Will Paul Kipselgich Koech, named captain of the Kenyan team, stop Paul Tergat this time?
This is the question on the lips of many Kenyans. Athletics buffs think Koech, 30, who beat Tergat again at the Kenyan championships for a third year running could spring a surprise in Belfast. However, he remains philosophical about it.
"Good preparation give one the spring-board to great performances. But one still needs a good state of the mind, a positive mental framework on the actual day. Then the rest will depend on the Almighty," said the Kenya Army captain.
He thinks Kenyans should be wary of the Ethiopians, saying the fellow east Africans can only be ignored at great peril, but he does not see why Kenya should not successfully defend the overall title.
"Ethiopians have a great depth of senior athletes who have just qualified from the junior category. They are solid and if they can maintain the same form they displayed during the (Cross Challenge) circuit, we have cause to worry," he said.
As a young boy in the Burnt Forest area of Rift Valley province, Koech had a dream of becoming a world champion. He wanted to emulate the legendary Kipchoge Keino. During his primary school days at Ngarwa, Uasin Gishu, he tried sprints but they were a bit tough for him.
"I changed to 1500m then to 5000m. These races were a lot more manageable than the sprints," he said.
When he joined Arnesens Secondary school for his secondary education between 1984 and 1987, he did not run for the first two years but he resumed racing in his third year when he qualified for the provincial championships 10,000m race. Training possibilities became even scarcer at Wareng High School where he studied for his Advanced Levels between 1988 and 1989, as he was a day scholar. He moved closer to his dreams when he joined the Armed Forces Training College after a short teaching stint. After training, he was posted to his present base, Kahawa Barracks in 1994.
"My dreams came true here. Although I did not make the Kahawa team that year, I knew that breaking into the athletics world was only a matter of time," he recalls.
In 1996, Koech was third in the Armed Forces Championships, eighth in the nationals and ninth in the Nairobi leg of the IAAF Cross Challenge series. He went to Cape Town for the World Cross where he placed fourth. He placed second in 10,000m Olympic trials and sixth at the Atlanta Olympics.
In 1998 Koech took the silver medal of the men's long race in Marrakech just behind Paul Tergat. He also displayed great road running talents winning the IAAF Half Marathon Championships in Zurich-Ulster in 60:01 ahead of South Africa's Hendrick Ramaala and another cross country specialist, Khalid Skah of Morocco.
Koech thinks his time for Gold at the World Cross Country Championships has arrived. Belfast '99 may just proffer the setting.
Omulo Okoth for the IAAF