MonteCarloJohnson versus East Africa seems to be the straight forward script set to be played out during the senior women’s long race on Saturday (19 March) at the 33rd edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, St-Etienne/St-Galmier, France (19/20 March).
Benita Johnson, in winning Australia’s first ever medal at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Brussels a year ago, answered the seemingly perennial question: how do you beat the Africans?
Her simple answer was “train as hard as they do”, which as someone who trains with a group of London-based distance runners, including Kenyans and Ethiopians, is something she should know.
Indeed, Johnson has something else in common with many African distance runners - such as starting her running career largely barefoot. "I rarely wore shoes as a child. I grew up in the small coastal town of Mackay in Queensland, between Brisbane and Cairns. We lived outside of town, and until I went to high school in town at 13 I never even wore shoes to school.”
“I had two brothers and one sister and we used to run up the sandhills on the shore - short sprints, maybe 30 seconds up the hills - then down into the ocean, then back up again.” Arthur Lydiard would purr with satisfaction at such distance running foundations.
But from those playful hill sprints of her childhood, Johnson, the former junior hockey international, has matured into an athlete for whom the longer the distance, the better.
Johnson’s first international medal did not come until she made her debut at the half-marathon, and she won bronze at the IAAF World Championship race. Her gold at the World Cross Country came the first time she stepped up to the 8km long race, after sixth, fourth and fifth place finishes over 4km.
“I’m definitely stronger as the distances get longer. So I like the extra distance,” she says.
With such consistent performances and outstanding success, it is little surprise that Johnson rates the World Cross as her favourite event. “It is always fast from the start and I think it is the hardest race I do each year. I love the start, you really feel like you're a horse getting out of the gates in the Melbourne Cup.
“The conditions are always tough weatherwise and course-wise. The crowd out on the course really get into it and I love running in this sort of atmosphere. I also love the 'team' thing too. As a distance runner, you rarely get to do a race as an individual and part of a team.
“But I am thrilled to have won this event once and would love to win it again.”
Johnson, 25, defends her world title in St Etienne/St Galmier, France, this weekend, following a mixed year in which she placed only 24th in the Olympic 10,000 metres final and was disappointed with her 2:38 marathon debut in New York last November.
Now, in the space of four weeks, she faces the double challenge of the World Cross and the London Marathon - something which another past champion, Paula Radcliffe, felt unable to undertake.
“The World Cross Country is definitely my priority at the moment. I will focus more on London after I run the World Cross. I like to focus on one big even at a time - not look too far ahead of myself. I know I'll be in great shape for the World Cross Country, this is all that matters for the time being.”
Certainly, she appears to be getting things right, striding across the mud and hills in Europe this winter looking every bit the World champion: four wins in the big races at Amorebieta, Hannut, San Sebastian and the classic Cinque Mulini have shown that the Australian will be tough to beat in St Etienne/St Galmier.
Her only defeat of the winter came at Edinburgh before Christmas, significantly when out-sprinted for the line by Tirunesh Dibaba, who will lead the Ethiopian squad at St-Etienne/St-Galmier and who has been in brilliant form this season, setting a 5000m World Indoor record.
“I am really looking forward to getting over to France and racing her again,” Johnson says. “I think a lot of the girls will have an eye on me, some may fear me, which is a good thing.
“The Ethiopians will be the ones to beat,” she says of her biggest challenge for the $30,000 individual first prize.
In the absence of past medallists from Europe and the United States such as Radcliffe, Deena Kastor and Sonia O’Sullivan, Johnson’s prediction is hardly a surprise. Ejegayehu Dibaba and Werknesh Kidane, silver and bronze medallists a year ago, are back in the Ethiopian squad, which will be led by Tirunesh Dibaba, who won her national trial race and who may try to race both the 8km (long) and 4km (short) events over the weekend in France.
Last year’s World Junior champion Meselech Melkamu and Kidane are also proposing to join Tirunesh in a double attempt, while the long race should witness the return of the 1996 and 1999 World Cross Country long race and 2001 short race winner Gete Wami.
“I got away from them at World Cross Country last year by one of the biggest margins ever in the history of the event, so I’m confident that I can do it at World Cross this year,” Johnson has said.
Of the others to watch for, Japan has traditionally featured prominently, and their squad for France may see them threaten for medals, especially as their runners showed such fine form in the Yokahama Ekiden last month, where they knocked 90 seconds off the course record for this road relay. Their squad for St-Etienne/St-Galmier includes two of the heroines of that performance, Miwako Yamanaka and Kazue Ogoshi.
Led by European champion Hayley Yelling, Britain’s team could also be there to be reckoned with in spite of the absence of Paula Radcliffe because after all they did not need her to take bronze last year, while the Russian women’s squad for France also looks stronger on paper than for many years.
The great unknown in St-Etienne/St-Galmier will be the strength of the Kenyans. Athletics Kenya took a hard line last month with those who did not attend their three-week training camp at Embu, at the foot of Mount Kenya, and surprised many when they named the Olympic 5000 metres silver medallist Isabella Ochichi in their squad despite finishing 17th in February's national trials.
"We did continuous assessment and we are satisfied that we made the correct decision including Ochichi," team manager, Peter Angwenyi, said.
With the women’s long race preceding the short race on the Sunday, and with so many women named to run in both races, the likely individual line-up for the Short (4km) race will be impossible to determine until the survivors of what is likely to be a gruelling battle are able to assess their readiness.
But one significant absentee from the 4km race is known: Edith Masai the defending three-time champion is unable to defend her title, having suffered an ankle injury last month.
In the team contest, just as the British will be hoping to return to the podium in the long race, the Canadians led by Carmen Douma-Hussar will be hoping to repeat last year's short race bronze finish behind the annual East African fight for gold and silver.
Steven Downes for the IAAF
NOTE – when reading these previews please understand that until Friday afternoon’s Technical Meeting (18 March) has taken place, all team line-ups remain very fluid.