Nairobi, Kenya John Kipkemboi Kibowen is back on the cross country circuit. At 33 years, the aircraft technician with the Kenya Air Force will be gunning for a third World title over the short course race at the 31st IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne, 29-30 March 2003.
The bookmakers will ignore Kibowen’s gold medal assault at their peril, if the 11:06 minutes he recorded on his way to winning the Kenyan title is any measure to go by. In Kibowen’s wake, Thomas Kiplitan, fourth in the junior men's race and a World team gold medalist last year, was second (11:08), David Kilel was third in 11.14, with Benjamin Limo, the 1999 World champion, fourth in 11:15.
Kibowen won the inaugural World short course race which took place at the 1998 World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech, Morocco, and went on to win team gold at the fourth and final IAAF World Road Relay Championships in Manaus, Brazil, the following month.
In the summer of 1998, he had continued his good stint of form on the track at 1500m, winning the Kenyan trials but missing a medal at the Commonwealth Games by a whisker, when finishing fourth. His personal career best came that summer too, via a 3:30.18 finish in Zurich, and with another two marks under 3:31, and so he could be more than satisfied with his track campaign too.
However, a stress fracture led to the cancellation of his competitive programme in 1999, but he recovred and returned again the following March to reclaim his World short course crown in Villamoura, Portugal, taking a one second win over his compatriot Sammy Kipketer. However, unlike in 1998 he was not able to extend this form into the summer, with a best clocking of ‘just’ 3:33.04.
The following winter his form continued at a lowish ebb, managing only seventh in the defence of his World Cross title in Ostend.
However, in track terms, Kibowen moved up to 5000m in 2001, and found success, taking the bronze medal at the World Championships in Edmonton behind this compatriot Richard Limo who took gold. Kibowen also reduced hs career best with a 12:59:97 third place finish at the early season Athens Grand Prix.
Last year, in terms of Kibowen's winter competitive programme at least there was a change of plan.
“I chose to miss the 2002 season to take stock of my future. I did not do so well in the Kenyan trials (he finished 36th), which was an indication that I was pushing my body a bit too far. There is a limit to which one can push the body, lest it snaps,” confirmed Kibowen, who is a father of two.
Whatever he altered, the change resulted in a new personal best of 12:58.61 for 5000m, when coming third in Oslo that summer.
Kibowen’s fitness reassessment was complete by this winter, as the 'talent of 1998' reemerged with full-force to take the 4-km title at the Kenyan trials.
As a former double World champion at 33 years of age, Kibowen suddenly finds himself the ‘old man’ of the Kenyan team for Lausanne, being the most experienced of the team members.
Training at the Kigari Teachers College in Embu some 250-km north east of capital Nairobi to make an assault on the World Cross, he took time to reflect on Kenya’s hopes in Lausanne.
“This time we are out for that man from Ethiopia (Kenenisa Bekele who won 4-km and 12-km last year) and he should get ready for the fight of his life,”
”If he wins one of the races, he won't make a repeat performance and go away with two titles.”
Even after being informed that Bekele has not been well following a bout of typhoid which forced him to miss the Ethiopian Championships and the Cinque Mulini Cross Country in Italy, Kibowen still believes this may just be a smoke screen aimed at confusing the Ethiopian’s opposition prior to the championships.
Maturity, Kibowen believes is his biggest asset as he looks again to recapture World cross gold. “How did I win the trials? Experience matters a lot in this things. Hard work is equally important. A combination of the two won't let me down. Yeah. I was always a sprinter and that has been my secret weapon.
Wait and see me in action in Lausanne.”
As he has always done as part of his preparation in past years, Kibowen ran the 12-km race at the Kenyan Armed Forces Championships – finishing 11th.
“It offers a tougher competition than even the World Championships, so that by the time I ran the 4-km at the Nationals, it is almost smooth-sailing.”
The Kenyan Armed forces, just as it did for past greats, such as Paul Tergat and John Ngugi, has offered Kibowen the benefit of the best club-based athletics training programme in Kenya.
He is a Nandi, a sub-tribe of the Kalenjin ethnic group who are renowned for winning more Olympics and World Championships medals than any other tribe in the world. His home is the Burnt Forest on the southern fringes of the Uasin Gishu District, whose administrative headquarters is Eldoret, the world capital of distance running.
However, Kibowen was born and attended primary schools in Changach, southern Keiyo before going to Simotwo High School in 1990. In 1991, he joined the Kenya's armed forces and was posted to Laikipia Air Base, where he was trained as an aircraft technician.
The proximity of Laikipia Air Base and Nanyuki's Fourth Battalion in Isiolo, where James Kibet coached the likes of twice World 5000 metres champion Ishmael Kirui, Laban Rotich, Atlanta Olympics 3000m steeplechase champion Joseph Keter, Benjamin Limo, Joseph Kibor and Jackson Ruto, among others, spurred Kibowen into taking up athletics seriously.
With such an impressive running CV, Kibowen travels to Lausanne as a serious championships contender, and along with the bookmakers the younger athletes would be unwise to be duped by his senior age.
Omulu Okoth for the IAAF