Japhet Korir was blithely unaware that he had become the youngest ever senior men’s champion in the history of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, when he triumphed in the Polish city of Bydgoszcz on Sunday (24).
“Oh really?” was his underwhelmed answer when informed of the fact.
However, when you consider the list of past senior men’s champions in the last 40 years - as IAAF President Lamine Diack called it on Sunday: a roll call of long distance running greats - a list that includes names like Stewart, Lopes, Ngugi, Skah, Sigei and Bekele, then you realize that it is quite a feat.
At 19 years and 266 days, Korir beat the former record for being a prodigious talent, which had be held by no less a figure than the aforementioned Kenenisa Bekele after his win in the now defunct short course race in 2002, by 17 days.
However, Korir was lucky to be on the starting line in Bydgoszcz at all.
Kenyan selectors mulled over whether he was worth bringing to Poland after his sixth place at their own trials last month.
However, his form in training in the last four weeks convinced them that it was a gamble worth making and it paid off handsomely. On a day when other Kenya’s other medal hopes in the senior men’s race metaphorically and literally froze, he became his nation’s fifth champion.
“I was spiked during the Kenyan trails in 5000m for the IAAF World Junior Championships last year and I had a very bad injury with my Achilles,” revealed Korir, who limped home eighth in that race in Nairobi and stayed at home nursing his ankle instead of battling with Ethiopia’s eventual gold medallist Muktar Edris for the title in Barcelona
“Look,” he demonstrated, quite happy to pull down his socks and show a nasty scar that still glowed through the Bydgoszcz mud that was still caked around his legs.
“I had to spend some time in hospital and I was worried about how it was going to affect my running but then I started training again and slowly regained my form.
“Before coming here (to Bydgoszcz), I only had two races since the injury. One was a local race in Kenya and the other was the Kenyan trials. However, once I finished sixth in Nairobi and started training for the World (Cross Country) Championships, I trained very hard and I think people saw that I was in good shape.”
Call it was you will, naivety, inexperience, youth or just simply exuberant talent, but Korir never seemed to be overawed by his surroundings despite there being only three younger men among the 102 runners on the start line of the race.
He did not even look unduly concerned by the sight of Ethiopia’s defending champion Imane Merga, or the likes of Uganda’s Moses Kipsiro and Eritrea’s Teklemariam Medhin who have both got on the podium in the past at the World Cross Country Championships, tracking him and watching his every move for large parts of the race.
“I never feared anybody. I only wanted to finish in a good place,” added Korir modestly, later admitting that until about halfway through the race he had not considered seriously the prospect that he could cross the line first.
“But then I started to feel strong. The weather was cold, and I didn’t like that so much, but the course seemed very good and I was running very well.”
Korir’s talent has been evident for some time. At the age of 16, he made his first appearance at Myslecinek Park three years ago when the Championships were last staged in Bydgoszcz and he took the junior men’s bronze medal.
The following year he won the junior title at the African Cross Country Championships in Cape Town and returned to the South African city 12 months ago to add a silver medal to his collection when finishing behind Edris.
On the track his achievements have been less accomplished, although he can boast of a 5000m best of 13:11.44, which was actually run indoors in Dusseldorf last year to rank him fourth on the all-time junior indoor list for 25 laps of a conventional indoor track.
Curiously his outdoor best is almost six seconds slower, but he looks set to run considerably faster this summer.
“Yes, 5000m is the distance I will concentrate on during the summer. I still haven’t done much speed work but after missing the World Junior Championships, I want to go to Moscow. I have had success as a junior at big cross country championships but I have not been to a big championship on the track; that is my next ambition.”
It was noticeably that Korir hardly even looked over his shoulder as he finished the race and now he can look straight ahead without any worries to the summer and his appearance on the track, and perhaps an encounter with Great Britain’s Olympic and World 5000m champion, will be eagerly anticipated.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF