Radcliffe and Wami in action (Getty Images, Michael Steele) © Copyright
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Radcliffe out on her own at start of 2003

World Cross Country Champion Paula Radcliffe, holder of the women's world marathon best performance, has seen her two greatest rivals drop out of the first major cross country race of 2003 over the past week but will still be going all out to show last year's successes are just the start of her domination of women’s distance running.

The Great North Cross Country was to have seen Radcliffe take on the double threat of Ethiopian team mates Deratu Tulu and Geta Wami but over the festive season both have had to withdraw from the Tyneside race.

Not for the first time would these three athletes have faced each other in the north east of England during the winter months and this year was billed as the best ever meeting as all three seem to be in great shape.  But it looks like the Great Britain athlete and multi award winner will have to wait until later in the year before coming up against probably her most deadly rivals.

Like her British rival, Wami, successfully made the shift up to the marathon distance last year- although not as spectacularly. Just seven days after Radcliffe's world record breaking two hours 17 minutes 18 seconds success in Chicago, the Ethiopian's debut in the Amsterdam Marathon on October 20 saw her win in a national record time of 2:22:19.

But the slightly built 28-year-old has been forced to scratch from the race after contracting a virus that she has been unable to shake off in time.

If the news of the Wami’s withdrawal wasn’t bad enough, Peter Elliott, a silver medallist in the 1988 Olympics who is the athletes co-ordinator for the prestigious event, had another “bad day at the office” when he received the news that Derartu Tulu also had to scratch. 

“It’s a great blow to both the race itself and the thousands we are expecting to come and watch. Both Tulu and Wami always receive a warm welcome to this part of the country but I do know that they would not want to come here and just make up the numbers”.

Elliot was quick to point out that Tulu, who has just a great win in Doha over 10k, hadn’t decided just to avoid running against the in-form Radcliffe on her home soil:  “ I honestly believe that Tulu isn’t in the right shape at the moment, not only to take on Paula Radcliffe but the rest of a very competitive field”.  He added: “ I am well aware that she did score a great victory in Doha but running roads and running cross-country are two totally different things”.

Peter Elliott is hoping with a little help from former British athletics team mate Richard Nerurkar, he has found the perfect replacement for Tulu.

"I've think I've found the perfect athlete in Worknesh Kidane," said Elliott spending New Year's Day searching the globe for another world class runner. "She finished second in the World Cross Country short course race last spring.

"She ran strongly in Dublin but I rate her victory at the Great Ethiopian Run in November an even higher achievement. At altitude she scorched around the 10 kilometres course and is obviously in great shape."

"Kidane wants to run and her agent is making the necessary flight arrangements to get her to Newcastle," said Elliott. "However visas always seem to be a problem and Richard who works out of the British Embassy will try and cut any red tape if it becomes necessary.

"I think she will prove an able replacement and offer genuine opposition to Radcliffe," added Elliott who has already signed the World Cross short course gold medallist Edith Masai, the Kenyan who placed runner-up to Radcliffe in the Commonwealth Games 5000 metres.
 
The highlight of the men's 9K race promises to be the clash between reigning World Cross County and Half Marathon champions, Ethiopia's Kennenisa Bekele and Paul Kosgei of Kenya.

Elliott has strengthened the men's event by adding Sammy Kipketer, the Commonwealth 5000 metres gold medallist to the nine kilometre field.

One of the hottest properties currently on the global athletics stage, the brilliant 20-year-old Kenyan, apart from his Manchester achievement, also holds the World 5 and 10 kilometres road running records:  "He's an unbelievable talent and will prove a strong contender next month," said Elliott who feels Kipketer will start on equal footing against defending title holder and reigning World Champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia.