This year’s Almond Blossom Cross Country doubles as the Portuguese Clubs Championships, so there is a strong chance of a home victory at the IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in Albufeira on Sunday (13).
Over the past 20 years, just three Portuguese athletes have triumphed at the event: Fernanda Ribeira in 2003, Ana Dulce Felix in 2010 and Manuel Damiao in 2013. But African athletes have generally dominated and there’s still every possibility an international runner could win this weekend.
The domestic focus, though, will be on the rivalry between Portugal’s two leading athletics clubs, Benfica and Sporting. The director of the latter is none other than 1984 Olympic marathon champion Carlos Lopes, who also won the first edition of the Almond Blossom Cross Country in 1977.
The Sporting team hasn’t made it on to the national clubs championships podium since 1999, while their last individual champion was in 1997. But their expectations are high for this year as their team includes the likes of 2004 Olympic bronze medallist Rui Silva, 2010 European cross-country bronze medallist Youssef El Kalai and 2015 national cross-country silver medallist Licino Pimentel.
Benfica, the national clubs champions since 2013, will have on their team the 2015 national cross-country champion Rui Pinto, two-time national champion Rui Pedro Silva and – if he has recovered from a recent injury – 2013 Almond Blossom winner Damiao.
But their biggest threat for the individual title is likely to come from Kenya’s Paris Half Marathon champion Cyprian Kotut, who has a half-marathon PB of 59:12, and Uganda’s Moses Kibet, who finished eighth at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships Guiyang 2015.
Kenyan athletes won 14 of the 15 men’s titles on offer between 1997 and 2012 but haven’t won since then. Meanwhile, no Ugandan athlete has ever won the men’s race at the Almond Blossom Cross Country.
Former winner takes on top Europeans
Correti Jepkoech will be aiming to become the first three-time winner of the women’s race since 1984.
The Kenyan won in Albufeira in 2012 and 2013 before going on to set PBs of 31:05 for 10km and 1:09:35 for the half marathon. But she hasn’t raced since October 2014, so her current form is unknown.
Juliet Chekwel, the 2015 Ugandan cross-country champion, is among the other international entrants, along with Andrea Deelstra of the Netherlands, who finished fifth at last year’s Berlin Marathon.
But the leading Portuguese women will also be expected to be among the lead group. Defending clubs champions Benfica will be represented by 2012 European 10,000m champion Ana Dulce Felix, 2011 European under-23 10,000m silver medallist Catarina Ribeiro, Carla Salome Rocha, and 2008 Olympic triathlon silver medallist Vanessa Fernandes.
The major names on Sporting’s team are 2013 European indoor 3000m champion Sara Moreira, 2010 European cross-country champion Jessica Augusto and national cross-country short-course champion Daniela Cunha.
Aside from these two teams, the Salgueiros club could also be competitive with the likes of Olympian Marisa Barros on their team.
Antonio Fernandes for the IAAF