Ecuador’s Jefferson Pérez and Romania’s Claudia Stef prevailed in the high altitude as they won the 20km races under cool temperatures in the first leg of the 2006 IAAF Race Walking Challenge in Tlalnepantla de Baz, north of the Mexican capital, on Saturday (25).
Pérez holds of strong local challenge
Pérez, the 2003 and 2005 World Champion, held off the strong surge of Mexican prospect Eder Sánchez to win in 1:23:17, six seconds ahead of Sanchez.
Colombia’s Luis Fernando López, second in the 2005 Pan American Cup, was third in 1:24:24.
The men’s race remained even until half way, covered in 42:42 minutes by some 15 athletes on the 2km loop along the Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz Avenue.
Pérez and López took a slight lead after the 14km (59:36), but the Ecuadorian sped up with 5km to go and covered the next two kilometres in less than eight minutes (7:51) to take a comfortable lead of 26 seconds over Sánchez and 31 over López.
Eder reacted and caught Pérez in the 18km mark (1:15:29), followed by the Colombian (1:15.53).
The duo stayed together after 19km, but Jefferson attacked and prevailed with a short margin over his 19-year old rival, who was racing in his hometown.
“I made a mistake," said Jefferson. "I was excited and thought I had secured the win over more experienced athletes I know, like Bernardo Segura and Daniel García. It’s great to see Eder leading the new generation in Mexico. He should be ready as the crowd will not be the same in the World Cup as it was here.”
"We now want to win the individual and team competitions in the South American Cup in Cochabamba, Bolivia, in April, and then the World Cup in La Coruña, Spain," where he wants to claim his fourth title.
Top countries like Spain, Poland and Russia finally did not send athletes for the 20km in Mexico.
“With them, we could have had a better show. The last two laps were great, the crowd was excited and we showed that race walking is very competitive. You win in the last step, not the first one,” added the 1996 Olympic champion.
The 31-year old from Cuenca considers Mexico like his second home, “where I learned to win”. He won the Tijuana leg of the 2004 Challenge and went to finished second in the overall standings.
Publicly addressing Sánchez, Pérez wished him the best luck in the world.
“Congratulations. Mexican race walking will return to the elite, where it was. Latin-Americans will be protagonists in La Coruña,” he concluded.
Sánchez, who finished eighth at the 2005 Helsinki World Champs, repeated his runner-up performance from the Mexican leg of the 2005 Race Walking Challenge, held last year in the northern city of Tijuana.
"It was a tough competition. It is not easy to have the World champion as a rival, but I am satisfied. I have trained hard and worked 100% on technique and all aspects,” said Sanchez, who is coached by his father, Víctor Sánchez.
Answering Pérez, he added that competing next to him was quite an experience. “You learn a lot from him. I hope to finish among the top five in the World Cup. Representing Mexico and Latin America is a great feeling.”
Luis Fernando Lopez gave Colombia its first Challenge podium finish.
“I am happy to be able to race with stars like Jefferson Pérez and Bernardo Segura," said Lopez. "I am satisfied with the result as I was injured and had to stop for three months. I just returned to training in January. In 2000, I saw Segura and Jefferson on TV. Today, I am their rival and that’s very rewarding. We have the CAC Games in Colombia and we hope to have the best Mexicans there,” López said.
The race served as a qualifier for the World Cup and the top Mexicans made the team: Sánchez, Cristian Berdeja, Juan Emilio Toscano and 1997 World champion Daniel García, who returned to competition after a long absence with a seventh-place finish.
The fifth name will be chosen between Gabriel Ortiz, ninth, Bernardo Segura, who was disqualified after crossing the finish line in fifth place. In total, six of the top 10 were Mexicans.
First Challenge victory for Stef
A consistent athlete in the past two editions of the Challenge, Romania’s Claudia Stef held the strong challenge of her Chinese rivals to take her first victory in Mexico.
The 27-year-old, who finished fourth in Paris 2003 and eighth in the 2005 Helsinki World Championships, clocked 1:33.27, followed by the Chinese trio of Jiang Qiuyan (1:33.33), He Dan (1:33.42) and Shi Na (1:33.57).
Stef, Shi Na and Jiang Quiuyan shared the lead until the 19th kilometre, but the Romanian made her move with one kilometer to go and Shi Na could not respond.
Jiang had a strong finish and overtook her countrywomen to move up from fourth to second place.
The Chinese squad of 13 athletes arrived in Mexico City on 10 March to acclimatise to the high altitude.
Elena Ginko of Belarus was in the leading pack for most of the race, but apparently suffered the effects of high altitude and faded to fifth.
“I am 70% of my best form and I should be on top in La Coruña. It was hard to beat fast walkers like the Chinese. I felt the pressure, but I saved my energy for the end and enjoy my first victory in the Challenge,” said 28-year-old Stef, second in 2004 and third in 2005 in the overall standings of the Challenge.
Runner-up Shi praised the experience of competing on the altitude.
“We are happy to have three women among the top four, but we missed the first place.”
50km on Sunday
Mexico is the only event of the five-leg Challenge series where the 50km will be contested. On Sunday, the host country has high hopes in the longer distance, especially with Omar Zepeda and Horacio Nava, who finished sixth and ninth, respectively in Helsinki.
Spain’s Jesus Angel Garcia Bragado, the 1993 World champion and winner of the 50km race in the Tijuana leg of the 2003 Challenge, China’s Gadasu Alatan and Tianfeng Si will be three other top favourites for gold, as well as Victor Yinko of Belarus.
The local team also includes Miguel Solís, Claudio Vargas, Rogelio Sánchez and Jesús Sánchez. The race will be held along the same course as the 20km event, in the heart of Tlalnepantla de Baz, located 2250m above sea level.
Javier Clavelo Robinson and Gustavo Borges for the IAAF
1. Jefferson Pérez, Ecuador 1:23:17
2. Eder Sánchez, México 1:23:24
3. Luis Fernando López, Colombia 1:24:25
4. Cristian Berdeja, México 1:24:58
5. Erick Guevara, México 1:25.53
6. Xavier Moreno, Ecuador 1:26:06
7. Daniel García, México 1:26:11
8. Han Yucheng, China 1:26:28
9. Gabriel Ortiz, México 1:27:56
10. Alejandro Rojas, México 1:28:22
1. Claudia Stef, Romania 1:33:27
2. Jiang Qiuyan, China 1:33:33
3. Dan He, China 1:33:42
4. Na Shi, China 1:33:57
5. Elena Ginko, Belarus 1:34:21
6. Miriam Ramón, Ecuador 1:35:15
7. Liu Hong, China 1:36:34
8. Fabiola Godínez, Mexico 1:37:48
9. Esther Sánchez, Mexico 1:40:26
10. Yang Yawei, China 1:41:02
Women’s Junior 10km:
1. Jamy Franco, Guatemala 51:05
2. Luz Pérez, Mexico 52:38
3. Alejandra Ortega, Mexico 52:44
4. Angélica Arrieta, Mexico 53:15
5. Sara Hernández, Mexico 53:51