many others with the speed of her return to the top level of running. Just on a year ago, Kiplagat became a mother for the first time, she and fellow-Kenyan Amman team member Moses Mosop becoming the proud parents of baby daughter, Aisha.
Masai, who ran resolutely without looking back once she had broken away in the second half of the race, did not see Kiplagat coming. Few others did either - in speculation leading into what was regarded as one of the most open women’s titles in history, Kiplagat was mentioned, but not with as much conviction as Kenyan-born Hilda Kibet representing the Netherlands, world 1500 metres champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain, Ethiopia’s Gelete Burka and Meselech Melkamu and New Zealand’s Kim Smith.
Even fewer saw the winning move, just the spectators at the crucial spot on the final hill. Kiplagat’s coach, Italian Renato Canova, was on the lower part of the loop course and did not know she had won until he himself clambered up the rise to the Bisharat Golf Course clubhouse. And the television picture of the vital moment was obscured. In one shot Kiplagat was closing, but still behind, in the next she was a stride in front and going away.
Not since the 1992 Barcelona Olympic marathoners scaled Montjuic to the finish in the stadium has a hill proved so decisive in a championship race. The complexion of each of the four races in Amman changed on the final climb. A breakaway on the flatter sections of the course meant nothing unless the leader had the strength to maintain their momentum up the hill.
So it proved with Masai. Tall and upright in her running, she was evoked images of Paul Tergat as she motored away from the lead pack on the second-last lap. Like Tergat, she split the field, killing off the winning chances of Smith, who had led to that point, Jamal, Kibet and Burka. Unlike Tergat, who won the men’s long race five times, she did not prevail.
Kiplagat first worked hard with the chasing pack to reduce Masai’s lead, then made her own push on the flat and uphill part of the final lap. A minor leg injury in the lead-up to the race made her loath to follow Masai’s surge down the hill, she explained.
The quietly-spoken Kiplagat lives with Mosop in Eldoret, one of the hubs of Kenyan distance running. Each of them was born at even higher altitude - Mosop’s home village is at 3100 metres above sea level, Kiplagat’s at 2600 - near Marakwet.
The phenomenon of women returning stronger after childbirth is commonplace enough, but not as many African women pull off the comeback. Kiplagat was always confident that she could be an exception.
“I knew I would continue,” she said. “I had to keep running.”
Nor did the fact that no Kenyan woman had won the long race since Helen Chepngeno in Budapest in 1994. “You have to continue fighting, and your time will come,” she responded.
Kiplagat said she and Mosop are in a good situation as regards care of their daughter. Her family is able to help and neither has to compromise training. Aisha gives her inspiration, too. “I thought of my family,” she said as she explained the motivation for her final sprint.
Kiplagat was the silver medalist in the 5000 metres at the World junior championships in Beijing in 2006 before her maternity break and her target this year is the World championships 10,000 metres. Her first priority is a qualifying performance, which she hopes to achieve in Utrecht at the end of May.
And then? Well Canova for one is setting no limits. He believes Tirunesh Dibaba in top form may be untouchable, but adds that Kiplagat is capable of running between 30 minutes 10 seconds and 30:20 and of closing such a race with a sub-60 final lap.
If she can do that, Florence Kiplagat may stand atop an even higher mountain than she scaled to win the World Cross Country title.
Len Johnson for the IAAF