Despite her narrow loss in a thrilling duel with Tirunesh Dibaba last weekend in Edinburgh, Benita Johnson says that with exactly two months to go that she’s right on target to defend her long race title at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships, Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier, France, 19-20 March 2005.
“Coming second was a bit disappointing, but it’s very promising,” the 25-year-old Australian said after the 6.2 km View From Great Edinburgh Cross Country, “showing that I’m quite fit at this time of the year, which is a good sign going into the World Cross.”
"I’ll be much stronger"
Johnson arrived in Edinburgh after two strong wins in as many races in the last two weeks. The previous week, she defeated Kenya’s three-time World Cross Country short race champion Edith Masai in Amorebieta, Spain, just nine days after her 43-second victory over Catherine Ndereba at the San Silvestro Vellecana 10K in Madrid on New Year’s Eve. And even with a runner-up finish to the reigning World 5000m champion in the Scottish capital, she said she was pleased as her title defence in March approaches.
“The fitter you get, the stronger you get at the end (of a race). I can get quite a bit fitter than I am today so I definitely think I’ll be much stronger at the end.”
Johnson only resumed training about a month ago, choosing to take a long break - and a much-deserved holiday in Bali - to recover from and forget about a marathon debut she described as a “bad experience.”
At last November’s ING New York City Marathon she finished a disappointing 14th in 2:38:03, struggling with and slowed by stomach problems.
“Unfortunately, I made a bit of a mistake with my carbohydrate loading and had quite bad diarrhea in the ten hours prior to race, which caused quite a bit of depletion before I even started. Which was very upsetting,” she continued. “It took me many weeks to get over that.”
Balancing World Cross Country with Marathon ambitions
While her upcoming appearance at the Flora London Marathon was announced last weekend, she didn’t want to talk about it too much. There were more immediate concerns on her mind.
“The World Cross is the focus for me at the moment,” she said. “Then I’ll think about London.”
With her win at the Great North Run Half Marathon in September, she said her form heading into the New York was on course and said she’s eager to tackle the distance again.
“I’m confident I could be quite good at the marathon and I just want to get as fit as I can for World Cross and go on from there.”
With the two races so close on the calendar – her World Cross Country Championships race is on 19 March, with the London Marathon on April 17 -does she feel she needs to focus on one over the other?
“Paula’s done it before, Deena Drossin’s done it before,” Johnson said. “So I don’t think there’s really any challenge. I think if you’re fit, and you’re in great shape, you can definitely do well in both races. And Paula has set a great example of that.”
In 2002, Radcliffe won her second consecutive World Cross Country long race title three weeks before her 2:18:56 marathon debut win in London. The following year, Drossin lowered the American record to 2:21:16 in London three weeks after running to her second consecutive long course silver medal in Lausanne.
Hanging-in for as long as possible
In Edinburgh, Johnson made her decisive move entering the final kilometre, but she couldn’t mange to shake Dibaba. Nonetheless, she said she’ll employ a similar strategy when she defends her title in Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier, France.
“I’ll probably use similar tactics,” she said. “It’s 8 kilometres at the World Championships, so I’ve got another two kilometres to play with. I’m definitely stronger as the distances get longer. So I like the extra distance. But it’ll definitely be my tactic just to hang-in there and relax as long as possible and to make my move in the final stage of the race.”
Recalling her 12-second victory over Ejegayehu Dibaba in Brussels last year, Johnson is very upbeat despite having just a month of training under her belt.
“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. I’ve just got a bit more training to go and fitness to get.”
Johnson also said she’d like to race Radcliffe before their upcoming meeting on the streets on London.
“I love racing against the top athletes in the world,” she said. “I think that brings out the best performance. And I love challenges and I love races, and Paula’s going to make it a great race and a great challenge. She’s not afraid to run from the front. And she’s not afraid to go when she’s really hurting and she has two k’s left to run. She’s one of best athletes in the world, probably the best at the moment, and I’d love to race her at World Cross.”
World Championships 10,000m
While London rests far in the back of her mind, the upcoming track season is something she’s not even thinking about, besides Australia’s 10,000 trials for Helsinki held prior to the World Cross Country Championships.
“It’s not really on my mind,” she said, only confirming that she plans a 10,000 metre appearance in Helsinki. Last year, her anticipated challenge on the track never materialised, thanks to setbacks brought on by tendonitis and an iron deficiency.
“It’s all history now, but it did take me away for a long time and dramatically affected my preparations for Athens.”
Last February, she won her national championships with a 31:49.97 performance, but couldn't manage better than 32:32.01 in Athens where she finished 24th. Her true potential on the track was made evident a year before, where she shattered the Oceania record, clocking 30:37.68 to finish eighth at the World Championships in Paris in arguably the finest 10,000 metre race ever. She's also the Area Record holder for the 3000 (8:38.06) and 5000 (14:47.60), and with her 1:07:55 win at the Great North Run last year, she is just seven seconds shy of Kerryn McCann's Area record for the Half Marathon.
Johnson has three cross country races on her calendar before she returns to Australia for the 10,000 metre trials on the track - the Lotto Crosscup in Hannut, Belgium, an undetermined race in Spain, and the Cinque Mulini in San Vittore Olona, Italy.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF