The withdrawal of World Marathon recordholder Paula Radcliffe from the IAAF World Cross-country Championships in Brussels will make pursuit of a historic double just a little bit easier for Werknesh Kidane.
Twice a previous winner of the long course title, the English woman is ruled out of a record-breaking twelfth GB world appearance because of a hamstring injury, though this should not present long-term problems.
"Now it’s a case of getting back into training," said Radcliffe. “That should be shortly, as it isn’t a serious injury.” Not that she was guaranteed an easy ride, with Kidane and Lornah Kiplagat, first woman to defeat Radcliffe in more than two years, in the Brussels field.
The 22-year-old Ethiopian, Kidane, is determined to attempt a double only previously achieved in Marrakech (1998) by Sonia O’Sullivan. Silver medallist in the 10,000m at last year’s World Championships in Paris, Kidane missed the double by just a single second last spring in Lausanne.
Kidane goes for the double
Having won the long race, she then lost the 4000m event, out-sprinted by Edith Masai. That was her second silver behind the Kenyan prison officer who is now intent on a third successive victory, another tilt at history, for this is a feat only ever achieved by Norwegian Grete Waitz (1980), and USA’s Lynn Jennings (1992).
Kidane has recovered from injury earlier this year, and had looked in even better form, perhaps, than Radcliffe. She won four cross-country races in Spain over the winter, before achieving a unique short and long course double at the 21st East African Cross-Country Championships a fortnight ago in Addis Ababa.
The 22-year-old is upbeat over the possibility of another double in Belgium, but believes underfoot conditions will be against her: “Last year, the weather was great in Lausanne. From what we hear, it rains in Belgium this time of the year, which will make the course more difficult.”
But even before Radcliffe’s withdrawal, she relished the occasion: “It makes me happy to run against many world class runners. I am looking forward to the challenge…with the help of God, I am ready to get a good result in both races.”
Kiplagat has learned from Radcliffe's example
Kiplagat, Kenyan-born, but wearing Holland’s colours since marriage to her manager, Peter Langerhorst, had least reason to be in awe of Radcliffe after her four-second victory over 10,000 metres on the roads of Puerto Rico last month. While Radcliffe re-defined the parameters of women’s endurance running, Kiplagat was watching and learning.
As she said when interviewed after she had terminated Radcliffe’s unbeaten individual streak which dated back more than two years, “She has run incredible times, but always I have said: ‘If Paula has done it, in a human way, in human blood, then somebody else can do it’. What she has done has never shaken me at all. I have a lot of respect for what Paula has done. She has taught us there are no limits. The question now is: ‘How many other people can do the same?’”
Kiplagat, who operates a Rift Valley camp which has helped emancipate female Kenyan athletes, had even served a similar cruel apprenticeship to Radcliffe: leading the world 10,000m final on the Paris track only to be overhauled late on, before finishing fourth.
Now she may prove Kidane’s biggest challenger in Saturday’s long course race, although triple former champion Derartu Tulu can’t be overlooked. Tulu will be 32 on Sunday, and had Radcliffe’s measure in three title-winning world cross runs (1995, ‘97, and 2000) as well as out-sprinting her on the final lap of the 10,000 metres for victory at both the 2000 Olympics and 2001 World Championships.
"We were counting on Paula being there," confirmed Kidane. "There would have been really stiff competition. It’s good when you have that, because it breaks up the field, you fight hard, and you come out knowing you gave it your all. But Edith Masai will be there, Derartu Tulu will be there, and so will the rest of our team."
"I ran both races last year, figuring that even if I didn’t make it onto the podium in the 4k, I could get good results in the 8k, and I won the 8k and took second in the 4k."
"But the top six athletes are selected from every country, so you never really know what will happen, or what is God’s plan," concluded Kidane.
Masai capable of winning a third title?
Masai is the person most capable of denying Kidane in the short race. She is the only woman to have claimed more than one title at this distance since the event was added to the programme in 1998, yet she was a late starter, already mother of a nine-year-old son when she took third at her first World Cross-Country event at the age of 33.
This year she had hoped to be first Kenyan to attempt both races, but anticipated heavy going caused her to opt only for the short race. At 36, the odds seem stacked against the oldest female world champion, but Masai talks of becoming the female equivalent of compatriots John Ngugi and Paul Tergat, both of whom amassed five wins, and of an aggressive strategy this weekend.
“I will attack from the start, because this is a bad course," she said. "I won on this course, known as Cross Cup, in 2002, but conditions were so bad last year that I was 18th. I know it, and that is why I have shelved my plan to run both 8km and 4km races.
“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.”
Though the senior sergeant won her country’s prison services championships in January, she was only third at her national trials. She is confident the Kenyan team will do well, but acknowledges Ethiopia: “Look at what they did during the World Championships in Paris 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,” she vowed.
Benita Johnson, the Australian who was leading non-African finisher 12 months ago in the short race (fifth) and never out of the first six in the past three years over this distance, is also entered for both, but seems sure to confine herself to the short event again.
Six of the first seven from last year's short race are provisionally declared (only Merima Denboba is missing), but only Kidane from the first 10 in last year's long race are slated to return. Alice Timbilili is the sole survivor from Kenya's six-strong silver-medal long-course squad last winter, and the odds are heavily in favour of Ethiopia retaining the title with the on-form Kidane, Tulu restored, and Eyerusalem Kuma (4 long/10 short last year) in their line-up.
There is a provisional field of 110 from 32 nations in the long race, and 112 from 35 countries in the short race. Russia, leading European nation in last spring's short race (fourth) are poorly represented, with only Olga Romanova (15th last year) declared. The USA, only non-African country to climb onto the podium (male or female) last year, when they took team bronze in the women's long course, are without silver medallist Deena Drossin and their only other top-10 finisher then, Colleen de Reuck.
In Radcliffe’s absence, Britain hopes for much from Kathy Butler, making her 13th appearance (some of which were for Canada) at the age of 30, and Natalie Harvey, making her GB debut having formerly represented Australia. Anja Smolders lines up for Belgium for what will be a record fourteenth successive time.
On reading these previews please note that until Friday's Technical Meeting has taken place, all team line-ups retain a certain fluidity.