Leonard Patrick Komon bags his third win at the Elgoibar XC (Alfambra Fundación ANOC) © Copyright
Preview 18 February 2011 – Nairobi, Kenya

Toughest races on the planet? Kenyan World XC squad berths on the line in Nairobi - PREVIEW

Nairobi, KenyaIt’s often clichéd that the Kenyan selection event for the World Cross Country Championships is often tougher than the marquee global distance running championships itself.

This is however, with good reason. Saturday’s (19) 19th IAAF Permit/Kenya Commercial Bank National Cross Country Championships double selection header for the 6 March inaugural Africa Cross Country Championships and the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Punta Umbria, Spain, on 20 March is set to serve up a memorable treat for distance running enthusiasts.

The results in the four races on the cards will resonate around the world as the spotlight turns to a country that totally devastated the opposition at last year’s World Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, in taking eight out of eight gold medals in individual and team competitions on offer.

For almost 400 runners seeking the much coveted 24 available tickets to Spain, Saturday’s rumble at Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens represents a do-or-die affair with the first four across the line in all the races guaranteed of automatic slots. Athletics Kenya (AK) Panel of Selectors will then decide two athletes who will fill the complement of the permitted six through the wildcard lottery.

“The wildcard will be based on advice from coaches and we will factor in consistency at local and international competitions. Some athletes like Isaiah Kiplagat who returned from Europe this week are among the very few we could select even if they do not compete owing to the good form they have displayed,” AK general secretary David Okeyo, explained.

“Those who finish between position seven and 20 will be considered for the African Cross Country,” he added in reference to the continental event that will run on 6 March in Cape Town, South Africa.

In speaking for majority of those who will line for the starting gun on Saturday, Commonwealth and Africa3000m Steeplechase champion, Richard Mateelong, who was seventh in Bydgoszcz said, “If it’s not the World Cross, then it’s nothing. I cannot compete for Africa, it’s Spain.”

The overall skipper for Team Kenya in Poland who has been struggling with knee injury since Delhi was however, not included in his Kenya Police team and his hopes for a tilt towards a World Cross return are hinged on convincing AK to enter him as an individual. Such is the uncompromising state of affairs in a country with an embarrassment of distance running riches.

If history is to be re-visited, predicting who will carry the day is a banana skin task since upsets such as the one posted by last year’s long race winner, Paul Tanui, are the norm rather than exception.

Senior men 12km - Mutai and Komon the men to watch

In recent past, winning this event has been a poisoned chalice with the victor going on to fade at the World Cross proper. Perhaps that is an indictment of the effort it takes to be crowned Kenya’s long race champion, a draining task that leaves the titleholder out of gas for the main global event.

In 2007 when Kenya hosted the World Cross in Mombasa, Moses Mosop won the race before claiming credible silver behind Eritrea’s Zersenay Tadese aided largely in part to the sensational collapse of six-time gold medallist, Kenenisa Bekele. A year later, Gideon Ngatuny, fifth in Mombasa took top honours at Kenya’s selection event for Edinburgh before he receded to seventh in Scotland. In 2009, Mosop reclaimed his domestic senior 12km title only for him to finish 11th in Amman.

Similar fate befell Paul Tanui, who stunned the field last year before returning eighth in Poland where Joseph Ebuya, who was third at the Trials went on to scale the heights of World Cross glory.

Tanui, now in the Kenyan Police and Ebuya, who was given wildcard entry by Armed Forces after finishing 23rd at their selection event are among a horde of elite runners seeking the Spain ticket.

“There is no knowing which Ebuya will turn up on Saturday. Last year, he was written off before he secured a place in the team and won the World Cross. He has been strong this year in Europe but fared badly on his return. It will be interesting to watch his performance,” national head coach, Julius Kirwa, said of the titleholder faced with the task of sending a strong statement of his intent to defend his crown on Saturday.

However, Geoffrey Mutai, the Amsterdam and Berlin Marathons runner-up as well as African 10,000m bronze winner who is shaping up to be the perfect all rounder is tipped for the title. Competing in Kenya Police colours, Mutai delivered an ominous warning to rivals by winning the final AK/KCB weekend cross meet in Iten and Police Championships by commanding margins (over 50 seconds) a fortnight apart.

