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Hailu goes one better than Haile

By Phil Minshull for the IAAF in Belfast

There is no doubt that the phenomenal Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie has had a tremendous impact on the life of Hailu Mekonnen. Any chat with Mekonnen is punctuated with the phrase, "Haile has helped me so much."

However the young Mekonnen has now gone one better than his idol, mentor and training partner.

Despite an illustrious career which has seen him scoop every other honour, Gebrselassie never notched up an individual world cross country title but now Mekonnen has one to his name after winning the world junior men’s title in Belfast.

At the halfway point seven men were still in contention with five Kenyans being accompanied by Mekonnen and his compatriot Abiyote Abate.

The group passed through the four kilometre point in a speedy 12:21 point and the pace never relented with Kenya’s Richard Limo, second last year, pushing hard in an effort to strike the gold which eluded him in Marrakech.

The group were whittled down to four shortly after the five kilometre mark when Mekonnen, Abate, Limo and another Kenyan Kipchumba Mitei left the other three Kenyans struggling to keep up.

However, with six kilometres being passed in 18:58, Mekonnen broke away, opening up a small gap move which proved to be crucial in deciding here the medals went.

In a thrilling finale to the race, Limo and Mitei got back in touch with Mekonnen as they entered the last kilometre but the effort seemed to sap their strength in the home stretch and the Ethiopian sprinted away from his two challengers with 500m to go to the line.

With his arms pumping like a middle-distance runner rather than someone who had endured 8,012km of syrup-like mud, Mekonnen crossed the line in 25:38 with Limo five seconds behind.

"I did not expect to be the winner, to be honest I expected second. I have raced Richard many times and he has usually come in front of me," an exhausted Mekonnen said.

"However I followed him, watched what he did and at six kilometres I noticed he looked tired. He gave me a chance and I took it."

Both Mekonnen and Limo know each other well, spending their time in Europe based in Holland and managed by the same agent Jos Hermans.

The winner showed few outward signs of having won the bronze medal in the men’s short race on Saturday although even he admitted to feeling a bit weary on the inside.

"I did not fell tired at the start of the day but I do now! Running on this muddy course has given me a pain in my back and hip," Mekonnen added.

After making the medal podium on two consecutive days, Mekonnen said that he would now take a rest - although it is the sort of rest that would leave most people gasping. "What will I do tomorrow? 50 or 60 minutes of easy running!"

Limo had the disappointment of having the settle for second place yet again and it showed on his face.

"Yes, I did come here expecting to win. The conditions were a big problem for me. Two second places, Well I’m still young. I would have liked to have been world champion but I still have some more years," Limo commented.

However his personal sadness was tempered by the fact that Kenya had regained the team title that they lost to Ethiopia last year after being in their hands for ten consecutive years.

"Of course we all want individual success but equally important is the fact that Kenya got back the team title," Limo said.

With four of the first six home, Kenya were easy winners with 16 points. Ethiopia had all four scorers in the top ten to give them a 24 point tally and the team silver medals.

Tanzania made it an East African clean sweep of the junior men’s medals, with 78 points for the bronze medals, the first time the country had been on the medal podium at a World Cross Country Championship since 1992 when Andrew Sambu too the junior men’s title.