MonteCarloIt is not at all surprising that Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele’s racing intentions ahead of next weekend’s 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium (20-21 March) loom large over the event. However, to overlook the claim to fame of one of the female protagonists in Brussels would be to do Kenya’s Edith Masai a great injustice.
Masai, 36, the mother of a twelve year old son, will attempt to capture a third consecutive World short course gold medal next Sunday. No other woman has achieved more than one title at this distance since it was added to the programme in 1998.
Even by long course race standards the feat would be significant, given that it was last achieved in 1992 by USA’s Lynn Jennings (1990-1992), and before that back in the 1980’s by Norway’s Grete Waitz (four consecutive wins, 1978-1981).
The challenge is formidable.
In Brussels Masai once again faces the entire medal podium from Lausanne last winter, with six of the top eight women from the 2003 championships contesting the title in Brussels. Add the other variable of Netherlands’ Lornah Kiplagat and Britain’s Paula Radcliffe who are entered for both distances in Brussels, and you have a formidable army of opponents for Masai.
However, the World 5000m bronze medallist last summer will face perhaps her most potent attack from Ethiopia’s Werknesh Kidane, the reigning long course champion who she so narrowly beat - by just one second - to the short course title in Lausanne.
Omulo Okoth (East African Standard) for the IAAF internet recently caught up with Masai in the Kenyan team training camp near Mount Kenya, and found an athlete confident of competing the triple despite some recent below-par results.
Double World short course champion Edith Masai remains confident of retaining her World title next weekend at the 32nd IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium (20/21 March) despite having shelved her original season’s plan to run in both the 4km and 8km because she believes running conditions might be too tough.
However, in terms of just the shorter distance, Masai who turns 37 years of age on 4 April, is inspired by her belief in God and was in confident mood. “I am already celebrating my victory in Brussels and I am now planning for Athens,” she confirmed from the Kenyan training camp in Embu, near Mount Kenya
"This is the year to just win and celebrate, all in the name of our creator. I am already focusing on the Athens Olympics," said Masai.
However, Masai’s over-confidence seems to be bordering on the preposterous and which could be her main undoing, as all the top four finishers from last year's World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne are again in the race this year in Brussels - Masai, Ethiopia's Werknesh Kidane, who was second, Kenya's Jane Gakunyi, who was third, and Isabella Ochichi, bronze medalist in 2002, who was pipped by Gakunyi on the finish line last year. Add to that Australia’s Benita Johnson (5th) and Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba (7th) the World 5000m champion are also in the field.
Recent form hasn’t been that promising either even on the national level as Masai lost to Beatrice Jepchumba, a former world junior champion, and Gakunyi at the Kenyan trials. These girls have not won much money and are openly hungry for glory and financial rewards that go with it.
Attack from the gun
Yet Masai remains adamant about her success next weekend. So, how does she plan to tackle them and the Ethiopians?
"I will attack from the start because this is a bad course. I won on this course, known as Cross Cup in 2002 but the conditions were so bad last year that I was 18th. I know it and that is why I have shelved my plans to run both 8km and 4km races," said Masai.
Speed work and no pressure
Masai who is the mother of a 12-year-old boy has promised to win again and again to emulate her male compatriots John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, who each five world titles in their careers.
"Like you can see, I am feeling no pressure at all despite being the title holder. God says blessed are those who believe in him. I am one of those already blessed," says Masai, with a grin across her face.
Masai, a senior sergeant at Kenya Prisons Service, a rank she received largely due to her athletics exploits, won the Kenya Prisons’ Championships in January and was third at the National trials, and says she is ready for her challenge in Belgium.
"We've done enough speed work and with a closer supervision by the coaches, I am confident we'll do well," she said.
‘Punishing’ their Ethiopian opponents
Besides Gakunyi and Ochichi, the other members of the 4km team are Beatrice Jepchumba, who won the national title, Peninah Jepchumba who was fourth at the trials and former junior world champion Vivian Cheruiyot.
Masai confirms Ethiopians will pose the biggest challenge in Brussels. They run as a team and are fired-up for victories, she said. "Look at what they did during the World Championships in Paris," commented Masai with a sigh. "But with Ochichi and Gakunyi in the team, not to mention the rest, we shall also do our own team work and we'll punish them," said Masai.