21 JAN 2010 Preview Antrim, UK

Golden opportunity for Skinner and Vernon, women’s spotlight on Yelling - Antrim International preview

Hayley Yelling takes the senior women's title at the 2009 European XC Champs (Hans Sjögren)Hayley Yelling takes the senior women's title at the 2009 European XC Champs (Hans Sjögren) © Copyright
Commonwealth Games 10,000m champion Boniface Kiprop may be a late withdrawal, but there is still a formidable field for the Antrim International, the sixth IAAF Cross Country Permit race of the season, which takes place on Saturday (23).

The 24-year-old star was one of the favourites to take the senior men’s title after setting the pace in last year’s event, only to have the misfortune of losing his shoe after four miles and conceding valuable seconds to Imane Merga of Ethiopia.

Having recovered the shoe, Kiprop made the fatal mistake of closing the gap on the leaders too quickly. An exhausted Kiprop was then unable to cover Merga’s sprint finish who won by two seconds over the disgruntled Ugandan.

Despite Kiprop’s absence due to an illness which also sidelined him from the Edinburgh fixture two weeks ago, the race still boasts a high class field, with two of Britain’s top three finishers in the senior men’s event at the recent Europeans in Dublin confirming that they will compete at the Greenmount Campus in Antrim this weekend.

Blackheath’s Mike Skinner was overtaken in last month’s event in Dublin by Andy Vernon, the pair finishing 13th and 12th respectively behind their countryman Mo Farah who claimed second.

Skinner is in a rich vein of form coming in to Saturday’s event, with victories at Gateshead and Liverpool already this season. His performance in Dublin helped the British side to the silver team medals behind winners Spain.

Aldershot native Vernon is equally at home on both cross country and track. A silver medallist at the European Under-23 Championships in 2008, he captured the national 10,000m track title in July to add to a 5000m victory from the previous year.

Other athletes hoping to impress in the Antrim 9km challenge are Mike Clohisey, Tseqi Tewelde of Eritrea, Kenyan Mike Kigen and Youssef El Kalai of Morocco along with local hopefuls Stephen Scullion, Joe McAllister and Ed McGinley.

Focus on Yelling – women’s race

The Women’s 5.6km event is shaping up to be a battle between some of this season’s top international cross country stars, with new European Cross Country champion Hayley Yelling among those set to compete at Greenmount.

Yelling turned 36 this week, and will be hoping for more to celebrate after she caused the biggest European Cross Country upset in years by taking gold at Santry in Dublin.

An elite field of runners was decimated by a devastating display of front running from the Dorchester-born teacher as she secured a memorable seven-second victory over runner-up Rosa Morato of Spain.

Yelling’s achievement was all the more astonishing as she was only back in training for four weeks, having previously announced her retirement in 2008 at the European Championships in Brussels. Yelling’s first place finish and a strong display by her teammates ensured Britain notched a team silver behind Portugal.

Ana Dulce Felix was a member of that all-conquering Portuguese line-up, and travels to Antrim following a sixth place individual finish in Dublin. The 27-year-old is aiming to build on her 2009 success which saw her record 10 personal bests over a range of distances. She was also an impressive 15th in the World Cross Country Championships in Amman.

Meanwhile, a win for European indoor bronze medallist Mary Cullen would bring glory to Ireland for the first time in 16 years. The Sligo athlete is bidding to bounce back from a disappointing 12th place finish in last month’s Europeans before an expectant home crowd in Dublin.

The run was particularly frustrating as Cullen’s previous form showed medal potential. This included a fourth place in the Europeans in Brussels, an Irish indoor 3000m record of 8:43.74 in Boston and a bronze medal in the European indoors in Turin.

In Antrim, Cullen will be targeting both Yelling and Felix in the hope she can improve upon her previous best at the event, a fourth place finish in Stormont four years ago.

Recently-crowned European junior Cross Country bronze medallist Kate Avery will lead the charge in the junior race. The Durham athlete is currently on a high following an unexpected third place in the Dublin event behind Norwegian winner Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal.

Avery also won silver in the 3000m at the European Juniors and joining her at Greenmount is Delilah Dicrescenzo of the USA who was fourth in her national championships this year. She also finished a respectable 33rd in the World Cross Country in Amman.

The Belfast International meeting began in 1977 and has seen some of the world’s top athletes take victories at the event over the years. Notable names have included Paula Radcliffe, Paul Tergat, Steve Cram, Steve Ovett, John Treacy, Khalid Skah, Sergey Lebid, Liz McColgan and Brendan Foster, plus a host of other world class Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes.

Coilin Duffy for IAAF