East African countries will renew their rivalry this month at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Saint-Etienne/Saint-Galmier, France (19/20 March). While there is little doubt as to which teams will fight for the top spots there is quite another compelling battle to be fought between those consigned to be the best non-African teams.
Short races - Bronze and 6th
A year ago, it was Canada that laid claim to this distinction after capturing the bronze medal in the women’s short course race and finishing in a credible 6th place in the men’s 4km race. The team’s performance in Brussels was testament to the vision of Canadian distance running coach, Martin Goulet.
Without batting an eye Goulet believes Canada should have finished 4th in the men’s race after one of the Canadians fell in the first kilometre losing valuable seconds. Algeria and Morocco were 4th and 5th just nine points ahead.
“I came into my current position with Athletics Canada in 1999,” says the Montrealer whose official title is Director of Endurance Programs, “I recommended that we focus on the short course for the future for two reasons. First of all it wasn’t very difficult to figure out Canada would be more competitive in the short race - we had a shot - including against the African nations. And the other thing is that in our analysis there is a better link with the short race in preparation for most of our athletes for the summer season. So the programme we have built since ‘99 is based on these two assumptions.”
Goulet set about convincing the top Canadian runners to participate in the cross country programme - not an easy task given the crushing defeats these athletes had suffered in years past. He reserves special praise for 1500m specialists Kevin Sullivan (5th in the Sydney Olympics) and Carmen Douma-Hussar (2004 World Indoor silver medalist), as well as Emilie Mondor (8th in the 2004 long course and 13th in the short course) as positive influences on the programme.
“I think the leadership came from Kevin Sullivan, Carmen Douma and Emilie Mondor. They are the leaders of what has happened. They believe in the program and because of their example they helped the others to shine,” he says. “It has taken five years but after five years we have seen results. We have great team spirit. We are going (to the World Cross) as a team. I really think cross country is the occasion to come together with our community of runners and try to achieve something as a team. Last year Emily wanted to focus on the long course but ran the short course the next day for the team. These people really helped to drive the programme.”
Although Mondor is recovering from injury both Sullivan and Douma-Hussar return in good shape. Neither was terribly surprised at how the Canadians performed a year ago but they admit injuries to key team members has them concerned about their prospects this time around.
“It’s kind of funny it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the top two team places are taken and the race is for third,” says Douma Hussar, “So I guess, you always think the U.S. is always strong and Britain is strong. Last year I am not sure of the exact score but I think 2nd place was out of our reach.”
“It was really exciting when we finished the race last year and we had got third place. This year it’s a little different because Melindi Elmore, Emilie Mondor and Tina Connelly - three of our top four - won’t be racing. But we do have some good up and coming runners so it may be not as good as last year but better than other years.”
As if to underscore Douma-Hussar’s claim one of those up and comers - 23 year old Megan Metcalfe of Edmonton - ran 3000m in 8:58.17 a fortnight ago in New York. In doing so she not only demonstrated optimal fitness but displaced Douma-Hussar from the top of the Canadian list.
The leader in France though is likely to be Douma-Hussar, a composed figure on the interntional stage. She has been focusing on the World Cross Country meet but has run three indoor races to test herself, recording a world leading mile time of 4:28.43 in New York in January. Coached by three time World Indoor 1500m champion, Marcus O’Sullivan of Ireland, she is also a part time coach at Villanova University.
“Hurting all the way”
Kevin Sullivan, 31, is optimistic that the men’s team is prepared for the competition although three time Canadian cross country champion, Simon Bairu, will not compete, having been advised by Goulet to focus on his final year of NCAA eligibility for the University of Wisconsin. There are some new faces in the team and Sullivan has some good advice for them.
“I think the team is comparable to last year. We haven’t run as fast this year as most of the guys did last year but talent wise I think everyone is pretty comparable,” he explains. “The biggest thing is we have some new comers on the team who haven’t experienced the short race at World Cross and so it’s just a matter of how they are going to react to the race.”
“One of the biggest things is that in that short race there is never really any place where you get to relax and settle into a pace. And if you find yourself settling that’s when you find guys going by you. So it’s like this constant mental effort to stay with the guys that you went out with. Really, to be honest it’s to make sure you are hurting the whole way. That’s the way it feels running a good race at World Cross.”
Paul Gains for the IAAF