“He has the kind of engine I desire in the team and having him would be great,” Kirwa said of the runner set to compete at the Boston Marathon in April.

Leonard Patrick Komon, the 10km and 15km World record holder is seeking a sixth straight World Cross appearance to match Kenya’s legend, Paul Tergat who had an uninterrupted run between 1995 and 2000. “I’m yet to win gold at the World Cross and I’m due the title. This could be the time but for now, making the team is most important,” he said. Komon won silver in Fukuoka (junior) before finishing fourth (Mombasa, junior), second (Edinburgh), fourth (Amman) and fourth again (Poland).

Lucas Rotich and Hosea Macharinyang are aiming for a World Cross return after their outings last year yielded 18th and ninth. Mark Kiptoo who captained Team Kenya in Amman and Ngatuny are out to reclaim their places after missing out last year as is Matthew Kisorio who ran in Mombasa, Edinburgh and Amman.

Caleb Mwangangi, last year’s junior champion leads a slew of graduated age runners seeking to topple established order. Others here are Bydgoszcz silver winner, Clement Langat and John Chepkwony (5000m junior silver) among others. Lurking in the shadows are tens of unheralded runners capable of bursting to instant fame.

Senior women 8km – Masai vs Cheruiyot

Defending champion and twice World Cross silver medallist and 10,000m World titleholder, Linet Masai, has unfinished business having lost the top medal narrowly to compatriots Florence Kiplagat and Emily Chebet in Amman and Poland. While her status as the most dominant female distance runner in the domestic circuit is not in doubt, the decision of her fellow World track titleholder, Vivian Cheruiyot to join the World Cross bandwagon represents her biggest threat. Cheruiyot beat Masai in the sprint finish at last year’s Police Cross Championships before the former decided to turn to the indoor circuit and the pair could be up for another grand stand finish.

Chebet, who joined the Administration Police team, Lineth Chepkurui, fourth in Poland, Berlin and Delhi silver winner in 5000m, Sylvia Kibet, the returning Osaka 5000m bronze winner, Priscah Jepleting Cherono and Iness Chenonge (tenth, Amman) will have a huge say in the honours rush while World Cross junior titleholder, Mercy Cherono will contest her first Trial as a senior alongside silver winner, Purity Cherotich and Nelly Chebet (seventh Poland) with the trio adding an interesting mix to proceedings.

Junior men 8km – all eyes on rising star Koech

Isaiah Kiplagat Koech, fourth in Bydgoszcz and fresh from setting world junior indoor records over 5000m and 3000m is the signature runner in this category. The buzz created by the 17-year-old phenomenon has led AK to talk about giving him outside selection if his exploits in the indoor circuit in the past week prove to be hindrance to gaining an automatic place. Nicholas Togom, a younger brother to Kisorio and Japheth Korir, who was inside the top 15 in Bydgoszcz are key challengers to Kiplagat. The trio enjoyed victories at the domestic cross circuit, with Kiplagat stealing the show with a 65 second triumph over Togom in the last meet in Iten. Togom took top honours in Kipkelion (second meet) while Korir won in Mount Elgon (third).

Junior women 6km

Local buzz surrounded Faith Chepng’etich, the fourth finisher in Poland who strung four victories in a similar number of starts at the KCB/AK series in Tala (opener), Embu (fourth), Nyahururu (sixth) and Iten (seventh). However, a brutal beating last month at the hands of her deputy headmaster saw her training schedule for the Trials halted. Esther Chemutai, the bronze winner in Poland, Alice Aprot, who was ninth there and rising star and Chepng’etich’s school mate, Naomi Chepng’eno, who was also caned during the unfortunate incident are others who on paper, have exhibited rich form to be in the frame of the scramble for Spain. Reports indicate Chepng’etich and Chepng’eno have sufficiently recovered to start.

Mutwiri Mutuota (The Standard) for IAAF