Imane Merga winning at the 2012 IAAF Cross Country Permit race at Atapuerca (Alfambra Fundación ANOC) © Copyright
Preview Burgos, Spain

Merga and Ayalew the favourites in Atapuerca

Defending champions Imane Merga and Hiwot Ayalew will return to Burgos on Sunday (16) for the 11th Cross Internacional de Atapuerca, the first of three Spanish races scheduled for the 2014-15 IAAF Cross Country Permit Series.

The organisers have assembled a star-studded line-up to take on three-time Cross de Atapuerca winner Merga, including world cross-country champion Japhet Korir and world cross bronze medallist Teklemariam Medhin. With Merga having taken the silver medal in Bydgoszcz last year, it means the whole podium from the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships will be present.

Korir provided a major surprise in taking the senior men’s title in Bydgoszcz to become the youngest ever senior champion, but he did not shine on the track that summer. The young Kenyan has had mixed success in 2014 too, clocking 1:02:41 on his half marathon debut in March in The Hague, then running a season’s best of 28:19 over 10km one month later.

Now back racing on the surface with which he is most suited, the 21-year-old will be eager to bounce back from his last year’s outing in Atapuerca when he had to settle for sixth place.

Merga could be nicknamed ‘Mr Atapuerca’ after winning three consecutive titles over the past three years. Arguably one of the most consistent cross-country specialists in recent years, his track accolades include a 10,000m PB of 26:57.33 and a bronze medal over the same distance at the 2011 World Championships.

His 5000m season’s best is ‘just’ 13:11.94, but he will be looking to prove himself on the circuit where he remains undefeated.

Based in Madrid where he trains under the guidance of Jeronimo Bravo, long-legged Medhin produced a 27:38.83 10,000m season’s best in Eugene two months after setting a half marathon PB of 1:01:47 in Lisbon. The Eritrean, who won the Cross de Atapuerca in 2010, will have his compatriot and training mate Samuel Tsegay – the current world half marathon silver medallist – for company.

But Merga’s toughest opposition could come from his own compatriots in the form of former world junior champion Muktar Edris and 2011 world 10,000m champion Ibrahim Jeilan.

Still only 20 years old, Edris finished seventh in the 5000m at the 2013 World Championships, just one year after winning the world junior title over the same distance.

More recently, the world junior cross-country bronze medallist lowered his 5000m PB to a world-leading 12:54.83 to win at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Stockholm. He heads to Burgos fresh from two victories on the roads, winning over 10km in Trento and 9.6km in Biella in October.

Two other top-seven finishers from the last World Cross Country Championships, Uganda’s fifth-place finisher Timothy Toroitich and Eritrea’s Goiton Kifle, will also be in Burgos.

Bahrain’s Albert Rop, who holds the 5000m Asian record at 12:51.62, and Kenya’s Emmanuel Bett, who finished second in Burgos last year, should complete a classy top 10 on Sunday.

The top Spanish runners will also be in contention in Atapuerca with the field including European cross-country champion Alemayehu Bezabeh, two-time European cross-country silver medallist Ayad Lamdassem, as well as Roberto Alaiz, Mohamed Marhum, Antonio Abadia, Ivan Fernandez, Daniel Mateo and Javier Guerra.

They all will be looking for a place on the Spanish team for the European Cross Country Championships in the Bulgarian city of Samokov on 14 December.

Ayalew looking for a hat-trick of victories

As with the men’s event, the women’s field assembled on Sunday is of a high calibre, thanks to the presence of Ethiopian duo Hiwot Ayalew and Belaynesh Oljira, the world cross-country silver and bronze medallists respectively.

In the absence of a World Cross Country Championships in 2014, 24-year-old Ayalew enjoyed a successful cross-country campaign and remained unbeaten in her six appearances, including commanding wins at the IAAF Cross Country Permit meetings in Atapuerca, San Giorgio Su Legnano and Seville.

In addition, she also showed a fine form on the track when she tackled her specialist event, the 3000m steeplechase, clocking a world-leading 9:10.64 and winning the Diamond Race.

Oljira, also 24, made her marathon debut in April in Boston and clocked a respectable 2:24:21. More recently, the world 10,000m bronze medallist triumphed on the roads at the Great South Run over 10 miles and over 10km in Bogota.

Trying to stop the Ethiopian duo from reaching the top spot of the podium will be the Kenyan pair of Mercy Cherono and Doris Changeywo.

World 5000m silver medallist Cherono has had one of her best seasons to date, winning at five IAAF Diamond League meetings and taking 5000m gold at the Commonwealth Games. The 23-year-old also excels on grass and mud, having won the world junior cross-country title in 2010. Cherono will try to improve on her third-place finish in Atapuerca last year.

Uganda’s Rebecca Cheptegei and Ethiopia’s Spain-based Marta Tigabea complete the African contingent.

The European response should come from Italy’s Elena Romagnolo, Poland’s Katarzyna Kowalska and Spain’s European steeplechase bronze medallist Diana Martin. Ethiopian-born Trihas Gebre gained Spanish nationality in August and will compete in Atapuerca as a Spaniard for the first time.

Weather forecasters predict a rainy and windy day with the thermometer hardly reaching 9°C.

Emeterio Valiente for the IAAF