Benita Willis in action at the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh (Getty Images) © Copyright
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Willis, Birmingham to lead Australia in Bydgoszcz

pumps go, it was subdued. But even an almost-imperceptible gesture can sometimes speak volumes, and so it was when Benita Willis crossed the line to win the Australian women’s world cross country selection trial.

“It’s a great start to the year and adds value to me putting 2009 behind me and looking ahead to a stronger 2010,” Willis said.

“I enjoyed a fantastic training program at Falls Creek (Vic) this summer and I’m as fit as I can be so I came here today to run well, hopefully win and cement my standing as Australia’s best cross country runner.”

Collis Birmingham produced a strong closing burst to win the senior men’s race and will lead Australia’s men’s team in Bydgoszcz, but the women’s race was the stronger this day and Willis’s performance its main story.

Willis – back up after a series of ups and downs

Normally, a former World Cross Country champion would not get too excited about winning a selection race (Kenya or Ethiopia excepted!), but for Willis, things have gone awry starting almost from her long-course win in the World Cross Country Championship in Brussels in 2004. At first, good and bad performances seemed to come by turns; latterly, as she coped with the death of her father in 2008 and a marriage break-up, it seemed all downhill.

The nadir came in the annual Emil Zatopek 10,000m late last year when Willis finished ninth in just under 34 minutes, almost three-and-a-half minutes slower than her national record. Six of the eight who finished ahead of her that 10 December night were running the Cross Country selection trial. Willis grows an extra leg for cross country; this time it seemed even that might not be enough.

The course was a 2Km loop in Brimbank Park, which nestles in a gorge alongside the Maribyrnong River. Melbourne had experienced a 40-plus C. day at the start of the week, and the temperature the day before the race peaked above 30, but a welcome cool change brought far more moderate conditions.

Willis runs her best cross country races when in, or near, the lead. From the gun she was perched in second place behind Tamara Carvolth, an Australian junior representative at the past two World Cross Country championships. A pack of seven -  Carvolth, Willis, Nikki Chapple, Lara Tamsett, Anna Thompson, Zatopek winner, Eloise Wellings, and Fiona Nash - soon put some space in the rest of the field.

Into the final loop, it was down to Willis and Chapple, winner of the Great Australian Run 15k and fifth, some 90 seconds in front of Willis, in the Zatopek. Tamsett was an isolated third with Thompson fourth and Carvolth, Wellings and Jessica Trengove battling it out for fifth and sixth.

Having come this far, Willis was not to be denied. She forged a break and raced up the short, steep hill to the finish clear of Chapple by some 20 metres (26:56 to 27:00 for the 8km). Tamsett (27.26), Thompson (27.55), Carvolth (28.05) and Wellings (28.06) followed. Nash unluckily failed to finish, apparently rolling an ankle.

Even through the bad times, Willis’s better runs have come in the world cross-country. She was seventh in defence of her title in 2005, fourth in both long and short races in Fukuoka in 2006 and defied a terrible lead-up to finish 11th in Edinburgh two years ago, leading Australia to a team bronze medal.

With Tamsett (26th in Amman), Thompson (four times a top-20 finisher in world Cross Country), Carvolth (34th in the 2008 junior race) and Wellings (22nd in the long race in 2006), Willis believes that Australia is capable of a third women’s team medal in five years in Bydgoszcz.

“Today’s results show the current strength in Australian women’s running and it’s great to know that we will field a strong team at the world cross country championships that is in serious contention for a medal.”

Birmingham sets himself up for a busy time

Collis Birmingham bided his time for over five of the six laps before stamping his authority on the men’s trial. With an impressive injection of pace over the closing stages he ran to a 40-metre victory in 36:50.

Second was 2009 national Cross Country champion Clint Perrett (36:57), just a few seconds ahead of Duer Yoa (37:00), with Liam Adams (37:04) and Jeff Hunt (37:08) close behind.

Birmingham, who won the Zatopek 10,000m before Christmas, will race in Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne before the world Cross Country, and then return to Australia for the national titles in Perth in mid-April. It will, he admitted, be a busy time.

Kevin Batt, who trains with Ryan Gregson, won the junior men’s race and Demi Wood, a daughter of 1983 world championships Marathon representative Grenville Wood, won the junior men’s and women’s races respectively.

The Australian teams for the World Cross Country Championships are expected to be announced this week. Birmingham and Willis are automatic selections following their wins in the trial races.

Len Johnson for the IAAF

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