With the highest mountain in the country that gave Kenya her name providing the picturesque backdrop, rookie John Chepkwony and seasoned Lineth Chepkurui thrived at the Armed Forces Cross Country Championships on Saturday (22).
For the watching World Cross legend that is Captain Paul Tergat, the occasion marked an emotional return to the course where he won the Forces men’s long race title at the peak of his powers in 1996 in his first public appearance since a horror road accident last month.
For Chepkwony, winning the men’s 12km race in a nail biting final sprint battle against Alex Oloitiptip where the current holder of the world title, Joseph Ebuya, failed to leave his footprint, was a bold statement of intent from the World Junior 5000m silver medallist.
Chepkurui, a fourth finisher at the World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz last year, employed guile to recapture the title taken from her by Iness Chenonge with a brilliantly executed tactical run.
Those were the ingredients that mixed to serve a cross country treat that played out at a dusty, windy and flat course with searing heat and punishing 6300m elevation battering, bruising and in some cases, totally sapping runners to submission.
Mt Kenya, the second highest in Africa (17,057 feet elevation at highest peak) towered over the proceedings.
SENIOR MEN 12KM
With World Cross champion, Joseph Ebuya, who last week finished fifth in Seville, returning for his first slice of domestic action along with the rank and file came to pay homage to Paul Tergat, the first man to win five World Cross titles in a row (1995 to 1999) who with a cast on his right leg watched today’s races while supported on crutches.
“It feels so good to be around people again. I thank God for surviving the accident. I thought then it was the end but the experience has taught me so many things and helped me reflect on my life,” the legend told of his first outing since the December accident. Soon, the Armed Forces captain took his seat at the high table to soak in the action. The last time the event was held just outside Nanyuki’s Laikipia Airbase in 1996, Tergat won the men’s long race en route to his second World title.
As expected Forces bigwigs Ebuya, defending champion, Mark Kiptoo (seventh, Amman 2009), Linus Chumba (25th Amman), Vincent Chepkok (junior silver Mombasa), Josphat Kiprono Menjo, Shadrack Kosgei and Kimutai Kiplimo were among the front running group that hit the front a lap (2km) from the start. In the same company were Chepkwony, Oloitiptip and Willy Chebon, the budding talent.
No major change was witnessed until the signal went up for the final two laps (8km) when the searing heat scorched Ebuya out of contention. Menjo, Kosgei, Kiplimo, Chumba and finally Chebon fell off the pace at the bell to leave Chepkok to contend with Chepkwony and Oloitiptip who were racing side-by-side with 600m left.
The Mombasa 2007 silver medallist was soon dispensed with as the front pair shifted the gears for the grandstand finish that played out. As the two came chest to chest, the bridesmaid from the Moncton World Junior champs summoned enough energy to hold off the challenger in the last 20m. The clock read 34:41.2 against 35:41.4, two hundredths of a second as the margin of victory.
“I’m very proud to win this race. I want to uphold the tradition we have here at the Forces and become a World champion just like (John) Ngugi, Tergat, (William) Sigei and Ebuya before me,” the winner who joined Forces after Moncton said.
This was his third triumph on the domestic scene following his victories at the second (Kipkelion) and fourth (Embu) KCB/AK National Cross Country Series meetings.
“This has come as a result of hard training at my camp in Kaptagat and now I have to add more effort to make the national team. I believe I can make it,” he explained.
Behind the front pair, Chepkok (35:47.1) was a clear third with Chebon (35:51.0) and Chumba (35:52.1) closing the top five.
“This youngsters want to send us to packing but we will soldier on,” Chepkok who won the fifth KCB/AK meet in Kisii joked.
Last year, a dropped shoe saw Lineth Chepkurui cede her Forces title to Iness Chenonge, and therefore, the three-time World Cross campaigner had only one mission in mind: to reclaim her billing at the top.
A smattering of seasoned runners among them Olympics 1500m champion, Nancy Jebet, 1997 World 10,000m gold winner, Sally Barsosio, Irene Kwambai (11th Vilamoura 2000 long race) and Olympian Peninah Arusei were among those who raced alongside her in the opening exchanges.
Commonwealth 3000m Steeplechase silver medallist, Mercy Njoroge and her 10,000m equivalent Doris Changeiywo were still in the picture for the win.
But Chepkurui’s biggest threat came in the shape of Chenonge and Toronto Marathon titleholder, Sharon Cherop, who had exhibited her cross country running credentials by winning at the sixth KCB/AK meet in Nyahururu.
At 6km, the trio had put daylight between them and pretenders and when the rush for victory was signalled, Chenonge, then Cherop, again Chenonge, then the challenger took turns to head the queue for honours.
All the while, Chepkurui waited her time, just a stride behind the pair. Cherop burned out with 500m to go leaving Chenonge ahead as the Bydgoszcz fourth placer patiently trailed her.
With 100m to go, Chepkurui eased past Chenonge with a mini-burst of pace and had the time to ease off for a comfortable 27:18.3 victory. Chenonge (27:19.2) closed out second, as Cherop (27:26.5) sealed the podium.
“I know I’m due a World Cross title. Last year, poor tactics cost me a medal but that will not happen this time. I love cross country running as my build-up and after the World Cross, I’m aiming at seeking the 10km World record and continue featuring in half marathons,” Chepkurui said.
Ebuya: Down but not out
Having returned from European winter where he has starred on the IAAF Permit cross series, World titleholder Joseph Ebuya, who finished 23rd here conceded the heat had drained his armoury.
“But give me a week and I will be back to my best. I’m out to defend my World title so that I can be rated among the great Forces’ runners such as Ngugi, Tergat and Sigei.”
“I’m ready to go to Spain and win. I’m satisfied with my build-up. However, organisers should put some barriers on the course we shall use for the World Cross. I like it but it did not make me happy since it is too flat and it will make it difficult to plan how to beat opponents,” added the athlete who was among those who toured the Punta Umbria World Cross course in Spain in the past week.
At the end of the day 40 runners were selected to join the Armed Forces training camp at Ngong, Nairobi for build-up ahead of the 19 February IAAF Permit/AK National Cross Country Championships. “We will name our final team a week before,” Noah Ngeny, who is the chairman of Armed Forces Ak branch disclosed.
Mutwiri Mutuota (The Standard) for IAAF
1. John Chepkwony (TKA) 35:41.2
2. Leonard Oloitiptip (LAB) 35:41.4
3. Vincent Kiprop (KAH) 35:47.1
4. Willy Chebon (MAB) 35:51.0
5. Linus Chumba (EMB) 35:52.1
6. Kimutai Kiplimo (LAB) 35:55.1
8. Shadrack Kosgei (KAH) 35:58.7
1. Linet Chepkirui (MAB) 27:18.3
2. Iness Chenonge (MAB) 27:19.2
3. Sharon Cherop (ISL) 27:26.5
4. Peninah Arusei (TKA) 27:32.4
5. Hellen Obiri (LAB) 27:41.7
6. Mercy Njoroge (LAB) 27:45.8
7. Doris Changeiywo (EMB) 27:48.2
8. Irene Kwambai (EMB) 28:29.6