The IAAF World Cross Challenge has reached the halfway mark: the 13th Cross Auchan Lille Metropole, which takes place tomorrow in Tourcoing in the north of France, is the sixth stage of the Challenge, which reaches its climax in the 26th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech on 21-22 March.
Yann Millon, who currently heads the standings, will have a chance to increase his lead given the absence of his closest rivals Hendrik Ramaala (RSA) and Paul Kosgei (KEN), but to do so he will have to head off the assault of a strong Kenyan squad including 3000m steeplechase world champion Bernard Barmasai, Laban Chege, who beat Millon in last week’s Belfast International Cross, Matthew Birir and Philip Mosima.
Nor will Moroccan athletes Elarbi Khattabi, another specialist of the steeplechase with a personal best of 8:11.50 in the event last year, and two-time world cross country champion and 1992 Olympic champion in the 10,000m in Barcelona Khalid Skah be giving Millon any ground. Skah, now aged 31, is still looking for his top form in the hope of inclusion in the Moroccan team for the World Cross Country Championships in Marrakech.
In addition to Millon, France will be fielding Mustapha Essaid and Abdellah Behar, while Andrew Pearson will be attempting to uphold the honour of Britain’s cross country tradition. Another man to watch will be Robert Stefko of Slovakia.
Romania’s Mariana Chirila will have her shot at the head of the women’s standings as neither Merima Denboba (ETH) nor the current leader Jaqueline Maranga (KEN) will be racing in Tourcoing, but she will have her work cut out with Britain’s Paula Radcliffe. We saw a magnificent duel between Chirila and Radcliffe in Belfast last Sunday, with the British athlete beaten in the final sprint by the Romanian (and by Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei), after leading for most of the race. We can expect another closely fought battle tomorrow, though there may be some change in tactics.
Paula Radcliffe can expect strong backing from her team, which includes Liz Talbot and Vicki McPherson, whilst Chirila will be counting on her compatriot Stela Olteanu.