As Kenya prepares to contest 36th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh, Scotland on 30 March, some mystery surrounds the team selected.
In the men's line-up, besides Bernard Kiprop Kipyego and Gideon Ngatuny, third and fourth in last year's World Cross in Mombasa, and Leonard Komon, fourth in the junior men's category last year, and Commonwealth Games 5000m champion, Augustine Choge, the rest are not what keen observers would rate as capable of taking on Eritrea's reigning World champion, Zersenay Tadese, or Ethiopia's multiple World champion, Kenenisa Bekele, and give them a run for their money.
Yet that is what the team management considers as their main strength.
"We have superb runners who are definitely going to retain the team title and seriously fight for the individual titles as well, especially in the men's and women's senior races," said Peter Angwenyi, the team manager.
"The team has been in residential training for less period of time compared to previous years because of the political problems the country encountered earlier in the year."
But the determination the team has shown, says Angwenyi, reflects their will to retain the title and even surpass last year's performance.
Ngatuny, a Maasai, whose rural home is on the edge of world-famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve, and whose name translates to a Lion in his native dialect, has emerged as the strongest, if winning the Kenya Prisons title and the national title are any measure.
Observers see a real Lion in him and opponents can rest assured of a real fight, almost akin to that which his tribesmen use as a rite of passage from youth to adulthood when they literally kill lions using crude weapons.
Also in the team is Mark Kiptoo, who was third at the Armed Forces XC Championships and second at the Nationals. Not quite known internationally, Kiptoo has won the respect of the team and has been elected unanimously as the captain, a coveted hat that has been worn by eminent people like Paul Tergat and Paul Koech in previous World Cross Country Championships.
Choge is back
Choge, the Commonwealth Games 5000m champion, who did not finish among the top-10 at the Nationals, but after benefiting from a wild card selection he has proved himself in camp at the foot of Mount Kenya, 125km east of Nairobi and is now rated among the top favourites for the 12km title, withHead Coach, Julius Kirwa, reckoning that he should not be ignored.
Choge suffered a career-threatening back injury, which kept him down the whole of last year after winning the Commonwealth Games title and finishing seventh in Fukuoka World Cross in the short course race in 2006.
Bernard Kiprop Kipyego, bronze medallist last year in Mombasa last year and junior silver medallist in St Etienne in 2006, is back after finishing fifth in the Nationals. He is a highly unpredictable but very polished runner who will prove useful in the team.
Joseph Ebuya, a late-comer to athletics after a charcoal-selling stint in Nyahururu, where top athletes set up camps to train for global championships, is another key plank in the team strategy.
John Thuo, who trains at the IAAF High Performance Training Camp in Eldoret, surprised pundits when he squeezed into sixth place at the Nationals.
According to Angwenyi, any of these athletes could easily spoil the party for whoever feels he has the individual title in the pocket.
Training in the high-altitude Kigari near Embu was strict. Head coach, Kirwa, maintained a military regime that saw the team soak up the early morning cold air inside the Mount Kenya forest. It was so cold inside the forest each morning that even with the athlete’s bodies sweating with their effort, their heads were usually glistening white with dew. Their daily schedule started at 6am for 45 minutes, then they did light work-outs after breakfast and hill work in the evenings.
Isaac Songok, who was silver medallist in the 4km race in 2005, Barnabas Kosgei, who won at the Armed Forces Championships and was ninth at the Nationals, former junior women's champion, Vivian Cheruiyot, Pauline Korikwiang, silver medallist in Fukuoka, and fifth at the recent Kenyan trials, all were dropped from the squad after this training period.
Masai going for senior honours
Grace Kwamboka Momanyi, who burst into the national awareness at the National champs, which she won after returning from a stint on the American road race circuit, is widely-expected to give the Ethiopians a strong challenge.
Priscah Jepleting, who was seventh in Mombasa last year, and first-timer in the World Cross team Doris Changeiywo, are also key to Kenyan hopes, as is last year's World junior champion, Linet Masai, who contests the senior category. Margaret Wangare and Linet Chepkirui complete the team.
Omulo Okoth for the IAAF
Senior men’s 12km team
1. Gideon Ngatuny
2. Mark Kiptoo (captain)
3. Hosea Mwok Macharinyang
4. Joseph Ebuya
5. Bernard Kiprop
6. John Thuo
7. Leonard Patrick Komon
8. Moses Ndiema Masai
9. Augustine Choge
Senior women’s 8km team
1. Grace Momanyi
2. Linet Masai
3. Doris Chengeiywo
4. Linet Chepkirui
5. Margaret Wangari
6. Prisca Jepleting
Junior men’s 8km team
1. Levi Matebo
2. Mathew Kisorio
3. Charles Kibet (formerly know as Chebet)
4. Lucas Rotich
5. Titus Mbishai
6. Peter Kimeli
Junior women’s 6km team
1. Christine Kambua Muyanga
2. Chebet Cheptai
3. Delvin Mergon
4. Winnie Cheptoo
5. Mercy Kosgei
6. Dorcas Chepchirchir